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Republic of Guatemala (1838 - )
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Guatemala, Republic, half quetzal, 1925, national arms, without NOBLES below scroll, rev. quetzal on engraved column (KM.241.2), extremely fine

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G WORLD COINS, CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA, GUATEMALA Republic, Gold 20-Pesos, 1878 F, laureate Liberty head left, with flowing hair, rev quetzal, scroll and weapons within wreath, 32.26g (F 44; KM ...

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† WORLD COINS, CENTRAL AND SOUTH AMERICA, GUATEMALA R epublic, Silver Peso, 1888 G, Justice seated left, rev quetzal, scroll and weapons within wreath (KM 20 7). Very fine and scarce. £250-300
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This article is about the country in Central America. For other uses, see Guatemala (disambiguation).
Republic of Guatemala
República de Guatemala
Flag Coat of arms
  • "Libre Crezca Fecundo"[1]
  • "El País de la Eterna Primavera"
  • "The Land of the Eternal Spring"[2]
Anthem: Himno Nacional de Guatemala
National anthem of Guatemala
and largest city
Guatemala City
14°38′N 90°30′W / 14.633°N 90.500°W / 14.633; -90.500
Official languages Spanish
Ethnic groups (2010)
Demonym Guatemalan
Government Unitary presidential republic
 -  President Otto Pérez Molina
 -  Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre
Legislature Congress of the Republic
Independence from the Spanish Empire
 -  Declared 15 September 1821 
 -  Declared from the
First Mexican Empire
1 July 1823 
 -  Current constitution 31 May 1985 
 -  Total 108,889 km2 (107th)
42,042 sq mi
 -  Water (%) 0.4
 -  2014 estimate 15,806,675[3] (66th)
 -  Density 129/km2 (85th)
348.6/sq mi
GDP (PPP) 2012 estimate
 -  Total $78.681 billion[4]
 -  Per capita $5,208[4]
GDP (nominal) 2012 estimate
 -  Total $49.880 billion[4]
 -  Per capita $3,302[4]
Gini (2007) 55.1
HDI (2013) Steady 0.628[5]
medium · 125th
Currency Quetzal (GTQ)
Time zone CST (UTC−6)
Drives on the right
Calling code +502
ISO 3166 code GT
Internet TLD .gt

Guatemala (Listeni/ˌɡwɑːtɨˈmɑːləˌ ɡwæ-/ GWAH-tə-MAH-lə or GWAT-ə-MAH-lə; Spanish: [gwateˈmala]), officially the Republic of Guatemala (Spanish: República de Guatemala), is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, Honduras to the east and El Salvador to the southeast. With an estimated population of around 15.8 million, it is the most populous state in Central America. A representative democracy, Guatemala's capital and largest city is Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, also known as Guatemala City.

The region of modern day Guatemala was for centuries part of the Mayan civilization that extended across Mesoamerica. Most of the country was conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, becoming part of the colony of New Spain (present-day Mexico). Guatemala attained its independence in 1821 as part of the Federal Republic of Central America, which dissolved in 1841.

From the mid to late 19th century, Guatemala endured the chronic instability and civil strife that was endemic to the region. Beginning in the early 20th century, it was ruled by a series of dictators backed by the United Fruit Company and the United States government. In 1944, one such authoritarian leader, Jorge Ubico, was overthrown by a pro-democratic military coup, initiating the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution that led to sweeping social and economic reforms. The revolution was ended by a U.S.-engineered military coup in 1954.

From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala underwent a bloody civil war fought between the U.S.-backed government and leftist rebels, which included massacres of the Mayan population perpetrated by the former in the Ixil Triangle.[6][7] Since the end of the war, Guatemala has witnessed both economic growth and successful democratic elections, though it continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, crime, drug trade, and instability. In the most recent election, held in 2011, Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party won the presidency.

Guatemala's abundance of biologically significant and unique ecosystems, which includes a large number of endemic species, contributes to Mesoamerica's designation as a biodiversity hotspot.[8] The country is also known for its rich culture, characterized by a fusion of Spanish and Indigenous influences.


The name "Guatemala" comes from Nahuatl Cuauhtēmallān, "place of many trees", a translation of K'iche' Mayan K'iche' , "many trees".[9][10] This was the name the Tlaxcaltecan soldiers who accompanied Pedro de Alvarado during the Spanish Conquest gave to this territory.[11]


Main article: History of Guatemala


The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala dates back to 12,000 BC. Some evidence suggests human presence as early as 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrowheads found in various parts of the country.[12] There is archaeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC.[13] Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.

Archaeologists divided the pre-Columbian history of Mesoamerica into the Preclassic period (2999 BC to 250 BC), the Classic period (250 to 900 AD), and the Postclassic from 900 to 1500 AD.[14] Until recently the Preclassic was regarded as a formative period, with small villages of farmers who lived in huts, and few permanent buildings. However, this notion has been challenged by recent discoveries of monumental architecture from that period, such as an altar in La Blanca, San Marcos, from 1000 BC; ceremonial sites at Miraflores and El Naranjo from 801 BC; the earliest monumental masks; and the Mirador Basin cities of Nakbé, Xulnal, El Tintal, Wakná and El Mirador.

Both the El Tigre and Monos pyramids encompass a volume greater than 250,000 cubic meters,[15] and the city lay at the center of a populous and well-integrated region.

Tikal Mayan ruins.

The Classic period of Mesoamerican civilization corresponds to the height of the Maya civilization, and is represented by countless sites throughout Guatemala, although the largest concentration is in Petén. This period is characterized by heavy city-building, the development of independent city-states, and contact with other Mesoamerican cultures.

This lasted until around 900 AD, when the Classic Maya civilization collapsed.[16] The Maya abandoned many of the cities of the central lowlands or were killed off by a drought-induced famine.[17] Scientists debate the cause of the Classic Maya Collapse, but gaining currency is the Drought Theory discovered by physical scientists studying lakebeds, ancient pollen, and other tangible evidence.[18] A series of prolonged droughts, among other reasons (such as overpopulation), in what is otherwise a seasonal desert is thought to have decimated the Maya, who were primarily reliant upon regular rainfall.[19]

The Post-Classic period is represented by regional kingdoms, such as the Itza, Ko'woj, Yalain and Kejache in Petén, and the Mam, Ki'che', Kackchiquel, Chajoma, Tz'utujil, Poqomchi', Q'eqchi' and Ch'orti' in the Highlands. Their cities preserved many aspects of Mayan culture, but would never equal the size or power of the Classic cities.

The Maya civilization shares many features with other Mesoamerican civilizations due to the high degree of interaction and cultural diffusion that characterized the region. Advances such as writing, epigraphy, and the calendar did not originate with the Maya; however, their civilization fully developed them. Maya influence can be detected from Honduras, Guatemala, Northern El Salvador and to as far as central Mexico, more than 1,000 km (620 mi) from the Maya area. Many outside influences are found in Maya art and architecture, which are thought to result from trade and cultural exchange rather than direct external conquest.

Colonial (1519–1821)[edit]

Painting of a bearded man in early 16th-century attire including prominent ruff collar, wearing a decorative breastplate, with his right hand resting on his hip and his left hand grasping a cane or riding crop.
Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado led the initial efforts to conquer Guatemala. [20]

After arriving in what was named the New World, the Spanish started several expeditions to Guatemala, beginning in 1519. Before long, Spanish contact resulted in an epidemic that devastated native populations. Hernán Cortés, who had led the Spanish conquest of Mexico, granted a permit to Captains Gonzalo de Alvarado and his brother, Pedro de Alvarado, to conquer this land. Alvarado at first allied himself with the Kaqchikel nation to fight against their traditional rivals the K'iche' (Quiché) nation. Alvarado later turned against the Kaqchikel, and eventually held the entire region under Spanish domination.[21] Several families of Spanish descent subsequently rose to prominence in colonial Guatemala, including the surnames de Arrivillaga, Arroyave, Alvarez de las Asturias, Aycinena, González de Batres, Coronado, Gálvez Corral, Mencos, Delgado de Nájera, de la Tovilla, and Varón de Berrieza.[22]

During the colonial period, Guatemala was an Audiencia and a Captaincy General (Capitanía General de Guatemala) of Spain, and a part of New Spain (Mexico).[23] The first capital, Villa de Santiago de Guatemala (now known as Tecpan Guatemala), was founded on 25 July 1524. It was located near Iximché, the Kaqchikel capital city. The capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja on 22 November 1527, as a result of the Kaqchikel attack on Villa de Santiago de Guatemala.

On 11 September 1541, the new capital was flooded when the lagoon in the crater of the Agua Volcano collapsed due to heavy rains and earthquakes; the capital was then moved 6 km (4 mi) to Antigua Guatemala, in the Panchoy Valley, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This city was destroyed by several earthquakes in 1773–1774. The King of Spain authorized the move of the capital to its current location in the Ermita Valley, which is named after a Catholic church to the Virgen de El Carmen. This new capital was founded on 2 January 1776.

Independence and the 19th century (1821-1847)[edit]

Criollos rejoice upon learning about the declaration of independence from Spain on September 15, 1821.

On 15 September 1821, the Captaincy-general of Guatemala (formed by Chiapas, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras) officially proclaimed its independence from Spain; the Captaincy-general was dissolved two years later.[24] This region had been formally subject to New Spain throughout the colonial period, but as a practical matter was administered separately. It was not until 1825 that Guatemala created its own flag.[25]

In 1838 the liberal forces of the Honduran leader Francisco Morazán and Guatemalan José Francisco Barrundia invaded Guatemala and reached San Sur, where they executed Chúa Alvarez, Carrera's father-in-law. They impaled his head on a pike as a warning to all followers of the Guatemalan caudillo.[26] On learning this, Carrera and his wife Petrona – who had come to confront Morazán as soon as they learned of the invasion and were in Mataquescuintla – swore they would never forgive Morazán even in his grave; they felt it impossible to respect anyone who would not avenge family members.[27]

After sending several envoys, whom Carrera would not receive – especially Barrundia whom Carrera did not want to murder in cold blood – Morazán began a scorched earth offensive, destroying villages in his path and stripping them of their few assets. The Carrera forces had to hide in the mountains.[28] Believing that Carrera was totally defeated, Morazán and Barrundia marched on to Guatemala City, where they were welcomed as saviors by the state governor Pedro Valenzuela and members of the conservative Aycinena Clan, who proposed to sponsor one of the liberal battalions, while Valenzuela and Barrundia gave Morazán all the Guatemalan resources needed to solve any financial problem he had.[29] The criollos of both parties celebrated until dawn that they finally had a criollo caudillo like Morazán, who was able to crush the peasant rebellion.[30]

Morazán used the proceeds to support Los Altos and then replaced Valenzuela by Mariano Rivera Paz, member of the Aycinena clan, although he did not return to that clan any property confiscated in 1829; in revenge, Juan José de Aycinena y Piñol voted for the dissolution of the Central American Federation in San Salvador a little later, forcing Morazán to return to El Salvador to fight to save his federal mandate. Along the way, Morazán increased repression in eastern Guatemala, as punishment for helping Carrera.[31] Knowing that Morazán had gone to El Salvador, Carrera tried to take Salamá with the small force that remained, but was defeated, losing his brother Laureano in the combat. With just a few men left, he managed to escape, badly wounded, to Sanarate.[32] After recovering to some extent, he attacked a detachment in Jutiapa and managed to get a small amount of booty which he handed to the volunteers who accompanied him and prepared to attack Petapa – near Guatemala City – where he was victorious, though with heavy casualties.[33]

In September of that year, he attempted an assault on the capital of Guatemala, but the liberal general Carlos Salazar Castro defeated him in the fields of Villa Nueva and Carrera had to retreat.[34] After an unsuccessful attempt to take the Quetzaltenango, Carrera was surrounded and wounded, and he had to capitulate to the Mexican General Agustin Guzman, who had been in Quetzaltenango since the time of Vicente Filísola's arrival in 1823. Morazán had the opportunity to shoot Carrera, but did not because he needed the support of the Guatemalan peasants to counter the attacks of Francisco Ferrera in El Salvador; instead, Morazán left Carrera in charge of a small fort in Mita, and without any weapons. Knowing that Morazán was going to attack El Salvador, Francisco Ferrera gave arms and ammunition to Carrera and convinced him to attack Guatemala City.[35]

Meanwhile, despite insistent advice to definitely crush Carrera and his forces, Salazar tried to negotiate with him diplomatically; he even went as far as to show that he neither feared nor distrusted Carrera by removing the fortifications of the Guatemalan capital, in place in since the battle of Villa Nueva.[34] Taking advantage of Salazar's good faith and Ferrera's weapons, Carrera took Guatemala City by surprise on April 13, 1839; Castro Salazar, Mariano Gálvez and Barrundia fled before the arrival of Carrera's militia men. Salazar, in his nightshirt, vaulted roofs of neighboring houses and sought refuge,[36][37] reaching the border disguised as a peasant.[36][37] With Salazar gone, Carrera reinstated Rivera Paz as Head of State of Guatemala.

Invasion and absorption of Los Altos[edit]

Captain General Rafael Carrera after being appointed President for Life in 1854.

On April 2, 1838, in the city of Quetzaltenango, a secessionist group founded the independent State of Los Altos which sought independence from Guatemala. The most important members of the Liberal Party of Guatemala and liberal enemies of the conservative regime moved to Los Altos, leaving their exile in El Salvador.[38] The liberals in Los Altos began severely criticizing the Conservative government of Rivera Paz; they had their own newspaper – El Popular, which contributed to the harsh criticism.[38]

Los Altos was the region with the main production and economic activity of the former state of Guatemala; without Los Altos, conservatives lost much of the resources that had given Guatemala hegemony in Central America.[38] Then, the government of Guatemala tried to reach to a peaceful solution, but altenses,[Note 1] protected by the recognition of the Central American Federation Congress, did not accept; Guatemala's government then resorted to force, sending Carrera as commanding general of the Army to subdue Los Altos.

Carrera defeated General Agustin Guzman when the former Mexican officer tried to ambush him and then went on to Quetzaltenango, where he imposed a harsh and hostile conservative regime instead of the liberals. Calling all council members, he told them flatly that he was behaving leniently towards them as it was the first time they had challenged him, but sternly warned them that there would be no mercy if there was a second time.[39] Finally, Guzmán, and the head of state of Los Altos, Marcelo Molina, were sent to the capital of Guatemala, where they were displayed as trophies of war during a triumphant parade on 17 February 1840; in the case of Guzman, shackled, still with bleeding wounds, and riding a mule.[38]

General Francisco Morazán
tried to invade Guatemala for the second time in 1840 after having invaded in 1829 and expelled members of the Aycinena clan and regular orders. In 1840 he was defeated overwhelmingly by Carrera, marking the end of his career in Central America

On March 18, 1840, liberal caudillo Morazán invaded Guatemala with 1500 soldiers to avenge the insult done in Los Altos. Fearing that such action would end with liberal efforts to hold together the Central American Federation, Guatemala had a cordon of guards from the border with El Salvador; without a telegraph service, men ran carrying last-minute messages.[40] With the information from these messengers, Carrera hatched a plan of defense leaving his brother Sotero in charge of troops who presented only slight resistance in the city.[41]

Carrera pretended to flee and led his ragtag army to the heights of Aceituno, with few men, few rifles and two old cannons. The city was at the mercy of the army of Morazán, with bells of the twenty churches ringing for divine assistance.[40] Once Morazán reached the capital, he took it easily and freed Guzman, who immediately left for Quetzaltenango to give the news that Carrera was defeated;[41] Carrera then, taking advantage of what his enemies believed, applied a strategy of concentrating fire on the Central Park of the city and also employed surprise attack tactics which caused heavy casualties to the army of Morazán, finally forcing the survivors to fight for their lives.[Note 2][42] Morazán's soldiers lost the initiative and their previous numerical superiority. Furthermore, in unfamiliar surroundings in the city, they had to fight, carry their dead and care for their wounded while resentful and tired from the long march from El Salvador to Guatemala.[42]

Carrera, by then an experienced military man, was able to defeat Morazán thoroughly. The disaster for the liberal general was complete: aided by Angel Molina[Note 3] who knew the streets of the city, had to flee with his favorite men, disguised, shouting "Long live Carrera!" through the ravine of El Incienso to El Salvador.[40] In his absence, Morazán had been supplanted as Head of State of his country, and had to embark for exile in Perú.[42] In Guatemala, survivors from his troops were shot without mercy, while Carrera was out in unsuccessful pursuit of Morazan. This engagement sealed the status of Carrera and marked the decline of Morazán,[40] and forced the conservative Aycinena clan criollos to negotiate with Carrera and his peasant revolutionary supporters.[43]

Guzmán, who was freed by Morazán when the latter had seemingly defeated Carrera in Guatemala City, had gone back to Quetzaltenango to bring the good news. The city liberal criollo leaders rapidly reinstated the Los Altos State and celebrated Morazán's victory. However, as soon as Carrera and the newly reinstated Mariano Rivera Paz heard the news, Carrera went back to Quetzaltenango with his volunteer army to regain control of the rebel liberal state once and for all.[44] On April 2, 1840, after entering the city, Carrera told the citizens that he had already warned them after he defeated them earlier that year. Then, he ordered the majority of the liberal city hall officials from Los Altos to be shot. Carrera then forcibly annexed Quetzaltenango and much of Los Altos back into conservative Guatemala.[45]

After the violent and bloody reinstatement of the State of Los Altos by Carrera in April 1840, Luis Batres Juarros – conservative member of the Aycinena Clan, then secretary general of the Guatemalan government of recently reinstated Mariano Rivera Paz – obtained from the vicar Larrazabal authorization to dismantle the regionalist Church. Serving priests of Quetzaltenango – capital of the would-be-state of Los Altos, Urban Ugarte and his coadjutor, José Maria Aguilar, were removed from their parish and likewise the priests of the parishes of San Martin Jilotepeque and San Lucas Tolimán. Larrazabal ordered the priests Fernando Antonio Dávila, Mariano Navarrete and Jose Ignacio Iturrioz to cover the parishes of Quetzaltenango, San Martin Jilotepeque and San Lucas Toliman, respectively.[45]

The liberal criollos' defeat and execution in Quetzaltenango enhanced Carrera's status with the native population of the area, whom he respected and protected.[43]

In 1840, Belgium began to act as an external source of support for Carrera's independence movement, in an effort to exert influence in Central America. The Compagnie belge de colonisation (Belgian Colonization Company), commissioned by Belgian King Leopold I, became the administrator of Santo Tomas de Castilla[46] replacing the failed British Eastern Coast of Central America Commercial and Agricultural Company.[46] Even though the colony eventually crumbled, Belgium continued to support Carrera in the mid-19th century, although Britain continued to be the main business and political partner to Carrera's regime.[47] Rafael Carrera was elected Guatemalan Governor in 1844.

Republic (1847-1851)[edit]

On March 21, 1847, Guatemala declared itself an independent republic and Carrera became its first president.

Proclamation Coin 1847 of the independent Republic of Guatemala

During the first term as president, Carrera had brought the country back from extreme conservatism to a traditional moderation; in 1848, the liberals were able to drive him from office, after the country had been in turmoil for several months.[48][49] Carrera resigned of his own free will and left for México. The new liberal regime allied itself with the Aycinena family and swiftly passed a law ordering Carrera's execution if he dared to return to Guatemalan soil.[48]

The liberal criollos from Quetzaltenango were led by general Agustín Guzmán who occupied the city after Corregidor general Mariano Paredes was called to Guatemala City to take over the Presidential office.[50] They declared on August 26, 1848 that Los Altos was an independent state once again. The new state had the support of Vasconcelos' regime in El Salvador and the rebel guerrilla army of Vicente and Serapio Cruz who were sworn enemies of Carrera.[51] The interim government was led by Guzmán himself and had Florencio Molina and the priest Fernando Davila as his Cabinet members.[52] On 5 September 1848, the criollos altenses chose a formal government led by Fernando Antonio Martínez.

In the meantime, Carrera decided to return to Guatemala and did so entering by Huehuetenango, where he met with the native leaders and told them that they must remain united to prevail; the leaders agreed and slowly the segregated native communities started developing a new Indian identity under Carrera's leadership.[53] In the meantime, in the eastern part of Guatemala, the Jalapa region became increasingly dangerous; former president Mariano Rivera Paz and rebel leader Vicente Cruz were both murdered there after trying to take over the Corregidor office in 1849.[53]

When Carrera arrived to Chiantla in Huehuetenango, he received two altenses emissaries who told him that their soldiers were not going to fight his forces because that would lead to a native revolt, much like that of 1840; their only request from Carrera was to keep the natives under control.[53] The altenses did not comply, and led by Guzmán and his forces, they started chasing Carrera; the caudillo hid helped by his native allies and remained under their protection when the forces of Miguel Garcia Granados – who arrived from Guatemala City were looking for him.[53]

On learning that officer José Víctor Zavala had been appointed as Corregidor in Suchitepéquez, Carrera and his hundred jacalteco bodyguards crossed a dangerous jungle infested with jaguars to meet his former friend. When they met, Zavala not only did not capture him, but agreed to serve under his orders, thus sending a strong message to both liberal and conservatives in Guatemala City that they would have to negotiate with Carrera or battle on two fronts – Quetzaltenango and Jalapa.[54] Carrera went back to the Quetzaltenango area, while Zavala remained in Suchitepéquez as a tactical maneuver.[55] Carrera received a visit from a Cabinet member of Paredes and told him that the he had control of the native population and that he assured Paredes that he would keep them appeased.[54] When the emissary returned to Guatemala City, he told the president everything Carrera said, and added that the native forces were formidable.[56]

Guzmán went to Antigua Guatemala to meet with another group of Paredes emissaries; they agreed that Los Altos would rejoin Guatemala, and that the latter would help Guzmán defeat his hated enemy and also build a port on the Pacific Ocean.[56] Guzmán was sure of victory this time, but his plan evaporated when, in his absence, Carrera and his native allies had occupied Quetzaltenango; Carrera appointed Ignacio Yrigoyen as Corregidor and convinced him that he should work with the k'iche', mam, q'anjobal and mam leaders to keep the region under control.[57] On his way out, Yrigoyen murmured to a friend: Now he is the King of the Indians, indeed![57]

Guzmán then left for Jalapa, where he struck a deal with the rebels, while Luis Batres Juarros convinced president Paredes to deal with Carrera. Back in Guatemala City within a few months, Carrera was commander-in-chief, backed by military and political support of the Indian communities from the densely populated western highlands.[58] During the first presidency from 1844 to 1848, he brought the country back from excessive conservatism to a moderate regime, and – with the advice of Juan José de Aycinena y Piñol and Pedro de Aycinena – restored relations with the Church in Rome with a Concordat ratified in 1854.[59]

Second Carrera government (1851-1865)[edit]

After Carrera returned from exile in 1849, Vasconcelos granted asylum to the Guatemalan liberals, who harassed the Guatemalan government in several different forms: José Francisco Barrundia did it through a liberal newspaper established with that specific goal; Vasconcelos gave support during a whole year to a rebel faction "La Montaña", in eastern Guatemala, providing and distributing money and weapons. By late 1850, Vasconcelos was getting impatient at the slow progress of the war with Guatemala and decided to plan an open attack. Under that circumstance, the Salvadorean head of state started a campaign against the conservative Guatemalan regime, inviting Honduras and Nicaragua to participate in the alliance; only the Honduran government led by Juan Lindo accepted.[48] In 1851 Guatemala defeated an Allied army from Honduras and El Salvador in the Battle of La Arada.

In 1854 Carrera was declared "supreme and perpetual leader of the nation" for life, with the power to choose his successor. He was in that position until he died on April 14, 1865. While he pursued some measures to set up a foundation for economic prosperity to please the conservative landowners, military challenges at home and in a three-year war with Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua dominated his presidency.

His rivalry with Gerardo Barrios, President of El Salvador, resulted in open war in 1863. At Coatepeque the Guatemalans suffered a severe defeat, which was followed by a truce. Honduras joined with El Salvador, and Nicaragua and Costa Rica with Guatemala. The contest was finally settled in favor of Carrera, who besieged and occupied San Salvador, and dominated Honduras and Nicaragua. He continued to act in concert with the Clerical Party, and tried to maintain friendly relations with the European governments. Before his death, Carrera nominated his friend and loyal soldier, Army Marshall Vicente Cerna y Cerna, as his successor.

Vicente Cerna y Cerna regime (1865-1871)[edit]

Vicente Cerna y Cerna was the president of Guatemala from 1865 to 1871.

Vicente Cerna y Cerna was president of Guatemala from 24 May 1865 to 29 June 1871.[60] Several liberal authors, like Alfonso Enrique Barrientos[61] describe Marshall Cerna's government as this:

"A conservative and archaic government, badly organized and with worse intentions, was in charge of the country, centralizing all powers in Vicente Cerna, ambitious military man, who not happy with the general rank, had promoted himself to the Army Marshall rank, even though that rank did no exist and it does not exist in the Guatemalan military. The Marshall called himself President of the Republic, but in reality he was the foreman of oppressed and savaged people, cowardly enough that they had not dared to tell the dictator to leave threatening him with a revolution".[62]

It is necessary to make the following observations about the liberal comments:

  1. By "conservative and archaic government, badly organized and with worse intentions", Barrientos means that State and Church were a single unit and that the conservative regime was strongly allied to the power of regular clergy of the Catholic Church, who then were among the largest landowners in Guatemala. The tight relationship between Church and State had been ratified by the Concordat of 1852, which was the law until Cerna was deposed in 1871.[63]
  2. Oppressed and savaged people: Barrientos refers here to the liberal criollos, who had not dare to rise against Rafael Carrera presidency (1840-1865). Even the liberal generals like Serapio Cruz had realized the undeniable Carrera's political and military presence who was practically invincible, and even fought under his command.[48] Actually, the liberals waited for a long time until Carrera's death to begin their revolt against the more tamed Cerna.
  3. The Army Marshall rank did exist in the Conservative Guatemalan Army: after the invasion to El Salvador, officers Serapio Cruz -Tata Lapo- and José Víctor Zavala also were promoted to the Marshal rank, along Cerna. They all were of great importance to the military life of Guatemala during Carrera's presidency.[64]

During his presidency liberal party members were prosecuted and sent into exile; among them, those who started the Liberal Revolution of 1871.[48]

Wyke-Aycinena treaty about Belize[edit]

A map of Yucatán, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador region in 1839. The borders among México, Guatemala and Belize were not defined.

The Belize region in the Yucatan peninsula was never occupied by either Spain or Guatemala. Spain made some exploratory expeditions in the 16th century that provided the legal basis for Spanish claims in the area. [65] Even though it never sent any expedition to the area after declaring independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala inherited Spanish claims to the territory after the Central American civil war that ensued and lasted until 1860.[65]

These claims were complicated by a small British buccaneer settlement and logging town founded in the 17th century; the settlements were never recognized as British colonies even though they were somewhat under the jurisdiction of the Jamaican British government.[65] In the 18th century, Belize became the main smuggling center for Central America, even though the British accepted Spanish sovereignty over the region by means of the 1783 and 1786 treaties, in exchange for a cease fire and the authorization for the Britons to work with the precious woods from Belize.[65]

After Central America gained independence from Spain in 1821, Belize became the leading edge of the commercial entrance of Britain in the isthmus; British commercial brokers established themselves there and began prosper commercial routes with the Caribbean harbors of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.[65]

When Carrera came to power in 1840, stopped the complaints over Belize, and established a Guatemalan consulate in the region to oversee the Guatemalan interests in that important commercial location.[65] Belize commerce was booming in the region until 1855, when the Colombians built a transoceanic railway, which allowed commerce to flow more efficiently to the port at the Pacific; from then on, Belize commercial importance began a steep decline.[65] When the Caste War of Yucatán began in the Yucatan peninsula-native people raising that results in thousands of murdered European settlers- the Belize and Guatemala representatives were in high alert; Yucatan refugees fled into both Guatemala and Belize and even Belize superintendent came to fear that Carrera -given his strong alliance with Guatemalan natives- could be support the native risings in Central America.[65]

In the 1850s, the British showed their good will to settle the territorial differences with the Central American countries: they withdraw from the Mosquito Coast in Nicaragua and began talks that would end up in the restoration of the territory to Nicaragua in 1894: returned the Bay Islands to Honduras and even negotiated with the American filibuster William Walker in an effort to avoid the invasion of Honduras.[66] They also signed a treaty with Guatemala about Belize borders, which has been called by Guatemalans as the worst mistake made by the conservative regime of Rafael Carrera.[66]

Pedro de Aycinena y Piñol, as Foreign Secretary, had made an extra effort to keep good relations with the British. In 1859, William Walker's threat loomed again over Central America; in order to get the weapons needed to face the filibuster, Carrera's regime had to come to terms about Belize with the British. On 30 April 1859, the Wyke-Aycinena treaty was signed, between the British and Guatemalan representatives.[67] The controversial Wyke-Aycinena treaty from 1859 had two parts:

  • The first six articles clearly defined the Guatemala-Belize border: Guatemala acknowledged British sovereignty over the Belize territory.[66]
  • The seventh article addressed the construction of a road between Belize City and Guatemala City, which would be of mutual benefit: Belize needed a way to communicate with the Pacific coast of Guatemala, having lost its commercial relevance after the construction of the transoceanic railroad in Panama in 1855; on the other hand, Guatemala needed a road to improve communication with the Atlantic coast. However, the road was never built; first because Guatemalan and Belizeans could not reach an agreement of the exact location for the road, and later because the conservatives lost power in Guatemala in 1871, and the liberal government declared the treaty void.[68]

Among those who signed the treaty was José Milla y Vidaurre, who worked with Aycinena in the Foreign Ministry at the time.[48] Rafael Carrera ratified the treaty on 1 May 1859, while Charles Lennox Wyke, British consul in Guatemala, travelled to Great Britain and got royal approval on 26 September 1859.[68] There were some protests from the American consul, Beverly Clarke, and some liberal representatives, but the issue was settled.[68] As of 1850, it was estimated that Guatemala had a population of 600,000.[69][70]

Liberal regimes (1871-1898)[edit]

Guatemala's "Liberal Revolution" came in 1871 under the leadership of Justo Rufino Barrios, who worked to modernize the country, improve trade, and introduce new crops and manufacturing. During this era coffee became an important crop for Guatemala.[71] Barrios had ambitions of reuniting Central America and took the country to war in an unsuccessful attempt to attain it, losing his life on the battlefield in 1885 against forces in El Salvador.

Manuel Barillas was a Guatemalan general and President from 16 March 1886 to 15 March 1892. Manuel Barillas was unique among liberal presidents of Guatemala between 1871 and 1944: he handed over power to his successor peacefully. When election time approached, he sent for the three Liberal candidates to ask them what their government plan would be.[72] Happy with what he heard from general Reyna Barrios,[72] Barillas made sure that a huge column of Quetzaltenango and Totonicapán Indigenous people came down from the mountains to vote for general Reyna Barrios. Reyna was elected president. [73]

José María Reina Barrios was President between 1892 and 1898. During Barrrios's first term in office, the power of the landowners over the rural peasantry increased. He oversaw the rebuilding of parts of Guatemala City on a grander scale, with wide, Parisian style avenues built. He oversaw Guatemala hosting the first "Exposición Centroamericana" ("Central American Fair") in 1897. During his second term, Barrios printed bonds to fund his ambitious plans, fuelling monetary inflation and the rise of popular opposition to his regime.

His administration also work on improving the roads, installing national and international telegraphs and introducing electricity to Guatemala City. Completing a transoceanic railway was a main objective of his government, with a goal to attract international investors at a time when the Panama Canal was not built yet.

Manuel Estrada Cabrera regime (1898-1920)[edit]

Main article: Manuel Estrada Cabrera
Manuel Estrada Cabrera ruled Guatemala between 1898 and 1920.

After the assassination of general José María Reina Barrios on 8 February 1898, the Guatemalan cabinet called an emergency meeting to appoint a new successor, but declined to invite Estrada Cabrera to the meeting, even though he was the First Designated to the Presidency. There are two versions on how he was able to get the Presidency: (a) Estrada Cabrera entered "with pistol drawn" to assert his entitlement to the presidency [74] and (b) Estrada Cabrera showed up unarmed to the meeting and demanded to be given the presidency as he was the First Designated".[75]

The first Guatemalan head of state taken from civilian life in over 50 years, Estrada Cabrera overcame resistance to his regime by August 1898 and called for September elections, which he won handily.[76] In 1898 the Legislature convened for the election of President Estrada Cabrera, who triumphed thanks to the large number of soldiers and policemen who went to vote in civilian clothes and to the large number of illiterate family that they brought with them to the polls.[77]

One of Estrada Cabrera's most famous and most bitter legacies was allowing the entry of the United Fruit Company into the Guatemalan economic and political arena. As a member of the Liberal Party, he sought to encourage development of the nation's infrastructure of highways, railroads, and sea ports for the sake of expanding the export economy. By the time Estrada Cabrera assumed the presidency there had been repeated efforts to construct a railroad from the major port of Puerto Barrios to the capital, Guatemala City. Due to lack of funding exacerbated by the collapse of the internal coffee trade, the railway fell sixty miles short of its goal. Estrada Cabrera decided, without consulting the legislature or judiciary, that striking a deal with the United Fruit Company was the only way to get finish the railway.[78] Cabrera signed a contract with UFCO's Minor Cooper Keith in 1904 that gave the company tax-exemptions, land grants, and control of all railroads on the Atlantic side.[79]

Estrada Cabrera often employed brutal methods to assert his authority. Right at the beginning of his first presidential period he started prosecuting his political rivals and soon established a well-organized web of spies. One American Ambassador returned to the United States after he learned the dictator had given orders to poison him. Former President Manuel Barillas was stabbed to death in Mexico City. Estrada Cabrera responded violently to workers' strikes against UFCO. In one incident, when UFCO went directly to Estrada Cabrera to resolve a strike (after the armed forces refused to respond), the president ordered an armed unit to enter a workers' compound. The forces "arrived in the night, firing indiscriminately into the workers' sleeping quarters, wounding and killing an unspecified number."[80]

In 1906 Estrada faced serious revolts against his rule; the rebels were supported by the governments of some of the other Central American nations, but Estrada succeeded in putting them down. Elections were held by the people against the will of Estrada Cabrera and thus he had the president-elect murdered in retaliation. In 1907 Estrada narrowly survived an assassination attempt when a bomb exploded near his carriage.[81] It has been suggested that the extreme despotic characteristics of Estrada did not emerge until after an attempt on his life in 1907.[82]

Guatemala City was badly damaged in the 1917 Guatemala earthquake.

Estrada Cabrera continued in power until forced to resign after new revolts in 1920. By that time his power had declined drastically and he was reliant upon the loyalty of a few generals. While the United States threatened intervention if he was removed through revolution, a bipartisan coalition came together to remove him from the presidency. He was removed from office after the national assembly charged that he was mentally incompetent, and appointed Carlos Herrera in his place on April 8, 1920.[83]

Jorge Ubico regime (1931-1944)[edit]

Main article: Jorge Ubico
General Jorge Ubico ruled Guatemala between 1931 and 1944.

Jorge Ubico was the authoritarian ruler of Guatemala from 14 February 1931 to 4 July 1944. A general in the Guatemalan army, he was elected to the presidency in 1931, in an election where he was the only candidate. He continued his predecessors policies of giving massive concessions to the United Fruit Company and wealthy landowners, as well as supporting their brutal labor practices. He was toppled by a pro-democracy uprising in 1944, which led to the ten-year Guatemalan Revolution.

Adopting a pro-USA stance to promote economic development and recovery from depression, the United Fruit Company under Ubico became the most important company in Guatemala. He considered Guatemala to be the closest ally of the United States in the Caribbean. The company received import duty and real estate tax exemptions from the government and controlled more land than any other individual or group. It also controlled the sole railroad in the country, the sole facilities capable of producing electricity, and the port facilities at Puerto Barrios on the Atlantic coast.[84][85][86][87][88]

Ubico considered himself to be "another Napoleon". He admired Napoleon Bonaparte extravagantly and preferred to have his photograph taken in his general's uniform. Although he was much taller and fatter than his hero, Ubico believed that he resembled Bonaparte, and his nickname was "the Little Napoleon of the Tropics".[89] He dressed ostentatiously and surrounded himself with statues and paintings of Napoleon, regularly commenting on the similarities between their appearances. He militarized numerous political and social institutions—including the post office, schools, and symphony orchestras—and placed military officers in charge of many government posts. He frequently travelled around the country performing "inspections" in dress uniform followed by a military escort, a mobile radio station, an official biographer, and cabinet members.[90][91][92][93][94]

1944 to 1996[edit]

Calle del Arco in the city of Antigua Guatemala.
«Gloriosa victoria», by Mexican painter Diego Rivera, represents the Guatemalan coup from 1954. At the center of the painting, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shaking hands with Carlos Castillo Armas. CIA director, Allen Dulles, and the American Ambassador to Guatemala, John Peurifoy are giving away money among Guatemalan Army officers, while natives work as slaves filling up UFCO ships with bananas. At the Ambassador's feet lies an anthropomorfed bomb with a smiling Eisenhower's face. In the background archbishop Rossell y Arellano gives mass over the dead bodies of massacred workers.

On 1 July 1944 dictator Jorge Ubico Castañeda was forced to resign his office in response to a wave of protests and a general strike inspired by brutal labor conditions among plantation workers.[95] His replacement General Juan Federico Ponce Vaides, was forced out of office on October 20, 1944 by a coup d'état led by Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. About 100 people were killed in the coup. The country was led by a military junta made up of Arana, Árbenz, and Jorge Toriello Garrido.

The Junta organized Guatemala's first free election, which was won with a majority of 86% by the prominent writer and teacher Juan José Arévalo Bermejo. He had been living in exile in Argentina for 14 years. Arévalo was the first democratically elected president of Guatemala to complete the term for which he was elected. His "Christian Socialist" policies were inspired to a large extent by the U.S. New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Amongst his major policies was a new labor code designed to "right the balance" between workers and Landowners/Industrialists, that was criticized by landowners and the upper class as "communist."[96]

Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, who was elected in 1951. Árbenz adopted a major land reform policy implemented under Decree 900, passed in 1952. It ordered redistribution of uncultivated (fallow) lands of large estates to peasants, including indigenous Mayans. It was intended to increase production of crops and provide many peasants with income. His popular program of land reform, credit, and literacy began to diminish the extreme inequality in Guatemala, although the process of redistributing land created some conflicts.

In 1954 Árbenz was overthrown in a coup d'état orchestrated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the pretext that a socialist government would become a Soviet puppet in the Western Hemisphere. Historians have alleged the CIA overthrew Árbenz to protect the property of the United Fruit Company (later Chiquita Brands International Inc.), a major US company that faced losing large amounts of land due to agrarian reform, and was dissatisfied with the compensation it received.[96][97] Carlos Castillo Armas, a former military officer who led the CIA-backed invasion from Honduras, was installed as president in 1954. Castillo reversed Decree 900 and ruled until July 26, 1957, when he was assassinated by Romeo Vásquez, a member of his personal guard.

After the rigged[96] election that followed, General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes assumed power. He is celebrated for challenging the Mexican president to a gentleman's duel on the bridge on the south border to end a feud on the subject of illegal fishing by Mexican boats on Guatemala's Pacific coast, two of which were sunk by the Guatemalan Air Force. Ydigoras authorized the training of 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans in Guatemala. He also provided airstrips in the region of Petén for what later became the US-sponsored, failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961. Ydigoras' government was ousted in 1963 when the Guatemalan Air Force attacked several military bases; the coup was led by his Defense Minister, Colonel Enrique Peralta Azurdia.

In 1963, the junta called an election, which it permitted Arevalo to return from exile and contest. However a coup from within the military, backed by the Kennedy Administration, prevented the election from taking place, and forestalled a likely victory for Arevalo. The new regime intensified the campaign of terror against the guerrillas that had begun under Ydígoras-Fuentes.[98]

In 1966, Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala under the banner "Democratic Opening". Mendez Montenegro was the candidate of the Revolutionary Party, a center-left party that had its origins in the post-Ubico era. During this time rightist paramilitary organizations, such as the "White Hand" (Mano Blanca), and the Anticommunist Secret Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista) were formed. Those groups were the forerunners of the infamous "Death Squads". Military advisers from the United States Army Special Forces (Green Berets) were sent to Guatemala to train these troops and help transform its army into a modern counter-insurgency force, which eventually made it the most sophisticated in Central America.[99]

In 1970, Colonel Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio was elected president. By 1972, members of the guerrilla movement entered the country from Mexico and settled in the Western Highlands. In the disputed election of 1974, General Kjell Laugerud García defeated General Efraín Ríos Montt, a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, who claimed that he had been cheated out of a victory through fraud.

On February 4, 1976, a major earthquake destroyed several cities and caused more than 25,000 deaths, especially among the poor, whose housing was substandard. The government's failure to respond rapidly to the aftermath of the earthquake and to relieve homelessness, gave rise to widespread discontent, which contributed to growing popular unrest. In 1978, in a fraudulent election, General Romeo Lucas García assumed power.

The 1970s saw the rise of two new guerrilla organizations, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA). They began guerrilla attacks that included urban and rural warfare, mainly against the military and some of the civilian supporters of the army. The army and the paramilitary forces responded with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths.[100] In 1979, the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, who had until then been providing public support for the government forces, ordered a ban on all military aid to the Guatemalan Army because of its widespread and systematic abuse of human rights.[96] However, documents have since come to light that suggest that American aid continued throughout the Carter years, through clandestine channels.[101]

On January 31, 1980, a group of indigenous K'iche' took over the Spanish Embassy to protest army massacres in the countryside. The Guatemalan government launched an assault with armed forces that killed almost everyone inside due to a fire that consumed the building. The Guatemalan government claimed that the activists set the fire, thus immolating themselves.[102] However, the Spanish ambassador, who survived the fire, disputed this claim, saying that the Guatemalan police intentionally killed almost everyone inside and set the fire to erase traces of their acts. As a result, the government of Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala.

This government was overthrown in 1982 and General Efraín Ríos Montt was named President of the military junta. He continued the bloody campaign of torture, forced disappearances, and "scorched earth" warfare. The country became a pariah state internationally, although the regime received considerable support from the Reagan Administration,[103] and Reagan himself described Ríos Montt as "a man of great personal integrity."[104] Ríos Montt was overthrown by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, who called for an election of a national constitutional assembly to write a new constitution, leading to a free election in 1986, which was won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, the candidate of the Christian Democracy Party.

In 1982, the four guerrilla groups, EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT, merged and formed the URNG, influenced by the Salvadoran guerrilla FMLN, the Nicaraguan FSLN and Cuba's government, in order to become stronger. As a result of the Army's "scorched earth" tactics in the countryside, more than 45,000 Guatemalans fled across the border to Mexico. The Mexican government placed the refugees in camps in Chiapas and Tabasco.

In 1992, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchú for her efforts to bring international attention to the government-sponsored, US backed genocide against the indigenous population.[105]

Since 1996[edit]

An outdoor market in Chichicastenango, 2009.

The Guatemalan Civil War ended in 1996 with a peace accord between the guerrillas and the government, negotiated by the United Nations through intense brokerage by nations such as Norway and Spain. Both sides made major concessions. The guerrilla fighters disarmed and received land to work. According to the U.N.-sponsored truth commission (the "Commission for Historical Clarification"), government forces and state-sponsored, CIA trained paramilitaries were responsible for over 93 percent of the human rights violations during the war.[106]

Over the last few years, millions of documents related to crimes committed during the civil war were found abandoned by the former Guatemalan police. The families of over 45,000 Guatemalan activists are now reviewing the documents (which have been digitized) and this could lead to further legal actions. Paradoxically, the current democratically elected president, Otto Pérez Molina, could be a barrier to further legal action as he, a retired general, was the head of intelligence in Guatemala during the civil war.[107]

During the first ten years, the victims of the state-sponsored terror were primarily students, workers, professionals, and opposition figures, but in the last years they were thousands of mostly rural Mayan farmers and non-combatants. More than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed and over 1 million people became displaced within Guatemala or refugees. According to the report, Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI), some 200,000 people died. More than one million people were forced to flee their homes and hundreds of villages were destroyed. The officially chartered Historical Clarification Commission attributed more than 93% of all documented violations of human rights to Guatemala's military government, and estimated that Maya Indians accounted for 83% of the victims. It concluded in 1999 that state actions constituted genocide.[108][109]

In certain areas, such as Baja Verapaz, the Truth Commission considered that the Guatemalan state engaged in an intentional policy of genocide against particular ethnic groups in the Civil War.[106] In 1999, U.S. president Bill Clinton stated that the United States was wrong to have provided support to Guatemalan military forces that took part in the brutal civilian killings.[110]

Since the peace accords Guatemala has witnessed both economic growth and successive democratic elections, most recently in 2011. In the 2011 elections, Otto Pérez Molina of the Patriotic Party won the presidency. He assumed office on January 14, 2012.

In January 2012, Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, appeared in a Guatemalan court on genocide charges. During the hearing, the government presented evidence of over 100 incidents involving at least 1,771 deaths, 1,445 rapes, and the displacement of nearly 30,000 Guatemalans during his 17-month rule from 1982–1983, according to the Washington Post, BBC, Siglo XXI (Spanish), and the LA Times. The prosecution wanted him incarcerated because of his potential for flight but the judge ruled that he could remain outside on bail. He was placed under house arrest and was watched by the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC). On May 10, 2013, Rios Montt was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. It marks the first time, a former head of state was found guilty for genocide by national court.[111] The conviction was overturned, with Montt's trial scheduled to resume in January 2015. [112]


Main article: Geography of Guatemala
A map of Guatemala.
The highlands of Quetzaltenango.

Guatemala is mountainous with small desert and sand dune patches, hilly valleys, except for the south coastal area and the vast northern lowlands of Petén department. Two mountain chains enter Guatemala from west to east, dividing Guatemala into three major regions: the highlands, where the mountains are located; the Pacific coast, south of the mountains and the Petén region, north of the mountains.

All major cities are located in the highlands and Pacific coast regions; by comparison, Petén is sparsely populated. These three regions vary in climate, elevation, and landscape, providing dramatic contrasts between hot, humid tropical lowlands and colder, drier highland peaks. Volcán Tajumulco, at 4,220 m, is the highest point in the Central American countries.

The rivers are short and shallow in the Pacific drainage basin, larger and deeper in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico drainage basins, which include the Polochic and Dulce Rivers, which drain into Lake Izabal, the Motagua River, the Sarstún that forms the boundary with Belize, and the Usumacinta River, which forms the boundary between Petén and Chiapas, Mexico.

Natural disasters[edit]

A town along the Pan-American Highway within a volcanic crater.

Guatemala's location between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean makes it a target for hurricanes, such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Stan in October 2005, which killed more than 1,500 people. The damage was not wind related, but rather due to significant flooding and resulting mudslides. The most recent was Tropical Storm Agatha in late May 2010 that killed more than 200.

Guatemala's highlands lie along the Motagua Fault, part of the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. This fault has been responsible for several major earthquakes in historic times, including a 7.5 magnitude tremor on February 4, 1976, which killed more than 25,000 people. In addition, the Middle America Trench, a major subduction zone lies off the Pacific coast. Here, the Cocos Plate is sinking beneath the Caribbean Plate, producing volcanic activity inland of the coast. Guatemala has 37 volcanoes, four of them are active: Pacaya, Santiaguito, Fuego and Tacaná. Fuego and Pacaya erupted in 2010.

Natural disasters have a long history in this geologically active part of the world. For example, two of the three moves of the capital of Guatemala have been due to volcanic mudflows in 1541 and earthquakes in 1773.


Guatemala has 14 ecoregions ranging from mangrove forests to both ocean littorals with 5 different ecosystems. Guatemala has 252 listed wetlands, including 5 lakes, 61 lagoons, 100 rivers, and 4 swamps.[113] Tikal National Park was the first mixed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Guatemala is a country of distinct fauna. It has some 1246 known species. Of these, 6.7% are endemic and 8.1% are threatened. Guatemala is home to at least 8,681 species of vascular plants, of which 13.5% are endemic. 5.4% of Guatemala is protected under IUCN categories I-V.[citation needed]

In the department of Petén lies the Maya Biosphere Reserve of 2,112,940 ha,[114] making it the second largest forest in Central America after Bosawas.


Political system[edit]

Main article: Politics of Guatemala

Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic whereby the President of Guatemala is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the Congress of the Republic. The judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

Otto Pérez Molina is the President of Guatemala.

Foreign relations[edit]

Further information: Foreign relations of Guatemala

Guatemala has long claimed all or part of the territory of neighboring Belize, currently an independent Commonwealth realm that recognises Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State. Due to this territorial dispute, Guatemala did not recognize Belize's independence until 1990, but the dispute is not resolved. Negotiations are currently under way under the auspices of the Organization of American States and the Commonwealth of Nations to conclude it.[115][116]


Further information: Military of Guatemala

Guatemala has a modest military, sized between 15,000 and 20,000 personnel.[117]

Administrative divisions[edit]

Guatemala's internal departments.

Guatemala is divided into 22 departments (departamentos) and sub-divided into about 335 municipalities (municipios).

The departments are:

  1. Coat of arms of Alta Verapaz.png Alta Verapaz
  2. Coat of arms of Baja Verapaz.gif Baja Verapaz
  3. Coat of arms of Chimaltenango Department.png Chimaltenango
  4. Coat of arms of Chiquimula.png Chiquimula
  5. Petén Department Coat of Arms.svg Petén
  6. Bandera PRO.JPG El Progreso
  7. ..El Quiché Flag(GUATEMALA).png El Quiché
  8. ..Escuintla Flag(GUATEMALA).png Escuintla
  9. Coat of arms of Guatemala Department.png Guatemala
  10. Huehuetenango Flag with Coat.png Huehuetenango
  11. ..Izabal Flag(GUATEMALA).png Izabal
  12. Flag of Jalapa Department.gif Jalapa
  13. Vlagjutiapa.gif Jutiapa
  14. Vlagquetzaltenango.gif Quetzaltenango
  15. Vlagretalhuleu.gif Retalhuleu
  16. Bandera de Sacatepéquez.svg Sacatepéquez
  17. Vlagsanmarcos.gif San Marcos
  18. Coat of arms of Santa Rosa.png Santa Rosa
  19. Vlagsolola.gif Sololá
  20. ..Suchitepéquez Flag(GUATEMALA).png Suchitepéquez
  21. Vlagtotonicapan.gif Totonicapán
  22. ..Zacapa Flag(GUATEMALA).png Zacapa


Main article: Economy of Guatemala
Fields in Quetzaltenango.
An indoor market in the regional city of Zunil.

Guatemala is the largest economy in Central America, with a GDP (PPP) per capita of US$5,200. Guatemala faces many social problems and is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. The distribution of income is highly unequal with more than half of the population below the national poverty line and just over 400,000 (3.2%) unemployed. The CIA World Fact Book considers 54.0% of the population of Guatemala to be living in poverty.[118][119]

Remittances from Guatemalans living in United States now constitutes the largest single source of foreign income (two thirds of exports and one tenth of GDP).[118]

Some of Guatemala's main exports are fruits, vegetables, flowers, handicrafts, cloths and others. In the face of a rising demand for biofuels, the country is growing and exporting an increasing amount of raw materials for biofuel production, especially sugar cane and palm oil. Critics say that this development leads to higher prices of staple foods like corn, a major ingredient in the Guatemalan diet. As a consequence of the subsidization of US American corn, Guatemala imports nearly half of its corn from the United States that is using 40 percent of its crop harvest for biofuel production.[120] The government is considering ways to legalize poppy and marijuana production, hoping to tax production and use tax revenues to fund drug prevention programs and other social projects.[121]

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2010 was estimated at $70.15 billion USD. The service sector is the largest component of GDP at 63%, followed by the industry sector at 23.8% and the agriculture sector at 13.2% (2010 est.). Mines produce gold, silver, zinc, cobalt and nickel.[122] The agricultural sector accounts for about two-fifths of exports, and half of the labor force. Organic coffee, sugar, textiles, fresh vegetables, and bananas are the country's main exports. Inflation was 3.9% in 2010.

The 1996 peace accords that ended the decades-long civil war removed a major obstacle to foreign investment. Tourism has become an increasing source of revenue for Guatemala thanks to the new foreign investment.

In March 2006, Guatemala's congress ratified the Dominican Republic – Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) between several Central American nations and the United States.[123] Guatemala also has free trade agreements with Taiwan and Colombia.


Tourism has become one of the main drivers of the economy, with tourism worth $1.8 billion to the economy in 2008. Guatemala received about two million tourists annually. In recent years an increased number of cruise ships have visited Guatemalan seaports, leading to more tourists visiting the country.

In its territory there are fascinating Mayan archaeological sites (Tikal in the Peten, Quiriguá in Izabal, Iximche in Tecpan Chimaltenango and Guatemala City). As natural beauty destinations is Lake Atitlan and Semuc Champey. As historical tourism is the colonial city of Antigua Guatemala, which is recognized by UNESCO Cultural Heritage.

There is a strong interest of the international community for archaeological sites like the city of Tikal was built and inhabited in a period where the culture had its most literal and artistic expression, was ruled by a dynasty of 16 kings, the Maya of Tikal built many temples, a ball park, altars and steles in high and low relief.

Guatemala is very popular for its archaeological sites, pre-Hispanic cities as well as tourist-religious centers like the Basilica of Esquipulas in the city of Esquipulas and the beautiful beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Guatemala. Other tourist destinations are the national parks and other protected areas such as the Maya Biosphere Reserve.


Guatemala has a population of 15,824,463 (2014 est). In 1900, Guatemala had a population of 885,000.[124] Guatemala had the fastest population growth in the Western Hemisphere during 20th century.

Guatemala is heavily centralized. Transportation, communications, business, politics, and the most relevant urban activity takes place in Guatemala City. Guatemala City has about 2 million inhabitants within the city limits and more than 5 million within the wider urban area. This is a significant percentage of the population (14 million).[118]

The estimated median age in Guatemala is 20 years old, 19.4 for males and 20.7 years for females.[118] This is the lowest median age of any country in the Western Hemisphere and comparable to most of central Africa and Iraq.

Ethnic groups[edit]

According to the Census of 2010 by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) about 41.0% of the population is Mestizo (called Ladino), and Whites of European descent also called Criollo represent the 18.5% in their majority descendants of Germans follow by the descendants of Spaniards, French, Italians, English, Swedish, Belgian, Swiss, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Russian, Scottish, Irish, Welsh and the rest of Europe. The Amerindian populations include the K'iche' 11.0%, Q'eqchi 8.3%, Kaqchikel 7.8%, Mam 5.2% and 7.6% of the population is "other Mayan", 0.4% is indigenous non-Mayan, making the indigenous community in Guatemala about 38.9% of the population.[125]

A language map of Guatemala. The "Castilian" areas represent Spanish.

There are smaller communities present, including about 110,000 Salvadorans. The Garífuna, who are descended primarily from Black Africans who lived with and intermarried with indigenous peoples from St. Vincent, live mainly in Livingston and Puerto Barrios. Those communities have other blacks and mulattos descended from banana workers. There are also Asians, mostly of Chinese descent. Other Asian groups include Arabs of Lebanese and Syrian descent. There is also a growing Korean community in Guatemala City and in nearby Mixco, currently numbering about 50,000.[126] Guatemala's German population is credited with bringing the tradition of a Christmas tree to the country.[127]


Main article: Languages of Guatemala

Spanish is the official language. As a first and second language, Spanish is spoken by 93% of the population.

Twenty-one Mayan languages are spoken, especially in rural areas, as well as two non-Mayan Amerindian languages, Xinca, an indigenous language, and Garifuna, an Arawakan language spoken on the Caribbean coast. According to the Language Law of 2003, the languages of Mayas, Xincas, and Garifunas are unrecognized as National Languages.[128]

The peace accords signed in December 1996 provide for the translation of some official documents and voting materials into several indigenous languages (see summary of main substantive accords) and mandate the provision of interpreters in legal cases for non-Spanish speakers. The accord also sanctioned bilingual education in Spanish and indigenous languages. It is common for indigenous Guatemalans to learn or speak between two to five of the nation's other languages, and Spanish.[citation needed]

Largest cities[edit]


Indigenous Guatemalan women in Antigua Guatemala.

The Civil War forced many Guatemalans to start lives outside of their country. The majority of the Guatemalan diaspora is located in the United States of America, with estimates ranging from 480,665[129] to 1,489,426.[130] The difficulty in getting accurate counts for Guatemalans abroad is because many of them are refugee claimants awaiting determination of their status.[131] Emigration to the United States of America has led to the growth of Guatemalan communities in California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Rhode Island and elsewhere since the 1970s.[132]

Below are estimates for certain countries:

Country Count
United States USA 480,665[129] – 1,489,426[130]
Mexico Mexico 23,529[130] – 190,000
Canada Canada 14,253[130] – 34,665[133]
Belize Belize 10,693[130]
Germany Germany 5,989[130]
Honduras Honduras 5,172[130]
El Salvador El Salvador 4,209[130]
Spain Spain 2,491[130] – 5,000[134]


During the colonial era Guatemala received immigrants (settlers) only from Spain. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, Guatemala counted whit waves of immigration from Europe in the mid 19th century and early 20th century. Primarily from Germany (they installed coffe and cardamom fincas in Alta Verapaz, Zacapa, Quetzaltenango, Baja Verapaz and Izabal). In a lesser extent arrived people from Spain, France, Belgium, England, Italy, Sweden, etc.

Many Europeans who emigrated to Guatemala were politicians, refugees, families, entrepreneurs and mainly settlers, Guatemala had long been the Central American country that received the most immigrants, behind Costa Rica for 1950, that does not mean that the country no longer receive large numbers of immigrants.

From the 1890s there are small communities of Asians (in particular Korea, China, Japan, Singapour and the Philippines) but in recent decades has been growing. Also from the First World War, it is being strengthened Jewish and pakistan immigration.

As of the census of 2010, immigrants in Guatemala represent almost the 1.64% of the national population, more than 220,000 persons,[135] mainly from El Salvador (with 111,000 persons), but a strong community of South Korea, Mexico, Germany and the USA.

Place Country 2010 2002
1  El Salvador 111,000 31,484
2  South Korea 50,000 12,250
3  Germany 14,481 11,478
4  Mexico 11,745 5,097
5  United States 6,417 5,658
6  Nicaragua 5,604 4,621
7  Honduras 5,491 3,634
8  Spain 4,943 2,917
9  Italy 2,746 1,821
10  France 2.746 1,779
11  Belize 955 528
12  Costa Rica 761 737
13  Colombia 757 677
14  China 734 526
15  United Kingdom 729 500
Other Countries 29,292 24,156
TOTAL 222,659 103,090
Source: INE 2002[136] and Directorio General de Migración-2010[135]


Main article: Education in Guatemala

74.5% of the population aged 15 and over is literate, the lowest literacy rate in Central America. Although it has the lowest literacy rate, Guatemala has a plan to increase literacy over the next 20 years.[137]

The government runs a number of public elementary and secondary-level schools. These schools are free, though the cost of uniforms, books, supplies, and transportation makes them less accessible to the poorer segments of society and significant numbers of poor children do not attend school. Many middle and upper-class children go to private schools. Guatemala has one public university (USAC or Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala), and fourteen private ones (see List of universities in Guatemala). USAC was the first university in Guatemala and one of the first Universities of America.

Organizations such as Child Aid and Pueblo a Pueblo, which train teachers in villages throughout the Central Highlands region, are working to improve educational outcomes for children. Lack of training for rural teachers is one of the key contributors to Guatemala's low literacy rates.


Guatemala is among the worst performers in terms of health outcomes in Latin America with some of the highest infant mortality rates, and one of the lowest life expectancies at birth in the region.[138] Guatemala has about 16,000 doctors for its 16 million people and the WHO recommends about double that ratio.[139] Since the end of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1997 the Ministry of Health has extended healthcare access to 54% of the rural population.[140] Healthcare has received different levels of support from different political administrations who disagree on how best to manage distribution of services (via a private or a public entity) and the scale of financing that should be made available.[140] As of 2013 the Ministry of Health lacked the financial means to monitor or evaluate its programs.[140]

Total health care spending (both public and private) has remained constant at between 6.4–7.3% of GDP.[141][142] Per-capita average spending was $368 a year in 2012.[142] Guatemalan patients choose between the two systems (the indigenous way of practicing medicine or the Western-trained health care providers) based on the complex conditions surrounding the ailment and decide which medical system will most likely provide a cure for their ailment.[143]


Main article: Culture of Guatemala
Guatemalan girls in traditional dress, Chichicastenango, 1996

Guatemala City is home to many of the nation's libraries and museums, including the National Archives, the National Library, and the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, which has an extensive collection of Maya artifacts. There are private museums, such as the Ixchel, which focuses on textiles, and the Popol Vuh, which focuses on Maya archaeology. Both museums are housed inside the Universidad Francisco Marroquín campus. Most of the 329 municipalities in the country has a small museum.


Guatemala has produced many indigenous artists who follow centuries-old Pre-Columbian traditions. Reflecting Guatemala's colonial and post-colonial history, encounters with multiple global art movements also have produced a wealth of artists who have combined the traditional so-called "primitivism" or "naive" aesthetic with European, North American, and other traditions.

The Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas "Rafael Rodríguez Padilla" is Guatemala's leading art school, and several leading indigenous artists, also graduates of that school, are in the permanent collection of the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in the capital city. Contemporary Guatemalan artists who have gained reputations outside of Guatemala include Dagoberto Vásquez, Luis Rolando Ixquiac Xicara, Carlos Mérida,[144] Aníbal López, Roberto González Goyri, and Elmar René Rojas.[145]


Further information: Guatemalan literature

The Guatemala National Prize in Literature is a one-time only award that recognizes an individual writer's body of work. It has been given annually since 1988 by the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

Miguel Ángel Asturias won the literature Nobel Prize in 1967. Among his famous books is El Señor Presidente, a novel based on the government of Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting oppression of indigenous people in Guatemala, is famous for her books I, Rigoberta Menchú and Crossing Borders.


Further information: Media of Guatemala

There are seven national newspapers in TV, some of them being Noti7, Telecentro Trece and Noticiero Guatevision. The Guatemala Times is a digital English news magazine.[146]


Further information: Music of Guatemala

Guatemalan music comprises a number of styles and expressions. Guatemalan social change has been empowered by music scenes such as Nueva cancion, which blends together histories, present day issues, and the political values and struggles of common people. The Maya had an intense musical practice, as is documented by iconography. Guatemala was also one of the first regions in the New World to be introduced to European music, from 1524 on. Many composers from the Renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, and contemporary music styles have contributed works of all genres. The marimba is the national instrument that has developed a large repertoire of very attractive pieces that have been popular for more than a century.

The Historia General de Guatemala has published a series of CDs of historical music of Guatemala, in which every style is represented, from the Maya, colonial period, independent and republican eras to current times. There are many contemporary music groups in Guatemala from Caribbean music, salsa, punta (Garifuna influenced), Latin pop, Mexican regional, and mariachi.


Main article: Guatemalan cuisine

Many traditional foods in Guatemalan cuisine are based on Maya cuisine and prominently feature corn, chilies and beans as key ingredients. There are also foods that are commonly eaten on certain days of the week. For example, it is a popular custom to eat paches (a kind of tamale made from potatoes) on Thursday. Certain dishes are also associated with special occasions, such as fiambre for All Saints Day on November 1, tamales and ponche (a hot drink, with actual pieces of fruit in it), which are both very common around Christmas.


Main article: Religion in Guatemala
The Catedral Metropolitana, Guatemala City.

Christianity continues to remain strong and vital for the life of Guatemalan society, but its composition has changed over generations of social and political unrest. The dominant branch has been Roman Catholic. According to the 2002 census, 57.4% identified themselves as Roman Catholic, 28.9% as Protestant (a majority of them evangelical), while the 2.1% joins other groups and 11.6% claimed no religious affiliation.[147]

For 2007, the Catholic population had fallen to 48.4%, while the Protestant population increased to 33.7%; 1.8% were of other religions and 16.1% had no religious affiliation (CID-Gallup Survey, June 2007). A 2010 survey reveals that Catholics are 47.2%, followed by Protestants at 39.5%, while 12.3% of the population declare themselves as non-religious/indefinite and 1% follow other religions.[148]

Historically, Catholicism was introduced by the Spanish and was the official religion during the colonial era. Growth in Protestant denominations has increased markedly in recent decades, with nearly one third of Guatemalans identifying themselves as Protestants, chiefly Evangelicals and Pentecostals. Growth is particularly strong among the ethnic Mayan population, with National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala being an important denomination, maintaining 11 indigenous-language Presbyteries.

Traditional Mayan religion persists through the process of inculturation, whereby certain practices are incorporated into Catholic ceremonies and worship when they are sympathetic to the meaning of Catholic belief.[149][150] Indigenous religious practices are increasing as a result of the cultural protections established under the peace accords. The government has instituted a policy of providing altars at every Mayan ruin found in the country, so traditional ceremonies may be performed there.

A church in San Andrés Xecul.

The growth of Eastern Orthodoxy in Guatemala has been especially strong, with hundreds of thousands of converts in the last five years,[151][152][153] which has quickly made the country the most Orthodox in proportion of population in the Western Hemisphere.

Guatemala is also home to small communities of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and members of other faiths.

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was dedicated in 1984, membership was 40,000. By 1998 membership had grown to 164,000. The LDS Church continues to grow in Guatemala. The Quetzaltenango Guatemala Temple was dedicated in December 2011[154] as the LDS Church's second temple in the country.[155]

CENSUS[156] NOV-1978 78.9% 12.7% 8.4%**
CENSUS DIC-1984[157] 65.6% 24.7% 8.5% 1.2%
CENSUS[158] MAR-1991 63.3% 21.1% 13.9% 1.7%
CID-GALLUP[158] MAY-1995 65.0% 22.0% 12.0% 1.0%
LATINOBAROMETRO OCT-2000 TO JAN-2001 55.1% 25.5% 17.4% 2.0%
CENSUS FEB-2002 57.4% 28.9% 11.6% 2.1%
CID-GALLUP JUN-2007 48.4% 33.1% 16.1% 1.8%
PEW FORUM ABRIL TO MAY-2009 53.8% 34.1% 10.6% 1.5%
PROLADES[148] AGO-2010 47.2% 39.5% 12.3% 1.0%

*Including jews, islam, mayan religion, etc. **Including other religions and None/NA.

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  1. ^ Altenses is how people from Quetzaltenango are known in Guatemala.
  2. ^ Among those fighting in these battles was the famous Guatemalan poet José Batres Montúfar
  3. ^ Angel Molina was the son of Guatemalan Liberal leader Pedro Molina Mazariegos.

Further reading[edit]

  • Harry E. Vanden; Gary Prevost, ed. (2002). "Chapter Ten: Guatemala". Politics of Latin America: The Power Game. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-512317-4. 

External links[edit]