W. George Lovell
December 29, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of a peace accord that, under the auspices of the United Nations, brought a formal end to thirty-six years of armed conflict in Guatemala. At the time the accord was signed, Guatemala’s was Latin America’s most prolonged internal strife, during which acts of genocide occurred. A quarter-century on the peace that was supposed to be firm and lasting is anything but. If peace prevails in Guatemala, it is a peace resembling war.
Anthropologist Victoria Sanford sums up the situation thus: if the number of victims keeps rising, she predicted, “more people will die in the first twenty-five years of peace” than during the country’s brutal civil war, which a U.N. inquiry documented at over 200,000. More than 80 percent of casualties were unarmed Indigenous Mayas, hence the charge of genocide levelled against the Guatemalan army, held responsible for 93 percent of the killings. To guerrilla insurgents fighting to overthrow a heinous regime could be attributed three percent of recorded atrocities.
Sanford’s grim reckoning is borne out by Guatemalan homicide rates. Ten years ago, according to Adam Blackwell, secretary of a branch of the Organization of American States called Multidimensional Security, murders amounted to a staggering ninety-five for every 100,000 inhabitants (Canada’s in 2020 was 1.95, that even of gun-obsessed U.S.A a lowly 7.8). Most violent deaths in Guatemala are never investigated, let alone brought before the courts. The cause of demise is no longer overtly political in nature but related to gang mayhem, drug trafficking, extortion rackets, fraudulent dealings, and the settling of age-old scores. Body counts, however, can be appallingly high. During some months in post-accord years as many as five hundred were racked up, seventeen murders a day.
The president of Guatemala when the peace accord was signed was Álvaro Arzú. Though himself, in 1996, a signatory to it, three years later he refused to acknowledge that atrocities committed during the armed conflict actually occurred – at least to the extent and degree ascertained, and not by the Guatemalan army. Under his neo-liberal proclivities, not only did widespread poverty and massive inequality, the primary reasons for confrontation in the first place, remain unaddressed – they actually increased, as indicated by the findings of a U.N. survey of human development. Globally, the survey’s indices of quality of life placed Guatemala at 117, in the Central American context well behind Costa Rica (ranked 45) and trailing two neighbours known to be desperately poor, El Salvador and Honduras (ranked 107 and 114 respectively).
Guatemala, it must be emphasized, is not a poor country. On the contrary, it is rich in resources, natural and human. Guatemala has been made a poor country because the allotment of its resources, especially its land resources, is deformed by crippling geographies of inequality. Skewed patterns of land distribution lie at the heart of Guatemala’s woes. The country is still strikingly agrarian, the lives of thousands of peasant families and the existence of a privileged few connected by the politics of land ownership. In Guatemala, 90 percent of the total number of farms account for 16 percent of total farm area, while 2 percent of the total number of farms occupy 65 percent of total farmland. The best land is used to grow coffee, cotton, bananas, and sugar cane for export, not to feed malnourished local populations. Until this imbalance is redressed, problems will prevail.
Five presidents who succeeded Arzú all promised economic and social improvement, especially for the 85 percent of their seventeen million citizens deemed by U.N. statistics to live in poverty, 70 percent of them in state of deprivation considered extreme. None has done any better than Arzú. Mired in charges of corruption, two former presidents (Alfonso Portillo and Álvaro Colom) were imprisoned after leaving office and another (Otto Pérez Molina) was removed from office and jailed because of nefarious doings. An International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – CICIG is its Spanish acronym – was established in 2006 to investigate myriad wrongdoing. Thereafter, CICIG dismantled sixty criminal bands and prosecuted 680 prominent individuals for corrupt activities. In 2019, however, its mandate was revoked and its officers banished by then president Jimmy Morales, whose financial transactions CICIG was looking into – and finding indictable.
Current president Alejandro Giammattei operates in the negligent mode of his predecessors, intent (given his views on abortion) on making Guatemala the pro-life epicentre of Latin America – and this “pro-life” advocacy asserted while Guatemala’s COVID vaccination rate (less than 25 percent) languishes among the lowest in the region. Regarding corruption, Giammattei dismissed anti-graft prosecutors brave enough to call to account tax evaders and money launderers among the country’s business elite. He alleges that anti-graft initiatives have become a witch hunt, in which left-leaning lawyers vilify those of opposite political persuasion. “Everybody has a right to their own ideology,” Giammattei maintained in an interview with a Reuters correspondent. “The problem is when you transfer that ideology to your actions, and worse when you are in charge of justice.”
After being relieved of their duties, and fearing for their safety, several prosecutors fled to the United States, among them judge Juan Francisco Sandoval, who served as Head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity. The Biden administration has expressed concern about the scuttling of anti-graft proceedings, linking it to the despair Guatemalans feel about how they are governed, which moves many to migrate and seek a better life in El Norte, minors and youth the avant-garde. In the past year alone, 280,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended by American border officials in failed attempts to enter the United States from Mexico, their journey north to elusive security and prosperity fraught with peril and risk.
There will be no cause for celebration at year’s end in Guatemala. Given the parlous state in which the country continues to be run, the 25th anniversary of the peace accord will instead be reason for further lament, its call for ameliorative reforms a quarter-century ago yet to be engaged and implemented.
W. George Lovell, FRSC, author of A Beauty That Hurts: Life and Death in Guatemala, is Professor of Geography at Queen’s University and Visiting Professor in Latin American History at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Seville, Spain.