Focus on Guatemala

In 1954, the United States sponsored a coup that overthrew a democratically elected government in Guatemala. These articles provide insights to that legacy and beyond.

Age of Enlightenment?

Graffitti on a Guatemala city building reads “No more corruption.” Photo by Michael Camilleri

Comtemporary U.S. Policy in Guatemala

By Michael Camilleri

When in the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan sought the restoration of direct military aid to Guatemala, he praised the country’s leader Efraín Ríos Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.” Reagan brushed aside allegations that Ríos Montt’s scorched earth tactics had resulted in the mass murder of civilians, insisting that the military dictator was “getting a bum rap on human rights.”

Twenty years later Ríos Montt again sought the presidency of Guatemala, but this time the U.S. was unwilling to countenance the return to power of a man now known as the “Pol Pot of the Americas.” The State Department declared that the United States would find it “difficult” to work with the former strongman were he to win the 2003 Guatemalan elections (he did not). Though delivered diplomatically, the message from the Bush administration was clear: The United States opposed Ríos Montt’s bid for the presidency.

U.S. foreign policy in Guatemala has undoubtedly come a long, long way in the past two decades. The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords signaled not only the end of Latin America’s longest and bloodiest civil war, but also the dawning of a new era in U.S.-Guatemalan relations. The six major Accords, on issues such as human rights, indigenous rights, land distribution, the strengthening of civilian power and the resettlement of displaced persons, officially concluded 36 years of armed conflict between a leftist insurgency (the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) and a right-wing government long supported by the United States. As recently as the early 1990s, the CIA was funneling $5 million to $7 million annually to the most notorious elements of the Guatemalan military. Such support was the legacy of four decades of Cold War policy-making, beginning with the CIA-sponsored overthrow of a democratically elected government in 1954 and continuing largely uninterrupted through a series of despotic regimes that squelched basic freedoms and carried out brutal counter-insurgency operations. This period of injurious U.S. influence came to a close with the 1996 Accords, and was repudiated three years later when President Bill Clinton issued a historic apology for the support provided by the United States to repressive military and intelligence units.

Today, U.S. priorities in Guatemala differ markedly from those of the not-too-distant Cold War past. Contemporary U.S. initiatives generally fall into one of three broad categories: development and governance, including USAID programming; free trade, notably the Central American Free Trade Agreement; and security, specifically efforts to combat drug trafficking, street gangs, terrorism and illegal immigration. This third category appears increasingly central to current U.S. policy, and these security concerns are certainly real.

Guatemala faces serious challenges in attempting to reign in violence and control its territory, and its difficulties with gangs, drugs, and other problems readily spill over into the United States. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers’ focus on security issues comes at a time when Guatemala still urgently needs assistance building democratic institutions and fostering sustainable development. Income distribution in Guatemala is among the most unequal in the world. The country has disturbingly high rates of poverty (56 %), chronic malnutrition (49 %), and maternal mortality (153 per 100,000 births). Crime is rampant, the legal system dysfunctional, and public institutions subject to corruption and intimidation. The Peace Accords, a road map to a more democratic, inclusive, and equitable society, remain largely unimplemented.

These challenges and others must ultimately be addressed by Guatemalans, if they are to be addressed at all. There remains, however, an important role for the United States to play. Its participation in Guatemalan affairs is far more constructive than it was just a decade ago, but U.S. policymakers must maintain a strong focus on democracy, development and human rights if the United States is to continue influencing Guatemala in a positive way.

There are encouraging signs that United States officials, both at the State Department and USAID, understand the most important challenges faced by contemporary Guatemala. USAID’s country strategy acknowledges the potential for renewed crisis and conflict if the basic promises of the Peace Accords—namely broad-based economic growth and fair political and legal processes—are not delivered. The Agency’s programs focus on issues such as representative governance and the rule of law, indigenous participation, improvements in health and education, and rural economic diversification and growth. Unfortunately, the USAID mission in Guatemala recently experienced significant budget cuts, and Guatemala does not currently stand to benefit from either of President Bush’s major foreign aid initiatives: the Millennium Challenge Account and the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

For its part, the State Department has maintained a strong focus on promoting the rule of law in Guatemala, with the notable exception of its active opposition to Guatemala joining the International Criminal Court. In May of 2004 the U.S. Embassy announced an agreement with the Guatemalan attorney general to provide technical and financial assistance to the special prosecutors for narco-trafficking, corruption, and money laundering. The State Department also provided steady support, and promises of funding, to a proposed U.N. commission (known as CICIACS) to investigate Guatemala’s so-called “hidden powers,” a shadowy network of powerful figures with connections to organized crime and top government officials. Guatemala’s highest court found aspects of the agreement creating such a commission to be unconstitutional, and the commission now faces an uncertain future.

Finally, the State Department has revoked the visas of more than 200 Guatemalans suspected of crimes such as corruption, drug trafficking, human smuggling, money laundering and murder. Visa revocation is a powerful shaming tool, and its targets have included former government ministers, military officers and bankers. In a country where impunity for the powerful is the norm and only about one crime in ten is ever solved, efforts by the United States to promote the rule of law are welcome and significant.

The highest profile U.S. foreign policy initiative in Guatemala today is probably the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The United States, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador signed CAFTA in May 2004, and the Dominican Republic joined the agreement in August. If ratified by the U.S. Congress—by no means a certainty given strong opposition by U.S. labor groups—CAFTA would remove tariffs and reduce other barriers to trade in a wide range of goods and services. CAFTA has been greeted by the conflicting assertions that inevitably surround the announcement of a free trade agreement. Supporters in the U.S. and Guatemalan governments and in the Guatemalan business community herald the accord as a boon to foreign investment and economic growth. Detractors argue that the agreement in fact encourages a “race to the bottom,” on environmental and labor standards for example, as countries cut costs in an effort to attract foreign investors. The result, opponents contend, is not long-term growth but short-lived gains that are unsustainable and narrowly distributed.

While debates about the virtues of CAFTA will undoubtedly continue, few would suggest that the agreement will not have any effect: The United States is Guatemala’s most important trading partner, providing 40% of its imports and purchasing 36% of its exports.

Increased competition will provoke a restructuring of the Guatemalan economy as some sectors thrive and others suffer, with benefits concentrated in urban areas and costs borne chiefly by small farmers. To its credit, USAID is seeking to identify and develop niche agricultural markets for Guatemalan farmers. Still, the immediate economic impact of CAFTA on Guatemalans’ lives is uncertain, and the government will have to cope with a not insignificant loss in tariff revenue equivalent to one-half of one percent of GDP.

If there is a silver lining in the agreement, it may be the potential for positive externalities in business practices stemming from a reduction in monopoly. The accord would give U.S. firms greater access to Guatemala in areas such as financial services, telecommunications, insurance, energy, engineering and construction. A business environment replete with firms subject to U.S. disclosure requirements and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act could, at least in theory, result in greater levels of fiscal transparency and lower levels of corruption and tax evasion in the Guatemalan private sector.

While CAFTA may be the most prominent U.S. initiative in Guatemala at present, national security interests have been increasingly central to United States foreign policy since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001; bilateral relations with Guatemala are no exception. U.S. security concerns in Guatemala broadly encompass traditional worries such as illegal immigration and narco-trafficking as well as newer concerns such as terrorism and street gangs. A recent report by Latin America policy groups in Washington shows that U.S. officials working on Latin America—the bulk of whom are employed by the military’s Southern Command—are tending to lump the solutions to these problems into a strategy known as “effective sovereignty.” Pointing to the porousness of national borders, the lawlessness of city slums, the prevalence of drug and arms trafficking, and the potential ease with which terrorists might operate undetected, proponents of the effective sovereignty doctrine argue that the ungoverned spaces of Latin America pose a threat to U.S. national security. The tactics they propose for extending the apparatus of the state to these areas often blur the lines between civilian and military responsibilities. In nations such as Guatemala, still struggling to draw a line between the civilian and military spheres after decades in which no line existed, the United States’ willingness to push for military solutions to law enforcement challenges is alarming.

There is little doubt that U.S. policymakers are justified in harboring concerns regarding Guatemala’s capacity for securing its territory. According to the State Department, 220 tons of cocaine passed through Guatemala in 2002 alone, more than two-thirds of Americans’ consumption of the drug. Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico is virtually lawless: Hundreds of illegal immigrants cross daily trying to reach the United States, police and plantation owners exploit those they encounter, gangs members assault, rob, and kill with impunity, and smugglers sneak across with guns, drugs, wood, cattle and rare animals. In Guatemala’s cities and towns, street gangs born in 1980s Los Angeles commit 80% of the more than 1000 gun killings each year; their cohorts drive crime in places like Southern California, Chicago, and suburban Washington, D.C. Finally, a suspected Al Qaeda member was recently alleged to have been spotted at an Internet café in neighboring Honduras, raising the specter of international terrorists using Central America as a staging ground for attacks on the United States

In response to “sovereignty” problems of the kind that plague Guatemala, United States officials have come to view military units and military tactics as part of the solution. In recent years the U.S. has trained Latin American military officers in civic action, trained civilian police in light infantry tactics, and provided almost as much military as economic aid to the region. This trend may soon extend to Guatemala. Though most funding for Guatemala’s military was still banned as of February 2005, the Defense Department and U.S. Ambassador John Hamilton have been pushing hard for its reauthorization. Privately, officials justify this push on drug interdiction grounds.

Though the 1996 Peace Accords limit the role of the Guatemalan armed forces to defending the country’s independence and territorial integrity, the Guatemalan government has already displayed a willingness to merge civilian and military security operations. In July of 2004, for example, President Oscar Berger ordered 1,600 soldiers to patrol the streets of the capital. Berger was understandably frustrated by the inability of an undermanned, under-equipped, and often corrupt police force to protect the public. U.S. officials were equally frustrated when a now disbanded anti-drug police unit was accused of stealing more cocaine from police warehouses than it had seized in raids. But the army—an admittedly tempting solution—remains a problematic institution. It has shrunk in size and shed some of its more notorious officers, but it maintains links to organized crime, balks at civilian oversight of its finances and offers scant assistance in the investigation of past abuses. The army’s reinsertion into domestic, civilian affairs threatens to undermine critical processes of democratization and demilitarization in Guatemala. In the long run, this can only be considered a security risk for the United States.

The pursuit of “effective sovereignty” over Guatemala’s lawless, ungoverned regions must instead prioritize the extension of government services such as courts, police, health clinics, schools, roads and agricultural services. Likewise, the lack of an effective police force should be addressed not by dispatching the military but by improving police training, equipment, salaries, and manpower. Gang membership and illegal immigration should be tackled by both improving law enforcement and expanding economic and social development programs. By cutting development funding while seeking to reauthorize military aid, the United States has sent Guatemala the wrong signals—prioritizing short-term security gains over the establishment of a strong democratic state. If U.S. officials can now reverse course and redouble their laudable efforts to promote democracy, development and human rights, we will truly have entered a period of enlightened United States foreign policy in Guatemala.

Michael Camilleri (J.D. ’04) is a Henigson Fellow at the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program and a lawyer with the Human Rights Coalition Against Clandestine Structures in Guatemala.

The United States and Guatemala

The election campaign took Jacobo Arbenz to virtually every corner of the country. Photo courtesy of Oscar Pelaez Almengor an dthe Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala

The Force of a Myth

By Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor

The figure of Guatemala's overthrown President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán powerfully illustrates lost hopes and dashed dreams, what could have been and wasn’t. It portrays, in essence, the life of men and women in Guatemala with its marvels and miseries. And in the same manner, it illustrates, for better or for worse, the force of a myth that has grown in the past fifty years.

Today, it is no secret that the United States financed and directed “Operación Éxito” that led to the overthrow of the government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in 1954. Neither is it a secret that many Guatemalans participated as mercenaries in Arbenz’ defeat. There is, on this point, a shared responsibility that Guatemalans have not fully assumed.

On June 27, 1954, more than 50 years ago, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, the constitutionally elected president of Guatemala, resigned his post. In his farewell speech, he declared that his decision was based on the fact that he did not want a bloodbath among Guatemalans. How wrong Arbenz was…the bloodbath lasted for almost half a century and political instability a fact of everyday life since then. The political life of Arbenz Guzmán illustrates the lights and shadows of Guatemala’s contemporary history.

OCTOBER 20, 1944

At dawn on October 20, 1944, Lt. Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, dressed in civilian clothing in the midst of a group of students, burst into the Honor Guard, already under the control of Francisco Javier Arana. The insurgents captured the Guatemalan Army’s most modern arsenal of weapons, including several armored cars. The skirmish between the rebellious troops and those loyal to dictator Jorge Ubico’s chosen henchman Federico Ponce Vaidez lasted the entire day. The insurgents finally won, with Arbenz Guzmán playing a leading role in the uprising. However, Arana’s command of the armored vehicles was decisive in the victory. Together with the civilian Jorge Toriello Garrido, Arbenz and Arana became the heads of the first government of the October Revolution. Both rose to the position because of their participation in the military uprising, Arbenz as one of the officials of the “School” (educated in the military academy) and Arana as one of the “line” (officials who rose through the ranks by their bootstraps).

Later, during the government of Juan José Arévalo (1945-1951), Arana served as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Arbenz as Defense Minister. Both were the most influential Army officials of the October Revolution.


Major Francisco Javier Arana, enticed by sectors wanting to overthrow the Arévalo government, became a conspirator. Emboldened by the president’s lack of firmness, Arana went to Morlón in Amatitlán on July 18, 1949 to recuperate a cache of arms intended for Arevalo’s use by the Caribbean Legion, the so-called “Legión del Caribe.” This was the awaited moment. Arévalo contacted Arbenz, who left the capital with his men in two vehicles. His companions included Colonel Felipe Antonio Girón, Commander of the Presidential Guard, his chaffeur Francisco Palacios and his assistant Major Absalón Peralta. The force that attempted to detain Arana was led by Lt. Colonel Enrique Blanco and Alfonso Martínez, the head of the Congressional Armed Forces Committee. At the bridge known as the Puente de la Gloria, Arana’s vehicle was intercepted, immediately producing crossfire. Arana, Peralta, and Blanco were killed, and others were injured, including Martínez. The news of Arana’s death spread like wildfire, and within a few hours, the most important military barracks in Guatemala City rose up against Arévalo.

The armed insurrection lasted for several days. However, Arbenz – leading the sector of the Army loyal to Arévalo – won the battle. The defeated military men remained thirsty for revenge. Arévalo never sufficiently explained the circumstances that had led to Arana’s death, leading to rampant rumor.


Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán won the presidency with a clear victory over his opponents. Arbenz’ role in July 1949 during the uprising following Arana’s death and his firm support of Arévalo’s government had earned him the respect of political leaders and the Army. Political party leaders believed that Arbenz was somebody who could unify the different political currents stemming from the October Revolution. Towards the end of 1949, political parties, the Partido de Acción Revolucionaria (PAR) and the Renovación Nacional (RN), both in the government, were preparing to give their support to Arbenz. However, the electoral strategy was distinct; a group of large landholders and industrialists Quetzaltenango, having known Arbenz for many years, formed the Partido de Integridad Nacional (PIN) at the end of 1949 to back him. On February 5, the PIN declared Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán to be its presidential candidate. The PAR and the RN followed shortly afterwards.

After an election campaign that took Arbenz to virtually every corner of the country—the images from which illustrate this article— between November 10 and 12, 1950, Arbenz was declared victor at the polls. Of the 404,739 votes cast, Arbenz won 258,987, Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes obtained second place with 72,796 votes. This indisputable victory carried Arbenz to the nation’s presidency March 15, 1951, with a government program that sought to modernize the nation or, in Arbenz’ own words, “to convert Guatemala into a modern capitalist country.”


Arbenz signed the Agrarian Reform Law, Decree 900, on June 17, 1952. According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), its objectives were to “develop the capitalist economy in Guatemalan agriculture through the abolition of the semi-feudal relations between landowners and workers, moreover, it sought the improvement of cultivation methods through adequate assistance.”

The rapid and complete application of the Law of Agrarian Reform, apart from its benefits, triggered a series of problems. On the domestic front, the agrarian situation with its latent conflicts was pushed into political and legal action. The long conflicts over the land among different communities were daily, weakening the government’s support among strong sectors of the population because of this. The conflict between merchants and industrialists against large landowners, produced by the agrarian reform, undermined the government’s alliance with key economic and political sectors. Finally, the open conflict against multinational interests, especially those of the United Fruit Company, complemented by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the government, added one more hostile element to an already existing problem. As the Canadian historian Jim Handy has suggested, perhaps the agrarian reform was the “revolution’s most beautiful fruit,” but also the nails of its coffin.


Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán confronted increasing discontentment about his policies on the part of the Guatemalan elite. The industrialists and merchants abandoned him because of his association with radicalized groups, especially the Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo (PGT, the Communitst party founded in 1949). The Catholic Church declared war on his government because of the confessed atheism of some of the leaders of the revolutionary left. In those years, there was a war to the death between religious and socialist ideas. The venerated Christ of Esquipulas was used as a symbol to spear the campaign against revolutionary ideas in the name of faith and religion. The army was divided even more after the death of Francisco Javier Arana, and the counterrevolutionaries offered their services to the U.S. State Department to head up whatever rebellion that would promise to overthrow the government. The large landowners were the most affected group because of the application of the agrarian reform, and they had a better reason than anyone to hate Arbenz and his government. Finally, the anti-imperialist language and legal actions by the government against the United Fruit Company, stimulated the intervention of the United States on behalf of the interests of the multinational corporations. The States Department financed approximately $3 million for a campaign of psychological warfare, airplanes and a mercenary army to overthrow the government.

Nevertheless, the principal achievements of the October Revolution outlived its promoters; the domestic market has been expanded; trade and industry have grown, and Guatemala is now a modern capitalist country with an emerging democracy in the process of consolidation. The patch laid out by the October Revolution has finally become a road and Guatemala today is surely what Arévalo and Arbenz desired fifty years ago.

Oscar Guillermo Peláez Almengor is the Central American Visiting Scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2004-2005. He is a professor at the Center for Urban Studies at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala.

Photoessay: Guatemala, The Aftermath

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Repression, Refuge and Healing

A Photoessay By Jonathan Moller

The year 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in the name of U.S. economic interests. CIA piloted planes bombed areas of Guatemala City, and the United States installed a virtual puppet government. Thus began a serried of military dictators and their armies and death squads that would bring incredible suffering and grief to the Guatemalan people over the next four decades and literally up to the present.

For over six years between 1993 and 2001 I worked as a human rights advocate and freelance photographer in Guatemala, principally working with indigenous Mayans uprooted by that country’s long and brutal civil war. I spent much of my time in rural areas, working to support Guatemala’s displaced and refugee populations in their struggle for respect of their basic rights. Most recently I worked with a forensic anthropology team, supporting and documenting the exhumations of clandestine cemeteries.

When I first arrived in Guatemala from neighboring El Salvador in early 1993, I was only peripherally aware of the extent of the violence and repression that was being carried out with U.S. support against innocent and impoverished populations of that county. In the 1980s, compared to other countries in Latin America—Chile, Argentina, El Salvador and Nicaragua—little news was getting out about Guatemala. U.S. readers often did not hear about the atrocities being carried out there: the massacres, the genocide, the tremendous repression, that were overwhelmingly carried out against the Indigenous, the Mayans, who make up 65% of the total population of that country. In the words of Uruguayan author and journalist, Eduardo Galeano, from his endorsement of my book Our Culture is Our Resistance, “… It was the worst massacre since the times of the Conquest in the 16th century. It happened just twenty years ago, but the world, blinded by racism, never knew.”

The images that appear in this essay are but a few of the hundreds of photographs that I took in the context of my human rights work in Guatemala. The images themselves are stories of life and death, of hope and despair, and of struggles for survival, respect and truth.

My work focuses primarily on the Communities of Population in Resistance (CPRs)— beginning with photographs that I took between 1993 and 1995 in northern Guatemala. The CPRs emerged from the violent repression directed against civilians by the Guatemalan Army in the early 1980ss. While tens of thousands of indigenous campesinos spilled across the border into Mexico, the people who would form the CPRs fled to remote mountain and jungle areas, where they formed highly organized, self-governing communities that silently resisted death and Army control, remaining in hiding until the mid 1990s. During this fifteen-year period, they were accused by the government of being guerrillas, and were hunted by the Army.

Twelve years ago, in those profoundly beautiful mountains and jungles soaked with blood, I joined my passions for photography and social justice. It is my hope that this work not only speaks to my vision as an artist and as an activist, but most especially to the lives of those in Guatemala that survived and resisted death and exploitation, and who continue to struggle for their basic rights, their survival and their dignity. And to those who were killed, but whose memories live on.

Jonathan Moller worked in Guatemala for six years with the National Coordinating Office on Refugees and Displaced of Guatemala (NCOORD), the Guatemala Accompaniment Project (GAP), and most recently, with the Forensic Team of the Office of Peace and Reconciliation of the Quiché Catholic Diocese. His photographs have been widely exhibited and published. His recent photography book Our Culture is Our Resistance: Repression, Refuge and Healing in Guatemalaincludes testimonies by survivors of the violence, as well as essays by Francisco Goldman, Susanne Jonas, and Ricardo Falla, among others. Author royalties will be donated to the Association for Justice and Reconciliation in Guatemala.

For more information about Jonathan Moller’s book, please visit the following websites: <> or <>. Spanish language edition by Turner Libros, Madrid & Mexico City: <>.