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The Ixil heritage: the promise of true democracy in Guatemala
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This essay will establish the significance of the influence the Ixil genocide has held upon Guatemala’s social and political reality, as well as analyze the consequences and institutional developments in the country since the civil war and the constraints that threaten its consolidation as a democracy.

Thus, this study aims to describe the reality of the endurance of the indigenous population, focusing on the historical context surrounding the armed struggle, and exposing the reality of the genocide carried out against the indigenous Ixil Maya population; as well as analyze the genocide itself and its political and social implications. Having explained these points in the subsequent paragraphs, the influence the genocide has had on the development of a new governmental reality in Guatemala and the conditions it has brought forth will be discussed in order to establish a framework upon which to regard the true development of Guatemalan democracy.

Definition of Genocide

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such” (Power, 2013). These acts range from killings to deliberate prevention of births within the group, and thus encompass a wide range of atrocities and abuses. Therefore, the perpetrator's particular motives for wanting the destruction of the group are irrelevant; it is the intention of a number of individuals to destroy the members of a group solely because of who they are that defines these crimes as genocide. Adding to this, the genocide convention paid no mind to national or wartime restrictions; and so, regardless of position, power or interest, genocide could be persecuted and trialed. These statements hold special significance when regarding the Guatemala genocide case and its implications, both nationally and internationally.

Introduction to the conflict

The Guatemalan Civil War spanned from 1960 to 1996, with the Guatemala’s government facing the opposing leftist insurgent groups that rose to challenge the military regime. These groups were primarily supported by the impoverished rural population, composed of the country’s indigenous Mayan people and the Ladino peasant class. The military regime has since been condemned for committing genocide against the Mayan Ixil population and for the widespread violation of basic human rights against civilians during the entirety of the conflict. The accusations of genocide derived from the UN Commission for Historical Clarification report titled “Memoria del Silencio”, which stated that genocide may have taken place in Quiché between 1981 and 1983.

The state of Guatemala is considered the first in Latin America to engage in widespread and systematic practice of forced “disappearances” against its political and social opposition, with the estimates of disappeared individuals reaching 50,000. Furthermore, most of the 200,000 civilians murdered or “disappeared” during the war are attributed to the acts of state intelligence services and military forces.

Historical Context

Guatemala’s scorching internal armed conflict was defined and sustained by the undeniable bias in regards to the control of both economic and political resources of “a racist non-indigenous, Spanish-descended oligarchy” (Brett, 2012), forming a tightly wound caste system backed by the nations armed forces that was “managed by a closed lineage-based political and economic elite” (Brett, 2012).  In the face of a rigid and imperious system, guerrilla insurgencies emerged to challenge the state, yet they were swiftly defeated in the 1960s.

It is imperative to stress that these guerrillas did not oppose the state in the name of the indigenous population, nor did they represent the express will of this group. Furthermore, the first insurgencies that arose were inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology and sought to fight the state structured foundations of labor class exploitation from a strictly traditional classist perspective; therefore seeking no indigenous participation or representing their specific interests in any way. Only from the 1970s onwards did other armed insurgencies emerge with the aim of opposing the racist oligarchy not solely on traditional classist terms, but within an open framework that fought to include indigenous people, understanding ethnic identity, exclusion and racism as pivotal elements of their struggle.

Thus, when analyzing Guatemala’s Cold War political and armed conflict we must take into account the complexities that arise from the ethnic dimensions of the conflict itself. While the armed upheaval did not stem directly from and ethnically motivated uprising, nor was it fought exclusively on ethnic terms, it was undoubtedly characterized by ethnic dimensions. “Horizontal inequalities played a key role in precipitating and sustaining conflict” (Brett, 2012). The unbalanced system of land distribution, the widespread levels of extreme poverty and the consciously established inability to access political stages and economic resources, were all factors that most brutally affected the indigenous population. These were also core conflicting points in the armed struggle between the Guatemalan military and the guerillas. In spite of this, “the parties to the hostilities did not struggle over or seek to rectify deep-rooted horizontal inequalities based solely upon ethnic group membership” (Brett, 2012), due to high rank positions in both the military and guerillas being controlled by ladinos (non-indigenous population).  However, this did not result in the exclusion of the indigenous population of the armed conflict, as members from these ethnic groups were inevitably involved in the struggle, representing both perpetrators of the violence in guerrillas and paramilitary forces, and victims of the brutal atrocities.

Genocide and Human Rights abuses

The 1999 report sponsored by the United Nations states that: “the Army's perception of Mayan communities as natural allies of the guerrillas contributed to increasing and aggravating the human rights violations perpetrated against them, demonstrating an aggressive racist component of extreme cruelty that led to extermination en masse of defenseless Mayan communities, including children, women and the elderly, through methods whose cruelty has outraged the moral conscience of the civilized World”.

The abuses the Mayan population was subjected to are horrifying to recount. The army worked methodically in the Mayan region, sweeping through small villages with paramilitary teams and military forces. The communities were rounded up a then brutally murdered, with many villagers being forced to watch the horror or even take part in it.  As the army passed through the region they ruined the crops, slaughtered the livestock, poisoned water supplies, and devastated holy places and cultural emblems.

The population was destroyed both fiscally and psychologically, seeking to unravel the fabric of the Mayan community. Children were beaten, buried alive, tortured and raped. Civilians were tortured, had limbs amputated or were impaled and left to die; some were burned or disemboweled while they were still alive. As in Nanking, the attackers cut open the wombs of pregnant women; with women of all ages being subjected to continuous rape and torture. Those who survived the massacres could hardly continue due to the trauma, with the memory of sexual violence in those communities having become a strong source of collective shame.

The guerrillas were unable to assist the indigenous population as they’re numbers paled in comparison to the state led military. This emphasizes the fact that these guerrillas didn't effectively pose a real threat to the state’s continuity, and thus that the massive and horrific campaign perpetrated against the Mayan majority was driven not by any real conception of them being a threat, but by longstanding racial prejudice and hatred.

Despite the abominable practices of the regime, the United Sates continued to provide military, formative and economic support to the Guatemalan government; much like they would later do with Saddam Hussein’s regime despite the chemical attacks he inflicted upon Iraq’s Kurdish population. The School of the Americas in Georgia became notorious for training Guatemalan military officers known for human rights abuses; while the CIA continued to work with Guatemalan intelligence officials.  The United States involvement in Guatemala was strategic, choosing to ignore the slaughter of the country’s indigenous population and civilians in favor of anti-Communist action in the wider stage of the Cold War.

Understanding Guatemala’s Genocide

“The operative modality of the Guatemalan genocide was characterized by the simultaneous perpetration of instrumentalist and essentialist forms of violence, which served mutually reinforcing purposes” (Brett, 2012). During the militarized government of General Lucas García a brutal counterinsurgency policy based on the concept of “scorched earth” was implemented and executed against both guerrilla forces and its mostly indigenous civilian social base, sweeping mercilessly through the rural areas of Guatemala. Furthermore, during the ensuing dictatorship of General Ríos Montt military operations and vicious human rights violations escalated in the rural areas of the country, as state militias consciously acted to eliminate the guerrilla’s social base.

After 1980 Guatemala’s institutions very effectively controlled and directed by the military, leaving no space for any manner of civil society mobilization or political opposition to the regime. The justice system was functionally shut down, whilst the legal system ceased to hold true meaning, with these powers subjugated by forceful and arbitrary military justice procedures. This attested to the fact that civil society did not truly represent an organized collective opposition strong enough to react against the counterinsurgency operations that brought forth mass atrocities.

The militarized state defined all indigenous peoples in the rural highland communities as a “collective internal enemy”, regardless of their affiliation to the insurgency or the presence combatants. This rhetoric is similar to that used in other instances of genocide, such as the Holocaust or Rwanda, to establish a group as detrimental to state survival and thus define their destruction as a necessity. The military campaign brought forth the annihilation of 660 villages the massacre of over 20,000 indigenous civilians, horrifying and systematic mass public rapes, practices such as forced sterilization, and the displacement of 1.5 million people (12% of the population). This violence was upheld by the structurally imbedded, institutionally supported and socio-culturally reinforced racism that has defined sociopolitical and economic relations in this country since colonialism.

Institutions had systematically marginalized all indigenous population from all state related fields in the judicial, executive and legislative powers, as well as from most economic and cultural active exercise. Thus, legal recourse was no longer a viable option, leaving Guatemala’s indigenous population isolated and unprotected. Yet institutions were not alone in they’re blatant disregard of this collective, as legal impunity was strengthened by social apathy. The majority of the population was composed of an indifferent urban ladino class that had “no interest in, nor felt compassion for indigenous victims of mass atrocities presumed to be guerrilla collaborators – a situation that has continued to this day” (Brett, 2012).

Finally, in 1983 the state-led military were in victorious in disarticulating the insurgent guerrilla forces, effectively defeating the armed opposition by literally annihilating or displacing the entirety of their support base.  This event led the military command to agree upon returning Guatemala to a civilian ruled political system in 1986. Yet, in spite of their defeat and with the pivotal support of the international community and the fast-emerging victims’ movement, organized guerrilla cells that had relocated to Mexico negotiated a peaceful settlement in a UN monitored process.

The peace accord, and the following recognition and development of previously breached social and political rights, was enforced upon a largely apathetic society by international actors. This process failed to address the underlining causes of the conflict, as well as fundamentally impeded any possibility of generating sufficiently solid conditions to prevent future conflict from breaking out. The structural flaws of the procedure effectively planted the seeds of what may very well lead to a period of newly escaladed violence within a system supposedly defined as a nominal multi-cultural political democracy, yet only financed and legitimized by the international community; and thus lacking proper implementation and effectiveness.

Despite the armed struggle in Guatemala being over, homicide rates have soared, and while conflict seems to have distanced itself from the ideological, violence appears to have only been transformed and diversified, not reduced. The brutality has “been democratized”, with the appearance of new actors, such as gangs, organized crime and drug-trafficking. Yet these actors are shaping the panorama in Guatemala into an intensifying social and economic conflict. The negative peace reality that defines the country encompasses widespread and extreme poverty, social exclusion, periodic regional famines, high maternal and infant mortality and chronic child malnutrition; with all these circumstances primarily afflicting indigenous population. These circumstances have been worsened by the increase of resource extraction in indigenous communities, impoverishing the already vulnerable collective even further. These conditions express the systematic violation of indigenous peoples’ socioeconomic rights, as well as the absolute violation of their legitimate right to autonomy.

Social importance of defining as genocide

Much controversy has arose nationally and internationally in the wake of the indictment for genocide of Efraín Ríos Montt, leader of the military regime, after the peace accords.

There is a reality that comes forth when defining a certain crime as genocide, and is possibly one of the most substantial benefits of it. It consists in the significance it holds to the victims of the atrocities themselves. The recognition that comes with the acknowledgement of their nation that members of that group were specifically targeted for who they were has an effect on the community’s ability to reconcile the events they have gone through. Both the suffering they experienced, as well as the motivation behind it, hold a special meaning to the members of that group.  The indictment of genocide implies a validation of their struggle and effort to survive a crime based upon the fundamentally inhumane characteristic of targeting groups based upon national, ethnic, or religious characteristics. Especially as these inevitably represent a defining part of their collective identity and dignity; as is the case with the Ixil population.

It is precisely the “intent”, the hardest element to prove in regards to genocide, that holds the true meaning behind the definition and the importance behind its recognition. Thus, despite the complications the term may imply, or the controversy that may arise from its use, it is understood that it is key for the appointment of individual responsibility in contrast to collective guilt, allowing coexistence to be an achievable dream. The indictment of genocide is not enough, but it is the necessary condition for an accurate and respectful historical and social account of that which has taken place.

For the Ixil population the indictment has become totemic, a testimony of their suffering and a recognition and validation of their voices in their nation. Yet, while Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction was seen as a breakthrough for the country’s still fragile democratic system and a recognition of the Ixil population’s endurance, Guatemala has reached a standstill yet again and faces the risk of falling back into authoritarianism and violence.

The trial that indicted General Ríos Montt was hailed as the first instance anywhere in the world where a head of state was effectively tried and convicted of genocide in a domestic courtroom. This event was also seen a decisive turning point for Guatemala’s judicial system, which had a longstanding tendency of only bringing roughly 2 percent of all crimes committed to court effectively. Yet barley two weeks later the verdict was abruptly annulled on alleged procedural grounds. This decision brought forth both a stinging disappointment to the victims of the atrocities of the general’s regime, and an undeserving relief for both former military leaders, who had feared that after Montt’s conviction they might be indicted as well, and the wealthy and powerful industrialists who had financed the nation’s civil war.

However, despite Guatemala fading from international headlines, political and social mobilization flooded the country in the wake of the annulment. Those who had been abused by the regime demonstrated massively denouncing the change in the indictment. Threatened by the growing social pressure and the idea of a truly independent judicial system, the country’s elite reacted swiftly and violently. Both the government and Guatemala’s wealthy class have refused to negotiate with the protesters, branding them criminals and terrorists and repressing the demonstrations.

This reaction only serves to further strengthen the idea that Guatemala has not truly experienced a sufficiently deep political transition towards an effective democracy, as those in positions of power view the possible advances for a just and functional nation as a direct threat to their wealth and legacies. With little international focus on the conditions upon which these actors are operating, the threat of the country reverting into polarization and violence arises once again.

After the genocide: the promise of democracy in Guatemala

Liberal democracy is without a doubt both desirable and feasible in Guatemala, yet the state of its governmental branches emphasizes the contradictions and inequalities that may be present in certain imperfect democracies. While the stark differences present in Guatemala should be mitigated and restrained by a more proportionate and equal resource distribution and broadened liberties for participation, tasks that ought to be carried out by its democratic system; the strongly divergent economic reality of the country inevitably implies political inequality, and therefore an imperfect democracy. It is important to remember that while liberal democracy draws its legitimacy from popular participation, it is still dependent on controlling and channeling that political participation adequately for its stability.

It is undeniable that the genocide and armed conflict were defining elements in shaping Guatemala’s current political system; and while notable governmental deficiencies still affect the country, there have been advances that must be recognized as well. Although, it is important to clarify that Guatemala is evolving from a military dictatorship, thus these advances must be seen relative to what preceded them.

The greatest advances in regards to the countries developing democracy are found in the dimension of participation in the public space and in some indicators of representative democracy. Nevertheless, inequality still remains within each of these dimensions; this is exemplified by the “persistence of impunity and the penetration of state security structures for parallel groups” (Azpuru, 2007). Despite the advances in this area, particularly due to the reforms implemented in 2004, this represents a loss of control that undermines the state and compromises its actions.

Nonetheless, Guatemala has greatly improved in regards to its electoral process and political pluralism; and while the basis upon which they parted was inexistent in these categories, it is true that after the conflict multiple social actors and new channels for expression and dialogue between the state and society have arisen and had a positive impact. 

The judicial and legal systems were clearly changed by the genocide, with the trial of General Ríos Montt being an indicator of a new trend. Sadly, the annulment of this proceeding hinted at the still lingering deficiencies the system has not been able to overcome. Although significant progress has been made, practical inequalities still define the countries judicial system, particularly when regarding groups such as women, youth, or the indigenous population. Moreover, threats towards judges and other officials by parallel groups remain a serious obstacle for effective justice in Guatemala.

Civil liberties have improved exponentially; with the current situation regarding human rights being very different from what existed during the span of the armed conflict and even of that in the early years of Guatemala’s democratic process. Systematic violations of human rights as a defined state policy are no longer part of panorama. However, the government has occasionally engaged "social cleansing" that serves as a stark reminder of its authoritarian past and are seriously concerning in regards to the possibility of a reversion in the country’s quality of democracy.

Certainly political democracy in Guatemala has steadily improved since the signing of the peace accords, yet it still remains fragile and must be monitored in order to prevent its decent back into authoritarianism, with its judicial system and non state actors currently being serious motives for concern.


Having explained Guatemala’s Civil War, the genocide and human rights violations that came with it, and the following rise of a tentative democracy in the country, we must now question the future of Guatemala’s political and social arena. As stated before, Guatemala has experienced notable advances towards being a successful democracy, yet the country is hindered by persisting structural flaws, both in the system and the peace accords that brought it forth, economic inequality, judicial impunity, corruption, and growing political and social unrest.

This essay finds the quality of Guatemalan democracy to still be vulnerable to sharp drops and regression that may arise from the integral flaws that still define the country’s political system. Thus, careful assessment of the current situation in Guatemala must be maintained in order to be alert of indicators that hint towards reversion. The recent indictment of the former president of the country for corruption gives hope of a new development of accountability even for those in positions of power, yet must be regarded carefully and analyzed further. Continuing research in the relationship between mayor economic actors, non-state actors and the development of the government would be recommendable in order to understand the conditions Guatemala’s democracy faces. In this same line, the study of the rise of civil society and how it may impact accountability and politics may offer a framework upon which to further strengthen social influence in Guatemalan politics.

Esther Brito was born in Madrid, Spain, and has lived in Spain, Germany, the U.K., the United States, Korea, and Brazil.  She is currently a fourth-year student of a double degree in International Relations and Business Administration in ICADE Buisness School, and  her interest in art and design has led her to study an associates degree in Illustration. While in college she became a participant in the European Youth Parliament, was recognized as a “Young Talent” at the Freedom & Solidarity Forum in Caen, and participated of the USA Youth Debate that was held during the event. In 2015 she attended the Stanford Summer Quarter, where she became a member of the Stanford Summer Marketing Team and was then hired as a Stanford Summer Global Ambassador. Esther has volunteered with numerous charities and NGOs, has been the assistant manager of ICADEs student magazine, and participated in the Akademia Project at Bankinters Foundation of Innovation, which sought to foster entrepreneurship among students.


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