With a population of 15,806,675, Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America. It was in a state of civil war from 1960 to 1996. Today, as many as 70% of the population live in poverty. Spanish is the official language, though it is the second language spoken by many of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, who account for about half the population.
A period of social and economic reform in the 1940s and 50s was ended by military coups that installed a series of ruthless dictatorships. Civil war broke out in 1960, with forces of the regime confronting a variety of left-wing rebel groups supported chiefly by ethnic Mayan indigenous people and agricultural laborers.
Government forces are recorded as having begun to use forced disappearances in 1966. The number of disappeared had reached tens of thousands by the end of the war. The level of repression increased during the 1970s and 80s, with the military infiltrating and dominating every walk of life.
According to the 1999 report, “Guatemala: Memory and Silence” UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) up to 200,000 people died during the war. The report cites a figure of more than 6,000 disappeared, though a 2012 Amnesty International report quotes an estimate “closer to 45,000”.
A report issued in 1998 by the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG) attributed almost 90% of the atrocities and over 400 massacres to the Guatemalan army (and paramilitary), and less than 5% to the guerrillas (including 16 massacres). A more recent report by the Catholic Church, Project to Recover Historical Memory (REMHI), adjusts this proportion slightly, attributing just under 80% of cases to the Army and just under 10% percent to the guerrillas.
The UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) stated in its 1999 report, “Guatemala: Memory and Silence”, that the state was responsible for 93% of human rights violations committed during the war, the guerrillas for 3%. The report found that violence peaked in 1982; 83% of victims were Maya; and both sides used terror as a deliberate policy.
A 1984 Human Rights Watch report cites “the murder of thousands by a military government that maintains its authority by terror.”
Although a National Reconciliation Law, which raises the prospect of amnesty for “political crimes” committed on all sides during the conflict, has not led to wholesale impunity, an under-resourced judicial system, and a continuing climate of intimidation have made it difficult for victims of political violence and relatives of the missing to secure justice through the courts.
In 2009, Felipe Cusanero, a former military officer, was convicted in a Guatemala court of responsibility for the disappearance of six peasant farmers and sentenced to 150 years in prison. This was the first time a case had been brought successfully against anyone for disappearances during the civil war and was expected to open the way for further trials.
In May 2013, the former general and president, Efraín Ríos Montt, was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity during his 1982-83 period of rule, including the killing and disappearances of more than 1,400 indigenous Ixil Mayans His conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court less than two weeks after sentencing and a new trial ordered.
In 1990 and 1991, groups of survivors began to report clandestine graves in their communities, most of which contained the bodies of Mayans massacred during the “scorched earth” policy pursued by the government in the early 1980s. The forensic services of the Guatemalan judiciary began to investigate some of these cases but failed to pursue them to a conclusion.
Consequently, in 1991, survivors’ groups contacted the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF) that facilitated the establishment of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Team, today known as the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation The same year, the Historical Clarification Commission, established in 1994 to investigate human rights violations as part of the peace process, asked the FAFG to conduct four field investigations in order to secure physical evidence to back up testimony it had gathered from survivors; this evidence was included in the Commission’s final report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence.
The FAFG endeavors to allow the relatives of the disappeared to recover the remains of their missing family members and to proceed with burials in accordance with their beliefs, and enable criminal prosecutions to be brought against the perpetrators. It has carried out exhumations at approximately 1,650 grave sites, discovered the remains of more than 7,000 victims, helped identify missing family members, and provided crucial testimony in trials in Guatemala and Spain.
Another agency that has played an important role in addressing the missing persons issue in Guatemala is the Center of Forensic Analysis and Applied Sciences (CAFCA), an NGO engaged in the exhumation of bodies and forensic anthropological research involving legal and technical investigation. It also runs a social program, including aspects of mental health promotion and psychosocial support. CAFCA maintains active links with ODHAG and FAFG.