The Guatemalan Civil War And Its Impact On Indigenous Communities

Sreya Chadalavada

Rich with culture and history, Guatemala is a beautiful country located in Central America. It is home to rainforests, volcanoes, and high mountain ranges and is the most populous country in the region. Guatemala can be distinguished from its neighboring countries by the large indigenous population inhabiting the rural highlands. Although Guatemala has lots to offer, the country’s history of authoritarian rule and military regimes has made the political and economic recovery process exceedingly difficult. The country is consistently ranked lowest in education and highest in poverty compared to other Central American countries. This is likely partially because Guatemala has a large indigenous population that has been historically disadvantaged and often deprived of the educational opportunities available to nonindigenous populations.


Guatemala endured a 36 year long civil war fought from 1960 to 1996 between the Guatemalan government and leftist rebel groups. It was fueled by disputes over land, racial discrimination, and political exclusion. Because the insurgency was largely supported by indigenous peoples and Ladino peasants, the Mayan population was extensively attacked through “the burning of villages, massacres and assassinations of leaders, in order to ensure that collective action became impossible.” The widespread killings of Mayans is considered to be a genocide as an estimated 140,000 to 200,000 people were killed or forcefully “disappeared” during the conflict. In 1996, the war came to an end after the Peace Accords were signed by the government and guerrillas. An estimated 1 million people were left displaced and over 450 Maya villages were destroyed. The widespread human rights violations against indigenous peoples disrupted growth and development for 36 years. Communities are still suffering, as they are still disproportionately affected by extreme poverty and marginalization. In addition to ending the war, the Peace Accords acknowledged racism in education perpetuated by the poor treatment of indigenous students, unequal access to schools, and discriminatory representation of indigenous culture in school curriculums. It laid out a multi-step plan towards achieving education equality by increasing schooling in indigenous and rural areas and decentralizing the education system. While changes were made, including the reintroduction of bilingual instruction, several demands from the Peace Accords remain unfulfilled. The promotion of bilingual education was huge for indigenous students because prior to the signing of the Peace Accords, Spanish was the official, and only, language of instruction in schools. This rule was instituted in 1965 through the Education Law which established Spanish as the country’s official language.

Although Guatemala has made great strides in improving literacy and decreasing poverty rates, they still remain among the lowest in the region. According to the World Bank, 59.3% of the population lives below the poverty line, and 23% lives in extreme poverty. Examining indigenous populations specifically, 79% live below the poverty line and 40% live in extreme poverty. According to ENCOVI data, the average adult has approximately 4.28 years of schooling, even though primary education in Guatemala is both free and compulsory. In order to make substantial improvements we need to have a better understanding of the relationship that exists between education and poverty in Guatemala, as well as other social and economic factors that impact them.

Image Source:

Wikimedia Commons "Exhumation in the ixil triangle in Guatemala": https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Exhumation_in_the_ixil_triangle_in_Guatemala.jpg

Research Sources:

1. “Guatemala: Violence and Inequality Still Blocking Solutions for IDPs.” IDMC, (2009): 1-11.

2. Bellino, Michelle J. "So that we do not fall again: History education and citizenship in “postwar” Guatemala." Comparative Education Review 60, no. 1 (2016): 58-79.