Guatemala’s Crippled Peace Process: A Look Back on the 1996 Peace Accords

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• Relatively speaking, Guatemala is Latin America’s most violent nation
• Guatemala’s homicide rate is four times that of Mexico and twelve times that of the United States, making the country the fourth most murderous country in the world
• Aside from Colombia, Guatemala is the region’s worst human rights violator
• As of now, Guatemala is a nation without a future

On March 16, 2011, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon demonstrated his support for Guatemala’s peace process by announcing a USD ten million contribution from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund.1 The contribution aimed to help Guatemala address its human rights issues and strengthen its justice and security system. The occasion also provided an opportunity for the United Nations to work with the country’s civil society to end the country’s military hostilities and resolve lingering tensions left over from the country’s 36-year civil war. In his speech, Ban commended Guatemala on its recent peacebuilding efforts and its longstanding commitment towards implementing the 1996 Peace Accords. The Peace Accords in reality are a collection of eleven agreements that outline Guatemala’s commitments to the observance of human and indigenous rights, socio-economic reforms, and the restoration of democracy.


Even with years of attention by the United Nations, Guatemala continues to be far from achieving the stability envisioned in the original peace agreement. As Guatemala approaches the fifteen year anniversary of the Peace Accords this December, the country remains just as far from implementing the Peace Accords as it had been when the agreement was first signed. The Peace Accords supposedly marked a new era of democracy and rule of law for Guatemala, but the country still has yet to meet most of the sweeping development goals outlined in the agreement. While the Peace Accords have barely managed to stall Guatemala from falling back into a full scale civil war, it has failed to bring the country any closer to a democratic and egalitarian society.

Moving Towards Peace


In 1960, a group of armed insurgents instigated an unsuccessful uprising against the Guatemalan government, triggering one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin American history. At the time, Guatemala was governed by a series of military dictators, who had earned a reputation for extreme repression and human rights abuses. The insurgents formed a leftist guerrilla group, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), to combat the repression that had gone on for much of a decade; in response, the military employed a “drain the sea to kill the fish” strategy, in which they targeted the rural civilian population in order to deprive the insurgents (the fish) of its water (the people). While the counterinsurgency strategy did manage to weaken the leftist guerrilla movement, it also annihilated a substantial portion of indigenous people, leaving many to accuse the state of committing genocide.


As Nicaragua and El Salvador began to resolve their internal conflicts, the Guatemalan military gradually succumbed to international pressure and began to take half-hearted steps to end the civil war. Facing a threat of international isolation in the midst of an economic downturn, the anxious military called upon the National Assembly to promulgate a new constitution and gradually returned the country to civilian rule. Direct talks between the URNG and the government of Guatemala began in 1991; by 1994, the United Nations was brought in to broker a peace agreement between the two parties. On December 29, 1996, the “Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace” was finally signed by the Government of Guatemala and the URNG, thereby ending over three decades of conflict.


The signing of the 1996 Peace Accords represented a historic moment in Guatemalan history, as it laid the groundwork for a transition to a more democratic and inclusive society. It concluded a thirty six year civil war that, according to official reports, resulted in over 200,000 casualties and the displacement of over a million people, most of whom were of Mayan origin.2 The Peace Accords were a break from Guatemala’s authoritarian past and systematic exclusions, and they raised expectations for a more participatory democratic state and society. In a country traumatized by decades of war, corruption, and institutional racism, the 1996 Peace Accords became a beacon of hope for a new chapter of political, socio-economic, and cultural change in Guatemala.

Challenges to Implementing the Peace Accords


In order to implement these agreements, twelve additional amendments were scheduled to be added to the Guatemalan Constitution which, according to Article 280 of the Political Constitution of Guatemala, requires a two-thirds majority in Congress and then a majority vote in a National Referendum.3 The necessary pieces of legislation were prepared for congressional authorization within the first year of the Peace Accords, but it took two years before a final agreement could be reached in Congress. An additional thirty-eight amendments were added to the list, some of which were not directly related to the Peace Accords, increasing the total from twelve to fifty. On May 16, 1999, the constitutional reforms were put to a vote in a National Referendum, but the amendments were eventually defeated with only a nineteen percent turnout of eligible voters. The defeat was also compounded by the failure to pass the necessary tax reforms needed to finance the accords, particularly the socio-economic provisions of the peace agreement.4


The failure to implement constitutional reforms and the low voter turnout highlights the lack of a strong political will in Guatemala and the inability of the pro-peace movement to mobilize public constituents. Critics often complain that the political discussion preceding the referendum was long, confusing, and caused the public to be disillusioned and indifferent towards the peace process. In the end, the provisions from the Peace Accords have yet to be translated into constitutional law. Without this, the government lacks the legal basis to implement reform and to demand strong changes within the government. While some minor provisions of the Peace Accords have been implemented, compliance with the substantial parts of the agreement remains weak. Political parties have remained divided over the implementation of the Peace Accords and as a result, Congress has left many proposals waiting to be approved. As former guerrilla commander Carlos Gonzalez told El Nuevo Diario, “There aren’t any transformations in the country in the economic, social, or political realms. The transformations are superficial; they are not real as intended by the Peace Accords.”5


In 1997, the United Nations established the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) to assist in the implementation of the Peace Accords. MINUGUA carried out verification and institution-building activities throughout Guatemala. The mandate of MINUGUA expired in 2004, but the involvement of the international community and the United Nations continued with the establishment of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2005. The OHCHR office in Guatemala monitors the human rights situation and provides advice to the state and different sectors of civil society. Despite international concern, Guatemala still faces major hurdles before lasting peace can be achieved. On various occasions, MINUGUA expressed deep concern that the general population of Guatemala is barely reaping the benefits of peace, given that working conditions and living standards have yet to improve at all.6 In addition, a 2009 UN Human Rights report expressed disappointment over the lack of progress in the implementation of the 1996 Peace Accords and their de facto disappearance from political discourse.7

Escalated Violence & Impunity


Scholars and members of the international community are often optimistic about the prospects of consolidating peace in Guatemala, but for the country’s citizens, life remains just as dangerous today as it had been during the civil war. Widespread fear of street violence, mistrust of government institutions, government disregard for indigenous’ and women’s rights, corruption in government structures, co-optation of the bureaucratic structures by narcotic traffickers, complete impunity, and widespread poverty are still the norm fifteen years after the Peace Accords. Furthermore, deep rooted racism, structural inequality, restricted political participation, and discriminatory state policies remain at the core of the challenges that Guatemala faces, just as they had been over fifty years ago, when the civil war first broke out.


While the Peace Accords perhaps can be credited for preventing another civil war from breaking out, they have not mitigated the extreme levels of violence. According to the Latin News Daily, one recent assessment of violent crime highlights that the annual death rates in Guatemala are higher today than they were for much of the civil war.8 Between 2000 and 2010, the number of recorded violent deaths reached 54,223, which translates into an annual average of 4,929, a number greater than the civil war average of 4,166. By the end of 2010, Guatemala reportedly had a homicide rate of 41.1 per every 100,000 individuals, a rate four times higher than that of Mexico and twelve times higher than that of the United States, making it the fourth most murderous country in the world.9


Violence is especially prominent, given the pervasive immunity within Guatemala. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 Crime and Safety Report, only three percent of crimes are prosecuted in Guatemala, leaving ninety-seven percent of crimes left unsolved.10 The national police force is inexperienced, under-funded, and corrupt to its core, while the judicial system is weak, overworked, and often inefficient. Citizens who are deprived of justice often form lynch mobs or resolve disputes by hiring assassins. The number of national police officers has not increased to meet this growing threat and much of the needed improvements to the criminal justice institutions, such as witness protection, budget allocation, and fiscal policy have yet to be implemented. As Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, observed in 2007, “Guatemala is a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it.”


The most encouraging development so far has been the establishment of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2007. While the CICIG theoretically provides Guatemala with the necessary technical assistance to revamp its justice system, it has so far devoted itself almost exclusively to the prosecution of corruption cases, leaving little time to execute the badly needed institutional reforms. Even as the CICIG works with the Guatemalan government to implement the necessary national security legislation, other programs such as criminal investigation, prosecution procedures, and witness protection systems are still in need of vast improvements.

Overwhelming Burdens


Despite the efforts of civil society and the international community, many Guatemalan state institutions continue to be eroded by the activities of criminal organizations. Since the signing of the Peace Accords, many of the old military and economic structures responsible for generating the conflict in the first place have either remained intact, or mutated into criminal organizations. The state’s security system—death squads, intelligence units, police deployments, and military counterinsurgency forces—have largely been infiltrated by criminal organizations, amounting to a parallel state. This phenomenon, according to Ivan Briscoe, is an institutional arrangement in which organized interests with criminal intent use their links with the government to protect and expand their activities.11 This perpetuates the weakness of the state while maintaining the appearance of legitimacy. For the people of Guatemala, it provides an illusion of stability, but generates an almost unfathomable insecurity and stalls any effort to reduce poverty.


The illicit criminal networks engage in arms and human trafficking, money laundering, extortion, black-market adoptions, kidnapping for ransom, and participate in the exploding drug trade rampant throughout Latin America. Guatemala’s institutional weaknesses and lax law enforcement have made it an ideal habitat for criminal activity and have created a burden for the Guatemalan government that is impossible to overcome. Additionally, growing regional challenges may prove to be the breaking point of the government, as the Mexican struggle against drug trafficking continues to spill into Guatemala.



The problems that the Peace Accords were meant to confront still undeniably resonate in Guatemala today. Guatemala missed the best chance it had of implementing the Peace Accords over a decade ago, effectively losing the momentum to do much else. The society-wide dialogue that the Peace Accords intended to spark never materialized and the Guatemalan government continues to be plagued with rampant corruption. While the armed conflict between the army and the insurgents has concluded, a new war is being waged between the criminal organizations and the government, whom has proven to be unable to contain the violence.


For the past fifteen years, Guatemala has lacked the leadership and coordination to consolidate peace within its borders. This will continue far into the future unless the country begins to take serious initiatives to mobilize and inform the public. Guatemala’s lack of political will and its crippled institutions will continue to compromise the intrinsic vitality of the Central American country and undermine its prospects for the future. As long as the people of Guatemala remain indifferent toward the peace process and continue to rely on the international community to keep the Peace Accords on the national agenda, Guatemala will never make progress on implementing the Peace Accords. As we draw closer to the presidential elections this November, references to the 1996 Peace Accords will be uttered in every campaign speech, but will likely be disregarded following the inauguration of the new president. It is uncertain whether any successive governments will be able to fulfill the unfinished task of implementing the Peace Accords. If this remains the case, Guatemala will persist as a country that longs to move forward, but cannot resist the violent legacies of its past.

References for this article can be found here