Guatemala Struggles for a Lasting Peace Twenty Years After the Peace Accords

Photo: Outside of genocide hearings held in Guatemala in April, 2016. Photo by Jeff Abbott

The end of 1996 was a time of hope for Guatemalan society. That year, the government signed peace accords with leftist guerrillas, ending 36 years of war that claimed the lives of 200,000 people, and disappeared 40,000 others as part of the dirty war. The accords were the culmination of 14 years of negotiation between the Guatemalan State and the guerrillas, which were united in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). But 20 years later, the implementation of the lasting peace remains stalled. On December 29, Guatemalans gathered in towns across the country to commemorate and reflect on the two decades of peace.

“For us, as the Ixil People, the Peace Accords are the continuation of the struggle of Guatemala’s indigenous populations and the continuation of the struggle of our ancestors,” said Miguel de Leon Ceto, the spokesman and representative of the Indigenous Authority of Nebaj. “The Peace Accords were not the fruit of nothing, it was the fruit of the struggle of the Ixil people. Many Ixiles entered into the conflict, not because they like to fight, but because they were continuing the struggle of our ancestors for the defense of territory.”

During the internal armed conflict, the Ixil region of the highlands was one of the most affected by the military’s counterinsurgency operations. Thousands of Ixiles were massacred as part of the genocide against Guatemala’s indigenous populations. In total, there were 114 massacres carried out in the 3 Ixil municipalities of Cotzal, Chajul, and Nebaj. According to the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH), 72 communities were destroyed as part of the militarys scorched earth campaign between 1982 and 1984 against the civilian population during the dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt.

The Guatemalan military considered the indigenous populations to be part of the internal enemy at the height of the war. This is highlighted in a now declassified CIA cable from February 1982 about the massacres in the Ixil region that mentions the “well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil population is pro-EGP [Guerrilla army of the Poor],” adding that this belief has “created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.” 

The Indigenous Authority of Nebaj acknowledges that the accords still have not been fully implemented, but expressed hope that one day they would be.

“We have the beginning, and we demand that they comply with these accords,” said de Leon Ceto.

During the December 29 commemoration, the Ixil authorities were joined by representatives of the Guatemalan government and German embassy. The local and international representatives analyzed the success and failures of the implementation of the accords. But even 20 years later, little progress has been made toward achieving a lasting piece

Government authorities assured indigenous activists at commemorative events that the government was dedicated to the implementation of the accords. But these efforts fell upon critical ears.

“The twenty years of peace have failed as a result of the state,” said Pablo Ceto, a member of the Indigenous Authorities of Nebaj, and member of the Central American Parliament. “Not one government since the Peace Accords has taken it upon themselves to create public policies that resolve the historic causes of the internal armed conflict.”

“After the Peace Accords, the former militaries and economic elite dedicated themselves to steal and steal and steal from the population, but the indigenous communities dedicated themselves to making a different Guatemala,” adds Ceto “Twenty years after the signing of the accords, we are now actors in the construction of a new democratic Guatemala.”

Indigenous Rights and the Continued Assault on Indigenous Territory

The Peace Accords were an historic accomplishment for the indigenous populations of Guatemala. For the first time in the 500 years since the Spanish invasion, the Guatemalan government recognized that the country was plural-national, with a diverse set of cultures and ethnicities. The Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was signed in Mexico City on March 31, 1995, provided the indigenous populations with new rights and recognized their identities.

Recognition of the identity of the indigenous peoples is fundamental to the construction of a national unity based on respect for and the exercise of political, cultural, economic and spiritual rights of all Guatemalans,” wrote the authors of the accord.

“With the accord on indigenous peoples, for the first time in the history of Guatemala, the government accepted that we exist and that we have existed,” said de Leon Ceto. “They recognized that we have our own social organization and our own authorities.”

The agreement also included the signing of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, as well as the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights. It also established new constitutional rights for indigenous communities, and brought Guatemala into Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization on the Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

But for the last 20 years, these rights have been consistently challenged and violated by the state and private businesses. Many of these violations have come as a result of the expansion of transnational corporations in Guatemala, which have exploited vast natural resources in indigenous territory.

“The Ixil territory has been [pressured] by the big transnational companies since the 1970’s, but they were unable to enter due to the armed conflict,” said de Leon Ceto. “After the Peace Accords they began to invade our territories. Today the accords have not managed to give us the tools to fight the companies, but we have the basis for the means of fighting them and constructing our territory.”

The Ixil region of El Quiche has seen the expansion of mining, hydro electric, and logging interests. But they have challenged these projects courts.

“We have utilized the laws of this country and international conventions to defend our lands,” said de Leon Ceto.

In 2015, the indigenous authority won a major victory when the Guatemalan Constitutional Court demanded that the Ixil communities of the Nebaj municipality must be consulted in accordance with Convention 169 of the ILO over the construction of hydro electric projects in their territory. To date no consultation has been set, but the indigenous authorities continue to work to set a date to hold the consultation with residents.

Despite these victories, de Leon Ceto admits that they still have a long way to go.

“We have a lot to do,” he said. “We have to continue to organize ourselves, and we must strengthen our community organization because the effects of the armed conflict are not over, they continue.”

The Implications of the Failed Peace Accords

In the two decades since the signing of the Peace Accords, a majority of Guatemalans have suffered from a deepening social and economic crisis. This is a result of the neoliberal nature of the Peace Accords, which liberalized the economy, opened the country up to foreign direct investment, and favored these investments over the rights of the indigenous populations to their ancestral territories.

The neoliberal nature of the Peace Accords has had a further destabilizing affect on equality in post-war Guatemala. The neoliberal project has debilitated the state, and the privatization of public institutions has made key sectors such as health care and education unobtainable for the majority of the population.

This continuation of the historic inequality in Guatemala is reflected in the 2016 report by the United Nations Program for Development which states that inequality has steadily increased in the two decades since the signing of the Peace Accords.

The democratization process in Guatemala since 1985 and the end of the internal armed conflict in 1996 facilitated the conditions for establishing the country’s agenda with a mayor justice and equity,” wrote the authors of a United Nations Development Program report on Human Development indices. “However, in a contradictory way, the public capacity is weakened to fulfill the commitments, by policies that reduce the functions of the state and privatizations that are not transparent.”

Between 2011 and 2014 the percentage of those affected by poverty rose from 64 percent to 67 percent. The report also highlighted that nearly 80 percent of the population struggles to fulfill the daily requirements to maintain a basic standard of living. They lack the means of buying food, clothing, school costs, etc. The vast majority lived in rural sectors and areas with the highest percentages of indigenous peoples.

As a result of the forces of privatization, quality health care and education are unobtainable for the majority of residents, especially the indigenous peoples of Guatemala.

This failure of the Peace Accords to create economic benefits for the majority, especially the indigenous populations, is what drives northern migration to the US. Rather than create opportunities, the Peace Accords favored a neoliberal philosophy that embraces foreign corporate investment and drives the dispossession of indigenous lands.

But the indigenous populations have utilized the hope of a better future presented by the Peace Accords to continue to build an alternative based in their ancestral authorities and territory.

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, the North American Congress on Latin America, the Progressive. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo