Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A wide-ranging set of peace accords were signed by the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, putting an end to more than three and a half decades of civil conflict that claimed at least 200,000 lives. The final installment of the accords, signed in late December, 1996, culminated a six-year peace process in which international pressure and an active U.N. presence played a key role in reaching a definitive agreement.

Summary of Event

Guatemala experienced a brief period of democratic, progressive governance beginning in the mid-1940’s until it was abruptly halted by a military coup in 1954. The military takeover enjoyed tactical support from the United States Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Guatemala (CIA) as part of its Cold War strategy to prevent communist penetration in the Americas. Washington was also responding to complaints of the U.S.-based United Fruit Company, whose banana investments in Guatemala were being challenged with demands for agrarian reform and higher wages. In the years following the 1954 coup, military rule sought to repress all forms of legal dissent, but this repression eventually resulted in the formation of underground, armed guerrilla groups that eventually united to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Civil wars;Guatemala Guatemala;civil war Peace negotiations;Guatemala [kw]Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War (Dec. 29, 1996) [kw]Peace Accords End Civil War, Guatemalan (Dec. 29, 1996) [kw]Accords End Civil War, Guatemalan Peace (Dec. 29, 1996) [kw]Civil War, Guatemalan Peace Accords End (Dec. 29, 1996) [kw]War, Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil (Dec. 29, 1996) Civil wars;Guatemala Guatemala;civil war Peace negotiations;Guatemala [g]Central America;Dec. 29, 1996: Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War[09620] [g]Guatemala;Dec. 29, 1996: Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War[09620] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec. 29, 1996: Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War[09620] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 29, 1996: Guatemalan Peace Accords End Civil War[09620] Menchú, Rigoberta Ríos Montt, Efraín Serrano Elías, Jorge Arzú, Álvaro Gerardi Conedera, Juan José Mack, Myrna

More than half the population of Guatemala is made up of linguistically distinct Mayan descendants. These communities are by far the country’s poorest and have been subjected to considerable discrimination. By 1960, a significant number of indigenous Guatemalans had joined with other peasants and organized sectors of urban laborers to initiate a decades-long guerrilla struggle against poverty, social exclusion, and authoritarian military rule. As the armed rebellion spread, so too did the violent counterinsurgency activities of the military-led government. With various members of her immediate family killed by government forces during the 1979-1983 period, indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú wrote that the violent repression of successive military regimes essentially left few alternatives for those Guatemalans who sought access to land and better living conditions. Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Rigoberta Menchú[Menchú] in 1992 for her efforts on behalf of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

There is little room to doubt the U.S. support given to the Guatemalan military throughout the war. In 1966-1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B. sent U.S. Army Special Forces (Green Berets) to Guatemala to provide training and strategic aid for counterinsurgency. This support continued until the mounting human rights violations led President Jimmy Carter’s Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Guatemala administration to cut off all official U.S. military aid to Guatemala in 1977. In early 1982, Efraín Ríos Montt took power in a military shake-up with the blessing of Ronald Reagan’s Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Guatemala presidential administration, which reversed Carter’s policy and worked to reestablish official U.S. military assistance. Reagan himself visited Guatemala and declared that Ríos Montt had personally given firm assurances of his democratic intentions.

Efraín Ríos Montt.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

With Washington on his side, Ríos Montt applied a “scorched earth” policy throughout the countryside designed to repel important advances made by guerrilla forces. Authorities of the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala bitterly denounced the extreme violence, but Ríos Montt made little secret of his disdain for human rights criticism. A self-declared born-again Christian, he publicly stated that his policy was simply one of “scorched Communists.” By the time Ríos Montt could be forced out of office by another group of military officers in 1983, international condemnation of Guatemalan military rule had considerably intensified. The generals that replaced him, however, showed little or no improvement and by 1990, official U.S. aid was once again cut off by the George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;Guatemala administration.

Precise figures on the victims of the bloody internal conflict that spanned thirty-six years in Guatemala were slow to emerge. Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist, attempted to conduct an in-depth study of the military’s genocide and forced displacement of indigenous communities. Before she could finish her work, however, she was brutally assassinated in 1990 outside her office in Guatemala City. In 1998, an influential report on the war coordinated by Catholic bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera with support by the United Nations revealed that about 200,000 Guatemalan civilians had lost their lives by that time, including the nearly complete destruction of about four hundred indigenous villages. In addition, it reported that the war had forcibly displaced at least one million Guatemalans from their homes, with more than 100,000 refugees Refugees;Guatemalans fleeing abroad. The four-volume report concluded that the Guatemalan army or its affiliated paramilitary groups were responsible for at least 80 percent of deaths or disappearances while only about 9 percent were clearly attributable to the guerrillas, with the remainder too difficult to determine. Two nights after the report was released, Bishop Gerardi himself was brutally murdered at his home in Guatemala City, apparently in government reprisal. Many experts believe that additional archaeological-forensic work will be necessary to uncover the full extent of atrocities that took place in the Guatemalan countryside during the worst years of the conflict.

By 1990, the counterinsurgency effort had effectively contained the guerrilla forces, and the government showed little interest in negotiating a truce, demanding instead that insurgents unilaterally disarm in unconditional defeat. When the civilian government of Jorge Serrano Elías came to power in early 1991, he ordered the military to begin participation in a dialogue aimed at setting up direct peace talks. The process was temporarily derailed in 1993 when Serrano fell from power. By January, 1994, the combination of international pressure and domestic calls from the Catholic Church and others resulted in government acceptance of a U.N. role in peace talks. This marked a turning point for negotiations, setting regular deadlines and establishing an overall framework for the process. A broad role was established for civil society organizations, effectively deprived of any public participation since the 1950’s, and this fueled a sense that real negotiations could now take place in Guatemala.

In March, 1994, a human rights accord framework was agreed to by the contending parties, mandating the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), which arrived in November. In the 1995 general elections, the URNG abided by its agreement not to disrupt them and even called upon its supporters to participate. The electoral victory of Álvaro Arzú yielded a civilian president publicly committed to reaching a comprehensive peace agreement. A series of confidence-building measures by the Arzú administration included assent to the Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1995, Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Guatemala, 1995) establishing a mandate for substantial social reforms toward the establishment of a multiethnic and multicultural nation. This paved the way for the URNG leadership to announce an indefinite suspension of armed actions on March 19, 1996. The Guatemalan government reciprocated the following day by announcing a suspension of its counterinsurgency operations.

In May, 1996, the Accord on Socioeconomic and Agrarian Issues Accord on Socioeconomic and Agrarian Issues (Guatemala, 1996) offered some economic reforms, though it was widely protested by civil society organizations as insufficient to address the magnitude of economic problems underlying the conflict. In September, 1996, the demilitarization accord stipulated substantial reforms to curtail the power of the Guatemalan military and to reestablish its subordination to civilian state control. It also provided for judicial reforms and the abolition of government-sponsored paramilitary civilian patrols. Finally, a culminating accord established a timetable for implementation of all agreements, legal reinsertion of URNG combatants into Guatemalan society, and amnesty for the military. This allowed the URNG leadership to return legally from Mexico to an emotional reception in Guatemala City on December 28, 1996, where the signing of the Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace (Guatemala, 1996) took place on the following day.


The Guatemalan peace accords are testimony to the influence and limitations of the United Nations in helping to broker an end to long-standing hostilities. It was international outcry over the atrocious human rights violations of successive military governments that resulted in the United Nations’ taking a role in the peace process. Because there is no statute of limitations applicable to crimes against humanity and genocide under international law, the peace accords that provided amnesty for the military left Guatemala in an ambiguous situation with regard to human rights violators. While the deeply rooted ethnic and social-class inequalities that drove the country to war were essentially left unresolved by the peace process, the accords remain an important point of reference in Guatemalan national politics. The new space opened by a negotiated end to the conflict made it possible for opposition figures such as Rigoberta Menchú to participate in civilian government and work for additional reforms. Civil wars;Guatemala Guatemala;civil war Peace negotiations;Guatemala

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chase-Dunn, Christopher, Susanne Jonas, and Nelson Amaro, eds. Globalization on the Ground: Postbellum Guatemalan Democracy and Development. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. Scholarly essays on development and the struggle for democracy in post-civil war Guatemala. Includes work by prominent Guatemalan experts. Subject index, bibliography, notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonas, Susanne. Of Centaurs and Doves: Guatemala’s Peace Process. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Sober analysis of postconflict Guatemala that raises serious questions about the sustainability of the democratization process envisioned by the 1996 peace accords.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schirmer, Jennifer G. The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Revealing study of the mentality of Guatemalan authoritarian rulers as presented in their own words.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilkinson, Daniel. Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. A human rights worker in Guatemala during the 1990’s, the author describes how a frustrated struggle for land reform later evolved into a full-scale armed rebellion.

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Categories: History