In 1996, Guatemalans signed peace accords that marked an official end to the country's 36-year civil war, the longest and bloodiest of the century's Latin American conflicts. Behind the smokescreen of "fighting communism," military groups trained and funded by the US killed 200,000 mostly Indigenous People and destroyed 440 Mayan villages. More than a million people were uprooted from their homes and over a quarter million became refugees in surrounding countries.
Despite the peace accords, Guatemala's Indigenous Peoples continue to face systematic discrimination. A creeping "remilitarization" threatens true Guatemalan democracy. Meanwhile, the country's most fundamental crisis, the unequal distribution of land, remains a major problem, with two percent of Guatemalans controlling 72 percent of the country's arable land. This inequality was at the core of the civil war, which was fueled by US-backed efforts to monopolize land for the benefit of US-based agribusiness.
Today, the United States pushes for more neo-liberal economic policies, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). These trade deals make it nearly impossible for local businesses and small farmers to compete with US corporations. By allowing US corporations increased, unregulated participation in the Guatemalan economy, such agreements promise to further exacerbate poverty and unemployment, displace more poor farmers and Indigenous Peoples, destroy natural resources and biodiversity, and create many more maquilas (sweatshops).
US-driven economic policies also seek to privatize critical services, such as health care and education, placing access to medical care even further out of reach for poor women and families. In Guatemala, women's and children's health is already jeopardized by inadequate medical services: maternal mortality among Indigenous women is 83 percent higher than among non-Indigenous women and, with only one doctor for every 10,000 rural Guatemalans, most women and girls lack even an annual medical check-up. Guatemala has the highest infant mortality rate in Central America and malnutrition among Guatemalan children is one of the worst in the world.
Like their counterparts in Taiwan, the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere, over 80 percent of Guatemala's maquila workers are young women who work longer hours than men and are paid half of men's wages. And many maquila workers are the sole providers for their families. Without adequate labor laws and enforcement of those laws, workers suffer human rights violations, including physical assaults, humiliating treatment and the forced consumption of amphetamines to increase output. Garment workers often sustain permanent lung damage from textile dust. Other workers live with chronic injury from the strain of repetitive manual work. Poised to create more maquilas in Guatemala, US-backed free trade agreements offer no increased protection for maquila workers. Privileging profit over workers' safety, health, and other human rights, these agreements give US corporations the right to sue governments for enforcing labor laws that could improve conditions in maquilas and protect women's human rights.
Increases in Violence and Human Rights Violations
Since 2000, Guatemala has witnessed a sharp rise in violence and intimidation directed at union leaders, human rights activists, and journalists. Indigenous communities in rural areas have been particularly affected by the escalating crisis as landowners increase their violent harassment of campesinos organizing for land rights. The violence has been attributed to illegal groups and clandestine security structures that have, until this point, received impunity from the Guatemalan government.
Guatemala has also experienced an alarming increase in violence against women, including rape, torture, and extra-judicial killings. The government has tried to dismiss the violence as a product of gang activity and drug trafficking, but human rights organizations claim that the precipitous rise in attacks against young, mostly poor and Indigenous women in Guatemala may be related to a larger pattern of abuse directed at Indigenous communities and social justice activists. In total, more than 3,800 women have been murdered since 2000, and the rate of murders continues to rise each year. Most are young women who migrated from rural areas to shantytowns of Guatemala City, in search of better wages.
Although the conflict has officially ended, Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala face ongoing human rights violations. Racism, lagging land reform, neo-liberal policies that prioritize corporate interests, and a persistent culture of impunity that favors former military officials and the landholding elite continue to generate high levels of poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment in Indigenous communities. Poverty is significantly higher in Indigenous communities than in non-Indigenous communities; Indigenous Peoples comprise 58 percent of the poor and 72 percent of the extreme poor. The average wage gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous workers is approximately 50 percent in all industries. Sixty-seven percent of Indigenous children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Although the peace accords require the withdrawal of the military from civilian life, the militarization of Guatemalan society has steadily increased in recent years. The armed forces have retained an influential presence in government and the role of the army in public security has expanded. Clandestine security structures, made up of former military, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers, have resurfaced. Former members of the Civilian Action Patrols (PACs), paramilitaries that were made up of young, Indigenous men, which never completely disbanded after the civil war, have consolidated power through leadership positions in local government and are demanding compensation for their unpaid service during the conflict.
The United States has encouraged the remilitarization of Guatemala as part of the implementation of proposed free-trade agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Plan Puebla-Panama, which seeks to build a giant network of highways and railroads and develop the oil and electric industries from Mexico's Puebla state all the way to Panama. The US government is using these trade agreements and resulting investments of US corporations as a pretext to increase military assistance throughout Central America. Already, a more visible US military presence in Guatemala has coincided with increased oil exploration by US companies. The US also uses the drug war to justify ongoing US military operations in rural areas of Guatemala. For Guatemalans, armed troops in their communities means more human rights abuses, intimidation, land confiscation, and the denial of labor rights.