About Guatemala

Guatemala is the largest of the Central American nations, bordering Mexico and Belize to the north, and El Salvador and Honduras to the south and east. It has a coastline on the Pacific Ocean and a small coastline on the Caribbean.
The capital is Guatemala City, with other major cities being Quetzaltenango, Escuintla and Mazatenango.

You can view a UN map of Guatemala here.

Physical Geography and Climate

It has an area of 68,000 square miles. It consists of three distinct zones, a large flat plain covered by jungle to the north, a central region of rugged highlands, including a chain of volcanoes, and another plain along the Pacific coast. These three geographical regions also correspond to climatic zones: the northern jungle and coast are hot and humid, the central highlands are more temperate. In all zones there is a wet and dry season, though this is less distinct on the Pacific coast which has rainfall all year.


Population is estimated to be 13,824,463 (July 2011 est.)

Ethnic Makeup

There are three main ethnic groups: descendants of the original Spanish settlers, indigenous Maya and the mestizo of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry. There are also a very small number of Xinka and Garifuna people. The proportion of the population which is indigenous is about 50%. The indigenous inhabit the temperate highlands, while the ladino dominate in the cities, coast and northern jungle.

See Identidad del Guatemalteco.

Culture, Language and Religion

Culturally the descendants of the Spanish are very westernised and usually Catholic. The Maya have been able to preserve their languages, of which 22 are spoken, costumes and rituals in the face of centuries of attempts to wipe them out.

There is a significant ladino culture, incorporating the mestizo, though it does not necessarily equate with ethnicity: Maya who abandon their traditions, language and costume consider themselves to be ladino. There is a strong correlation between ethnic and cultural group and income: the indigenous are the poorest, least educated and shortest life expectancy, with the blancos at the top of the economic and political heap.

Guatemala is nominally a Catholic country, but there have been significant inroads made recently by Protestant evangelical sects originating in the “bible belt” of the United States. Some commentators think they are now attracting up to 50% of the population as adherents.

Mayan rituals, or costumbres, are still practised in predominantly Mayan areas.
Spanish is the predominant language, though there are 22 mayan and 2 other indigenous languages. The Mayan languages are from the Penutian group, which includes languages in Mexico, south western USA and South America. The most widely spoken in Guatemala are K’iche’, 900,000 speakers; Mam, 450,000; Cakchiquel 450,000; with Uspanteco the least common with only about 2000 speakers. The Mayan languages have official status following the 1996 peace accords (see below).

Some representative statistics:

Maternal mortality
110 deaths/100,000 live births (2008)

Age structure
0-14 years: 38.1% (male 2,678,340/female 2,582,472)
15-64 years: 58% (male 3,889,573/female 4,130,698)
65 years and over: 3.9% (male 252,108/female 291,272) (2011 est.)

Total fertility rate
3.27 children born/woman (2011 est.)

Infant Mortality rate
26.02 per 1000

Life expectancy:
female: 72.83 years
male: 69.03 years

definition: age 15 and over can read and write
total population: 69.1%
male: 75.4%
female: 63.3% (2002 census)


Guatemala is the most populous country in Central America with a GDP per capita roughly one-half that of the average for Latin America and the Caribbean. The agricultural sector accounts for nearly 15% of GDP and half of the labour force; key agricultural exports include coffee, sugar, bananas, and cardamom. Production of these cash crops takes place on a large scale, on very large plantations which occupy the country’s most productive land. All of these depend on a source of cheap, often seasonal, labour and are controlled by the families of the white elite.

There is also a growing and controversial resource extractive industry which revolves around oil, gold, and other minerals. This industry is having major consequences for the environment and for community health and well being. A significant amount of foreign exchange is earned from tourism, as the country is extremely beautiful, is culturally diverse and has a rich archaeological heritage.

There is a small sector based in tax free export zones of products such as clothing – the maquiladoras. These are owned by foreign companies based in USA, South Korea and Taiwan for example, and are permitted to carry out their activities without paying import-export taxes.

Respect for labour laws in Guatemala is minimal to non-existent: the minimum wage is frequently not paid to plantation workers, and attempts to form trades unions are met with assassinations, death threats, and mass sackings, working conditions are often dangerous.

The distribution of income remains highly unequal with the richest 10% of the population accounting for more than 40% of Guatemala’s overall consumption. More than half of the population is below the national poverty line and 15% lives in extreme poverty. Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up 38% of the population, averages 76% and extreme poverty rises to 28%. 43% of children under five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.

Given Guatemala’s large expatriate community in the United States, it is the top remittance recipient in Central America, with inflows serving as a primary source of foreign income equivalent to nearly two-thirds of exports or one-tenth of GDP.

Guatemala has one of the lowest tax takes compared to GDP of any country in the world. The tax system is regressive, and any attempt to increase or introduce new direct taxes is met with fierce opposition. This severely limits the available resources for spending on health care, education, roads and the police. The 1996 Peace Accords did mandate an increase of the tax percentage of GDP and spending on these basic items, but they have not been fulfilled to date.

Civil Society

In contrast to the parlous state of the government civil society in Guatemala is vibrant. There are many organisation active in the fields of human, women’s, indigenous and children’s rights. The indigenous rights movement merits particular mention as there has been a resurgence in activity since the end of the civil war, with a corresponding increase in the confidence of the Mayan mjovement. This has included greater openness about their religious rituals which were previously conducted secretively.

Background to Human Rights Problems

The economy of Guatemala has always been based on agricultural products for export so the ownership of and access to land has always been an important issue in Guatemala. Additionally the majority of the population are rural dwellers and depend on subsistence agriculture to survive. However, the distribtion of land is highly unequal with about 60% of productive land in the hands of 2% of the population. The best land has been appropriated for plantations and most rural dwellers use marginal land for subsistence: poor and often steeply sloped, prone to weather catastrophes.
In 1944 the first of two governments were elected which saw development, and with it the unjust land distribution, as key issues to be addressed to improve the living standards, health and education of all Guatemalans. This was the so-called “10 Years of Spring”. However, their attempt to reclaim land from the United Fruit Company for redistribution brought them into conflict with the United States. In its concern to prevent communism getting a hold anywhere in the continent the CIA embarked on a campaign to destablise the “comunist sympathisers”, culminating in a coup in 1954.

Thus began years of military or de-facto military rule and abuse of human rights in the name of “fighting communism” with the assistance and aid of the United States. In 1960 there was an officers’ rebellion which then formed the nucleus of a guerrilla movement and the beginning of a civil war which did not end until 1996. Targets for “disappearance”, a term first used in the Guatemalan press, were labour and opposition leaders and suspected guerrillas mainly based in the cities. The guerrilla movement grew, having four groups active in different parts of the country and with different ideologies. These eventually united to become the URNG, Unidad Revolucionaria National de Guatemala, Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity.

In the late 1970s the fight moved to the countryside and entered its bloodiest phase during the governments of Lucas Garcia (1978-82), Efrain Rios Montt (1982-3) and Mejia Victores (1983-6). As the rural areas are predominantly inhabited by the Maya they suffered disproportinaltely at this time. These were the years of the so-called “scorched earth” policies, where entire communities were eliminated, including all people, livestock, houses and means of survival. The aim was to ensure that the guerrilla could not gain any support. Those who escaped the killings went into exile in Mexico, became internally displaced or were rehoused in “model villages” where they were closely supervised. The killings were carried out by army units and also by civil patrols, the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil or PACs. There were also shadowy death squads, thought to be working in concert with the official armed forces, who carried out murders and disappearances.

It became clear by the late eighties that a stalemate had been reached, despite a total militarisation of the country and huge spending on the armed forces it was not possible to eliminate the last of the guerrilla, thought then to number about 2000. Peace talks under the auspices of the UN began in 1991. These concluded in 1996, with a series of accords which were intended to deal with the problems which had caused the civil war in the first place: the issue of land, but also the position of the indigenous, the role of the army, socioeconomic issues and human rights. The last of these set up the United Nations Mission to Guatemala, or MINUGUA as it is known by its Spanish acronym. This was set up to receive reports of abuse of human rights and to monitor the implementation of the peace accords.

There was also an accord to set up the Commission for Historical Clarification which was to investigate the human rights violations of the war, and assign institutional responsibility for them. This worked for one year and published its report in February 1999. This blamed the army and its civilian adjuncts for over 90% of the violations investigated. Most importantly it said that the scorched earth policies carried out in the late 70’s and early 80’s in predominantly indigenous areas constituted a policy of genocide.


An excellent resource store for Guatemala can be found here at the Latin American Network Information Center (LANIC), based at the University of Texas.

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