Confused About Genocide in Guatemala? Apparently You’re Not Alone.


Amazingly enough, there seems to be some confusion about whether or not genocide actually occurred in Guatemala’s lengthy civil war (1960-1996). This unlikely debate has come to life due to the ongoing trial of former dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity committed during his brief but highly violent reign (1982-1983). The Council on Hemispheric Affairs recently published a number of articles regarding the Ríos Montt trial and the genocide in Guatemala.

These articles sparked debate both on COHA’s website and social media outlets, with some users declaring that genocide did not occur in Guatemala. As one reader has pointed out, ‘killing’ and ‘genocide’ are not, in fact, synonyms (so we cannot talk about the ‘genocide’ in Guatemala because what occurred were really just mass ‘killings’). According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, genocide “goes beyond a crime against life since it constitutes a crime against humanity by someone who intentionally seeks to totally or partially destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Moreover, Article II, Paragraph 109 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948—which, we must stress, was ratified by the Guatemalan State Decree 704 on November 30, 1949—states “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, such as:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

On this basis, the two fundamental elements of the crime are: intentionality and that the acts committed include at least one of the five previously cited in the [list] above.”


So now that we have a better idea of what ‘genocide’ actually entails, let us be very clear: the authors of COHA’s recent analyses on Guatemala have not come to the conclusion, arbitrarily and independently, that genocide occurred in Guatemala. The United Nations—an international organization with a stated aim of facilitating the protection of human rights—determined that genocide occurred in Guatemala. Through the Accord of Oslo on June 23, 1994, the United Nations with the cooperation of the Government of the Republic of Guatemala formed the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) in order to “clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality” the acts of violence and potential human rights violations connected to the armed conflict in Guatemala; “the Commission was not established to judge…but rather to clarify the history of the events of more than three decades of fratricidal war.”

The commission included two Guatemalans who survived their country’s period of brutal violence, so it is not possible to argue that the commission itself was unfamiliar with on-the-ground situations. The commission heard thousands of testimonies, listened to former heads of state as well as military and guerilla leaders, and read documents from a variety of civil organizations. The commission’s 1999 report, titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” represents nearly a year of research and investigation.

Based on their investigation, the CEH was able to confirm that between 1981 and 1983 the army identified groups of the Mayan population as “the internal enemy” and thereby “defined a concept of internal enemy that went beyond guerrilla sympathisers, combatants or militants to include civilians from specific ethnic groups.” The CEH also concluded that the repetition of destructive acts “directed systematically against the Mayan population”—including minors “who could not possibly have been military targets”—“demonstrates that the only common denominator for all the victims was the fact that they belonged to a specific ethnic group and makes it evident that these acts were committed ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part’” these groups, a direct violation of Article II Paragraph 109 of the Convention previously quoted. The CEH’s investigation showed that the Guatemalan military carried out at least 626 massacres, nearly each of which was preceded by a careful gathering of the community, usually by surrounding the community or by exploiting situations in which people were already gathered for celebrations or market days.  Of the more than 200,000 people killed during the armed conflict in Guatemala, 83 percent were of Mayan descent. The commission also discovered that, along with the killings, the military or its Civil Patrols “systematically committed acts of extreme cruelty, including torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading actions,” in order to terrorize the population and destroy the foundations of social cohesion, particularly when victims were forced to witness or execute these acts themselves. This deliberate destruction of social cohesion directly indicates intent to annihilate the group, both physically and spiritually.


Based on the discoveries made during their investigation, CEH determined that genocide had occurred in Guatemala, specifically during the months and weeks that General José Efraín Ríos Montt acted as head of state. Specifically, the CEH concluded that:

…agents of the State of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived [in the Quiche region].  This conclusion is based on the evidence that, in light of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the killing of members of Mayan groups occurred (Article II.a), serious bodily or mental harm was inflicted (Article II.b) and the group was deliberately subjected to living conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part (Article II.c). The conclusion is also based on the evidence that all these acts were committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” groups identified by their common ethnicity, by reason thereof, whatever the cause, motive or final objective of these acts may have been (Article II, first paragraph).

(***6/4/2013 update: The original posting included hyperlinks to the report for reader access.  However, since 5/28/2013 the American Association for the Advancement of Science has deleted the two reports from their website.  If readers would like a copy of the English version of the report please contact COHA.  Currently, this author is unable to find a more accessible option online.)

The Guatemalan civil war and the other bloody conflicts that took place in Central America throughout the 1960s-1980s/1990s have been widely covered by COHA. We welcome a debate on whether a particular leader, such as Ríos Montt, either ordered or was aware of the mass human rights violations that took place during this period. Nevertheless, these crimes specifically targeting the Ixil people in Guatemala occurred. Individuals who do not believe that this happened—either due to a lack of information or because of personal support for Ríos Montt—are entitled to their own opinion. But denying that genocide took place in Guatemala, given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, raises grave questions over the motives of those challenging the grim reality that the Guatemalan ‘Silent Genocide’ did, in fact, occur.

 Laura Powell, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

For additional news or analysis on Latin America, please go to: Latin News

5 thoughts on “Confused About Genocide in Guatemala? Apparently You’re Not Alone.

  • May 25, 2013 at 6:29 am

    I read the article and was surprised on how many articles have mostly fallen into the same trap of not doing adequate research before putting together an article. Something so simple that a 10 minute google search can do and yet, the author didn't seem to do her homework. That alone discredits anything that this article might hope to gain by being published. It's quite a shame.

    Without getting into any kind of "he is or isn't guilty", the entire article and its conclusions are based SOLELY on the findings of the Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) investigation. The article clearly states above "The commission was led by three Guatemalans who survived their country’s period of brutal violence, so it is not possible to argue that the commission itself was unfamiliar with on-the-ground situations." A quick google search on the CEH will prove this to be not true. Wikipedia, for example, among other websites confirm who the 3 members of the committee were: "Christian Tomuschat, a German international lawyer, and the Guatemalans Alfredo Balsells Tojo, a jurist, and Otilia Lux de Cotí". ( Already this is strike one of untruths on the article since one member (the lead moderator of the investigation none the less) is a German Lawyer who isn't Guatemalan or wasn't in Guatemala during the civil war as he was busy holding the Chair of Public Law at the University of Bonn in Germany. I can't even find an article that confirms that he spoke Spanish. The second member, Alfredo Balsells Tojo, had numerous claims of being an extreme leftist on the verge of being a communist, although it wasn't proven. Yet this creates an imbalance among the three left winged members of the group to conduct the investigation objectively. The last member of the CEH, Otilia Lux de Cotí, is an indigenous woman who is from Quiche, the region where the atrocities against her people took place. Her background doesn't sound very neutral to be an ideal candidate to conduct an unbiased investigation into over 30 years of civil war in Guatemala. I don't see how this 3 member team could have conducted a complete and thorough investigation without any bias nor without anyone fact checking their findings.

    My personal opinion of the civil war in general has never been based on a seemingly biased CEH investigation, but based on interviews from friends and family who lived in Guatemala during the tumultuous time the atrocities took place and personal experiences. Unfortunately, they all point to the same thing. There has been no concrete evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that all of these atrocities that occurred were committed by the Guatemalan army, especially since there are confirmed reports in which guerrillas wore military uniforms, used the same weapons and in repeated attempts tried to pass themselves off as the army. Forget going into the details of proof of tangible evidence that confirms that Rios-Montt gave the direct order to eliminate the Ixil race. Forget about trying to clarifying why he gave the order specifically to wipe out the Ixil ethnicity out of the around 20 mayan ethnicities. Forget about the courts' broad definition of Genocide in which it's interpretation could cover most incidents in which the killing of more than one member of a group loosely falls under the genocide term. No need to discuss things that can be open to interpretation. Nevertheless, there is no proof (although there is plenty of documentation of the sort) that all attacks that Rios-Montt is being tried for in court were committed by the army under his direct order, since they could as well have been committed by the Guerrillas… many of them were. The Guatemalan army fought a war, not zeroed in on "mass killings" as the article claims. They were fighting back and trying to eliminate an enemy that was the definition of terrorists and just like in all wars, atrocities occurred from both sides.

    Contrary to what the article claims, I have not met "any individual who do not believe that this happened" (with the killings). There is no "confusion". Many of us do not agree with the legal way that this is being processed in court just to get a conviction, ANY conviction from ANYONE, just to gain political points with the international community. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Rios-Montt is innocent, but if this is to be done correctly, everyone who committed these crimes, SPECIFIC CRIMES, should be brought to court and tried in the correct legal manner. This includes both the Guerrillas and the Army members for crimes that they committed. This has become the perfect storm of a desperate witch hunt and a three ringed circus that has done nothing but open up old wounds among the Guatemalan people, divided them once again, and set back the social advances that the country had achieved in the past 20 years. Now as a country we need to take the necessary and due process steps for our country and its people to heal, whether it be more days in court or the conviction of an 86 year old general.

    • May 25, 2013 at 8:33 am



  • May 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I spent several years covering Guatemala during the civil war period. I visited there first in 1976 and was in Central America constantly from 1984 until 1994 and Guatemala was part of my beat. GENOCIDE DID TAKE PLACE IN GUATEMALA as defined Article II, Paragraph 109 of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948. There is no doubt that the guerrillas kidnapped and assassinated people and did wear uniforms in most cases – as is usual for any insurgency hoping to legitimize itself and gain belligerency status. But the State operatives also dressed in civilian clothes and there are several cases in which its troops dressed as guerrillas, stopping buses and the like in order to determine who was sympathetic to the insurgency. There is no doubt that the overwhelming number of people who were killed in the conflict were killed by the Guatemalan state. It is probably about 9 to 1. That said, many people believe that the numbers of people killed in Guatemala does not reach the bar of what is normally considered to be genocide. That is an arguable point, and I respect it. But according to the UN definition, there clearly was genocide in Guatemala. Y punto y nada mas.

  • May 26, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    What Jeremy said does not mean Genocide. It was a War. It{s not about the number of people that were killed, it{s about the fact that the intent was to stop the guerrilla, not eliminate the Ixil population. As for the article, saying that it is Genocide because 83% of the casualties were of Mayan descent is like saying that the USA committed genocide against the British in the Civil War because most of the people killed on the British's side were in fact British. Their intent was to fight off the enemy, not eliminate the British. It is not uncommon for 83% of the victims to be of Mayan descent, when over 90% of the population in the rural areas (where the conflict mostly took place) are of Mayan descent. Not to mention that a lot of military personnel as well as civilian supporters who took up arms against the Guerrillas were also of Mayan descent. I'm afraid this article is just a lot of disinformation and erroneous assumptions.

  • June 1, 2013 at 10:54 pm

    There was genocide, no question about it. There were many abuses of power from the military people also, no question about it. Most of the killings were done to the indigenous populations, no question about it too! The military passed itself as guerrillas, no question about it. Why? Land, natural resources and power in the hands of a few, and the military machinery trying to get in the picture also… with power, land and money. Why the conflict? as old as the human race and as old as ambition and greed permit. Do we need to denounce it? YES by all means! I congratulate the people involved trying to bring peace WITH JUSTICE. The two cannot be separated and if left to "forgetfulness" the greedy will always succeed no matter where from, or allied with people just like them. Laura and Jeremy, keep on!


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