University of Minnesota

Fourth Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala, Inter-Am. C.H.R., OEA/Ser.L/V/II.83, Doc. 16 rev. (1993).





In July 1991, in his address at the opening of the Presidential Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, President Serrano said the following:

I represent the cradle of the Maya-Quiché culture ...I represent the most indigenous country of this hemisphere; 60% of our 10 million people are descendants of that ancient civilization. The rest of us are the product of mestizaje, the mingling and remingling of two cultures that became intertwined and projected a singular identity to the world. It is a country where violence was unable to break the dignity of the indigenous man. His culture still survives with all its majesty, its values, its language and its customs intact, leaving upon all Guatemalan society the unique and indelible impression of the Maya-Quiché people.[34]

Ambassador Bernardo Neumann, Chairman of the COPREDEH Presidential Commission, said the following:

....we know that we must act immediately to preserve their ancient cultures intact, to guarantee respect for their traditions and customs, and to give them their share of the benefits of social progress, without discrimination or prejudice. The indigenous peoples of the world have been made peripheral and their legitimate aspirations forgotten...[35]

According to official data[36] in 1990 there were some 4.4 million Guatemalan Maya-Quiché, representing 48% of the total population. Of these, three million were monolingual, speaking the language of their own community: 29% speak Quiché, 25% Kakchiquel, 14% K'ekchi, and 8% Mam. The remaining 24% speak such languages as Pocomchi, Pocomam, Tzutuhil, Chortí, Canjobal, Aguateco and Maya, among others.

In six departments of Guatemala, nine out of every ten inhabitants do not speak Spanish (80% to 95% of the population is Maya-monolingual in the departments of Alta Verapaz, Sololá, Totonicapan, San Marcos, Quiché and Huehuetenango). These regions, like others where the population is predominantly Maya-Quiché, have little socioeconomic infrastructure and few of the State-supplied basic services.[37]

Government spokesmen have said that[38] there is no denying that among the indigenous population some groups live in poverty and abandonment, and have historically been the victims of economic exploitation. Such groups have been conspicuously absent from leadership positions and have not had their fair share of the benefits of development.[39]

The chapter on economic-social rights in this report describes the living conditions of the low-income population in Guatemala, which is largely made up of the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché people. The figure that puts 77% of the population below the poverty line includes almost the entire Guatemalan Maya-Quiché population, and the same is true of their situation when it comes to education, health, illiteracy, sanitary services, jobs, and the situation of women and children.


Article 66 of the Constitution, which has been in effect since 1986, states the following:

Guatemala is made up of various ethnic groups, among them indigenous groups of Maya descent. The State recognizes, respects and encourages their ways of life, customs, traditions, social organization, use of indigenous garb by men and women alike, languages and dialects.

As for their cultural identity, Article 58 states the following:

The right of the individual and the community to their cultural identity, as shaped by their values, language and customs, is hereby recognized.

However, many actions by the Guatemalan State reflect a cultural stereotype that is discriminatory. One of these is the educational system, where the history, geographic place names, language of instruction, and even the ethical values disdain or ignore those used by the majority of the population, thereby undermining their cultural integrity and their right to dignity. In January 1993, President Serrano announced that the socio-linguistic map had been completed to strengthen bilingual education by means of ambitious programs that would begin this year.

Discrimination and the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché people

The Pact of San Jose states that every citizen shall enjoy the right to participate in government and, under general conditions of equality, shall have access to the public service of his country, and that the State must respect and guarantee free and full exercise of those rights without discrimination.[40] The reality--which the Government openly acknowledges--shows that Guatemala's indigenous people cannot exercise the same rights and do not have the same opportunities that the ladino population or the people of European descent enjoy.

In the Guatemalan Legislative Assembly, only 5% of the representatives are indigenous; that percentage is even smaller, or nonexistent, in decision-making posts in the Executive Branch, the Judiciary, and decentralized State agencies.

Those who retain characteristics that identify them as Mayas--language, community structure, dress, religious practices--are not only excluded from positions of power and prestige in the nation, but -in general- are scorned by politicians, conservatives, liberals or marxists.

The overall policy of the State has been aimed at keeping them out of jobs and ignoring their "backward" traditions, to allow some of the more "civilized" to become ladinos, and to brutally "mow down any who pose a direct challenge to Creole or Ladino dominance. The general Maya response has been to push for economic advantage wherever openings or weaknesses exist, Mayanize useful Western imports, and eject the assimilated from their communities. Maya rarely pose a direct challenge to state power; they limit it through economic and cultural diversification."[41]

Since constitutional government was reinstated, the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché have exercised their rights of association, assembly and free expression, strengthening a number of organizations designed to reinforce their internal structure, their traditions and their rights in general, among them: Wakxaqib Batz, the Center for Independent Maya Organizations (COMADI), the Mutual Support Movement (MOVAM), the National Indigenous Front (FIN), the Council of Mayan Organizations of Guatemala (COMG), the Cakchiquel Center for Integral Development (COCADI), the "Majawil Q'ij" Maya Coordination Committee, the Academy of Mayan Languages, the Brotherhood of Mayan Priests, the Pastoral Indígena and others. Then there are other organizations that are more specifically aimed at dealing with economic and political problems, among them: the United Committee of Peasant Farmers (CUC), the National Council of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), the Altiplano Peasant Farmers Committee (CCA), the National Council of Displaced Persons (CONDEG), the "Runujel Junam" Council of Ethnic Peoples, the Communities of Peoples in Resistance in El Quiché and El Petén, Guatemalan Christian Action, and others. As mentioned elsewhere in this Report and in previous ones, many of these associations and their leaders are under permanent harrassment and threats.


In Section 3, concerning indigenous lands, the Constitution states that

the lands of the indigenous cooperatives, communities or any other form of communal or collective tenure of farmland, as well as the family property and low-cost housing shall be accorded special protection by the State, preferential credit and technical assistance to guarantee their ownership and development so that all inhabitants may be assured a better quality of life.

The rural population, 62.5% of whom are Maya-Quiché, are spread out among 19,000 small communities of under 2000[42] that account for less than 6% of the GDP. The minifundio peasant farmers, representing 548,000 farms averaging 1.77 hectares in size, receive 4% of the farm credit, while owners of larger tracts of land received 80%.

The case of the Cajolá peasant farmers, which has apparently been settled according to information supplied by the Government and included later in this report, illustrates the problems involved into guaranteeing communal lands. In a land dispute with a neighboring property owner, the court ordered that a community move off property to which it had title and had lived on peacefully. After many attempts to obtain justice in the courts, the peasants marched to the capital city. There they camped out, in peaceful protest, in front of the Government House and were forcibly ejected by security forces.

The Maya-Quiché peasant farmers of Cajolá had tried to avoid eviction by filing for amparo. This remedy, which the courts granted to the bosses when they objected to a salary decision taken by the Ministry of Labor, was denied in the case of the Maya-Quichés evicted in this case, as in other land disputes in San Jorge la Laguna, Sololá.

It was only after many trials and tribulations that a negotiated settlement was reached. The Maya-Quiché had waited months in makeshift encampments, where several epidemics broke out and caused the death of 12 children, a tragedy that drew national and international attention. In a note dated December 29, 1992, the Government had the following to say about the settlement:

After several months of negotiations between the Guatemalan Government and the indigenous families of Cajolá, an agreement was reached late yesterday. The Guatemalan Government purchased 35 caballerías[43] of land located in the Department of Retalhue (southeast coast) at a cost of Q. 17.5 million and is ready to begin to move the peasants, early tomorrow morning, December 23. In addition to the land, the families will have other incentives: a town center will be built, the boundaries of their property drawn, humanitarian assistance will be provided until the first harvest and technical assistance for a three-year period. The land will be financed over a ten-year period. In July of this year, these 500 families came from Cajolá, were temporarily housed in an old building that belonged to the Universidad de San Carlos (a State university), where they were living under very difficult circumstances.

The Commission is pleased that this particular situation has been settled and is confident that the Government will take the necessary measures to ensure that the provisions of the Guatemalan Constitution in this regard, which elaborate upon those recognized in the American Convention, are observed and all property rights of the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché fully recognized. The Commission must point out that members of the judiciary must not discriminate against indigenous people, who must be accorded all the legal guarantees to which they are entitled.

The Commission is equally concerned by the security forces' failure to respect the property, livestock and other property of the Guatemalan Maya-Quiché, as described in various chapters of this report.[44] From the standpoint of human rights, a small corn field deserves the same respect as the private property of a person that a bank account or a modern factory receives; a peasant farmer's identification papers are as important as the private papers of a legal office and may only be reviewed or confiscated on orders from the competent authority. All agents of the State must understand these rules and punishment of those who violate them must be the ineluctable and urgent responsibility of any democratic government.


After examining the human rights situation of the Maya-Quiché Guatemalans, who represent practically the majority of the population, the Commission must point out that certain situations persist that continue to adversely affect their human rights. Some of these situations cannot be blamed on the armed conflict; instead, they are the product of a centuries-old prejudice that Guatemalan society has been unable to overcome[45] and that has become an obstacle to its consolidation and development as a nation, country and State.

In various chapters of this report, the Commission examines human rights violations of various types. Some can be blamed on the civil strife and the country's militarization, such as the violations resulting from unlawful military recruitment, the self-defense committees, the refugees, displaced persons and communities "in resistance". Others can be blamed on political discrimination or the socio-economic and cultural conditions. In most cases the victims of these violations are Guatemalan Maya-Quiché and most occur in predominantly Maya-Quiché areas.

The Commission is convinced that human rights violations cannot be justified by trying to portray the Maya-Quiché population of Guatemala as an enemy of the State or accomplice of irregular armed groups.[46] Based on information received and its own observations, the Commission shares the view expressed by an international observer, to the effect that:

The indigenous population of Guatemala has been exhausted by so many years of fighting. The determination of the army and the guerrillas to win a final military victory flies in the face of the sentiment most prevalent in indigenous communities. The price that the indigenous people have had to pay thus far is enormous and the cost of rebuilding will be frightening. How will thousands of uprooted Indians be reincorporated into the life of the villages? Where will the money for the rebuilding come from? Who will determine the property rights of those who will return, when land is so scarce and many communities are divided over the rights of the peasants who elected one side or the other in the battle or who fled? How can there be an accounting of the dead and the disappeared? In a best-case scenario, it will take generations to heal the wounds that the war has inflicted upon Guatemala's indigenous society. How many young indigenous men will have to die in this battle where the troops on both sides are mostly Indian?[47]

In 1985, the Commission examined the crushing toll that the Government's counter-insurgency measures had taken on the human rights of indigenous populations and stated the following:

Looking at the problem from the historical perspective, the IACHR cannot ignore the fact that it was the guerrilla movement that took the war into indigenous territory, hid and protected itself in their communities, compromised the neutrality of the people of these towns and involved them in the conflict.

The Indians did not create the guerrilla movement and in general did not agree with either its strategy or its vision of the world. The guerrilla insurgency movement of the 1980s had a clearly distinctive level of leadership wherein the majority were middle-class or upper middle-class ladinos with very little experience with Maya-Quiché[48] culture and people. For them the central issue was one of class, not ethnicity.

In the words of one indigenous leader:

We have no aspirations to take state power to create a separate state. We are not fighting for our culture --we already have it. We want only our rights: the right to peace, the right to define our own path to development, the right to educate our children in our own languages and traditions, and the right to represent ourselves and our culture.[49]

In its observations on this chapter received May 12, 1993 the Government indicates among others aspects that:

In this chapter the Commission, in analyzing the armed conflict in relation to the Guatemalan Maya-Quiche, does so it quite properly. However it is necessary that the Commission should be careful in the use of the word "discrimination" so that it may not be interpreted as a Government policy.

Nor should the Commission affirm that the country is militarized which would imply that the Civil Government does not effectively control the Government, including having control over the Security Forces. Nor it is true that the Government considers that the Maya-Quiche population as enemies of the State and collaborators or accomplices of the irregular armed groups.




[33] The aboriginal cultures of Guatemala are Maya, the majority , and Quiche Culture is the largest of them, with another 22 linguistic Mayan groups. The IACHR uses the denomination Guatemalan Maya Quiche for all of them. There are also Garifunas communities of smaller populations near the Caribbean Sea.

[34] Address by the President of Guatemala at the First Ibero-American Summit of Chiefs of State, Guadalajara, Mexico, July 18, 1991. In "Panorama Centroamerica" Documents Series 5/91 INCEP. Guatemala, 1991.

[35] Statement to the Regional Conference on Human Rights, San Jose, Costa Rica, January 19, 1993.

[36] SEGEPLAN: "Social Development Plan of Action 1992-1996 and 1997-2000." General Secretariat of the National Council for Economic Planning. Guatemala, February 1992.

[37] SEGEPLAN, op.cit., 1992.

[38] Tullberg, Stephen: "Indian Guatemala 1990" Washington, D.C. 1990.

[39] Published in "El Gráfico" July 4, 1992.

[40] Article 1. Obligation to Respect Rights

1. The States Parties to this Convention undertake to respect the rights and freedoms recognized herein and to ensure to all persons subject to their jurisdiction the free and full exercise of those rights and freedoms, without any discrimination for reasons of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, or any other social condition...

Article 23. Right to Participate in Government

1. Every citizen shall enjoy the following rights and opportunities:

(a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;

(b) to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters; and

(c) to have access, under general conditions of equality, to the public service of his country.

2. The law may regulate the exercise of the rights and opportunities referred to in the preceding paragraph only on the basis of age, nationality, residence, language, education, civil and mental capacity, or sentencing by a competent court in criminal proceedings.

[41] Smith, Carol. op cit.

[42] Segeplan Plan of Action 1992-96.

[43] Approximately 1300 acres.

[44] See, in particular, chapters on Communities of populations in resistance and Refugees and displaced persons.

[45] The beginning of the pastoral letter of the Conference of Bishops (1984) which the Commission cited in its 1985 Report on Guatemala, is still current:

Descendants of the immortal Mayas, our indigenous people, deserve all our respect and admiration. They have not had it for many centuries, since the time of the conquest. Indeed, the entire socio-economic structure of Guatemala has been built upon the subjugation and impoverishment of the indigenous people.

[46] At a meeting organized by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica, Minister General José Domingo García acknowledged that human rights violations continued to occur in Guatemala because of the armed conflict in the country. AFP. May 27, 1992.

[47] Steve Tullberg: "Indian Guatemala 1990" Washington, D.C. 1990.

[48] Among the Representatives of the URNG at the "Peace Negotiations" with the government there is no Guatemalan-Mayan representative, neither is there one among the Government.

[49] Cited by Smith, C.A.: "Maya Nationalism" loc. cit.


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