The administrations led by generals KE Laugerud García (1974-78) and FR Lucas García (1978-82) continued to express the traditional alliance between the oligarchy and the armed forces that dominated the political life of Guatemala since the coup of 1954. The elections remained characterized by fraud and low popular participation (despite the compulsory voting for the non-illiterate, which however did not exceed 50% of the population), while the terrorist activities of the far-right death squads, committed since the 1960s to repress any manifestation of dissent; according to numerous complaints, these groups maintained close ties with the armed forces and with the main regime party, the Movimiento de Liberación Nacional (MLN), which called itself the “party of organized violence”.
From the mid-seventies there was a notable growth in the phenomenon of guerrilla warfare, which was taking root especially among the Indians settled in the western highlands.
Born from 1961-62 in the north-eastern regions, on the initiative of the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, of Castro’s inspiration) and of the PGT (Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo, name assumed in 1962 by the Communist Party, outlawed since 1954), the guerrillas had suffered a severe repression, but in the 1970s two new groups, the EGP (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres) and the ORPA (Organización Revolucionaria del Pueblo en Armas), established solid ties with the Indian population. Of Mayan language and culture, the Indians of Guatemala constitute the indigenous population of Central America that has most resisted the process of Hispanization. This process gave rise to a hybridization (ladinos, from which emerges the traditional dominant oligarchy) which prevails in the eastern regions but which has remained clearly a minority in the highlands; here the Indians, mostly poor peasants, subject to heavy living conditions, with rates of malnutrition, infant mortality and illiteracy far above the national average, have been effectively excluded from political life, but have maintained a strong cultural identity.
According to Localcollegeexplorer, the counter-insurgency activity of the army, which had already caused many thousands of deaths in the 1960s, intensified with the growth of the guerrillas, becoming increasingly violent and indiscriminate, especially against the Indian population. The continuous violations of human rights caused a suspension of US military aid in 1977 (of which Guatemala had been the largest beneficiary among the countries of Central America until then), but this was offset by the influx of huge aid from Israel.
From the end of the seventies the worsening of the economic situation, the extension of the guerrilla and the growing divisions within the armed forces and the oligarchy caused a crisis of the old ruling bloc which was expressed, among other things, in the tendency to fragmentation. and the decline of traditional parties, including the MLN. The disputed elections of March 1982 were thus followed by the coup of gen. E. Ríos Montt, who suspended the constitution and the parties, dissolved Congress, initiated a restructuring of the political system and launched a violent offensive against the guerrillas, whose four main groups had given life in February 1982 to a unified command, the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca). A member of a Protestant fundamentalist sect, Ríos Montt accentuated the tension between the military and the Catholic Church (which denounced the harsh repression), while the persistence of conflicts within the armed forces (Ríos Montt was mainly supported by a group of young officers) to its overthrow in August 1983 by gen. OH Mejía Victores. He continued the violent counter-insurgency campaign in the Indian regions, which in the first half of the 1980s caused tens of thousands of deaths, the destruction of hundreds of villages, the transfer of the population to ” protected villages ” controlled by the army, the conscription forced of nearly one million civilians in the so-called Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (PAC), the flight of another half million in part abroad (especially in Mexico), in part in other areas of the Guatemala, as ” internal refugees ”. At the same time, the armed forces were strengthened (military and effective expenditure increased by more than 100% between 1980 and 1985), while from 1983 there was a partial resumption of US military aid (alongside the continuation of Israeli ones).
On the political level, Ríos Montt and Mejía Victores, who governed by decrees, put the reconstitution of parties on a new basis, favoring the birth in 1983-84 of new formations and the further fragmentation of the old ones; the elections for the constituent assembly, held in July 1984 under the strict control of the military, thus saw for the first time the downsizing of the traditional right as a whole and the rise of two moderate forces, the Democracia Cristiana Guatemalteca (DCG) and the ‘ Unión del Centro Nacional (UCN), which obtained nearly half of the seats. After the approval in May 1985 of the new constitution, which extended the presidential term from four to five years, the general elections of November 1985 brought the Christian Democrat MV Cerezo Arévalo (elected in the second round in December) to the presidency of the unicameral DCG won 51 seats out of 100, followed by UCN with 22 seats. Before leaving the government, with the entry into force of the constitution in January 1986, the military passed an amnesty decree that guaranteed them impunity for crimes committed after March 1982, and made it clear that even after the establishment of the civil administration they would have maintained wide margins of autonomy in all fields connected with national security.
Although the harsh repression of the first half of the 1980s had blocked the growth of the guerrilla, this continued even after 1985, together with the violence of the army and death squads: at the end of the decade there were about one million refugees, including interns and external, and the overall toll of nearly thirty years of ” low intensity warfare ” probably approached one hundred thousand dead; assassinations, torture and ” disappearances ” still continued to cause many victims, so much so that the United States, which had increased economic and military aid to Guatemala from 1986, suspended the latter again in December 1990. Central America, signed in Esquipulas (City of Guatemala) in August 1987 by the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica included, among other things, the opening of peace talks between the government and the URNG, but these were long hindered by military resistance and repeated coup threats; only in 1991 was it possible to initiate an effective negotiation process with the participation, for the first time, of officers from the armed forces.
On the international level, the advent of the civil administration allowed to unblock the long-standing dispute over Belize, which worsened in 1981 with the achievement of the independence of the former British colony. In December 1986 Guatemala re-established diplomatic relations with London (interrupted by 1963) and in September 1991 reached an agreement in principle with Belize for the definitive closure of the dispute.
Internally, Cerezo first of all tried to avert the coup threats, maintaining good relations with the armed forces and with the dominant economic groups; he therefore approached with extreme caution the age-old problem of agrarian reform and the serious social situation, despite the fact that almost two thirds of the population were below the official level of poverty and the illiteracy rate among adults was still close to 50%. The international crisis of the 1980s – in particular the poor performance of the terms of trade for countries, such as Guatemala, exporters of primary products – then hit the economy heavily and by the end of the decade per capita income had fallen to the levels of 1969.
The presidential and legislative elections of November 1990, still characterized by an almost exclusive presence of conservative or moderate parties, saw a very low turnout (they were the first since 1956 in which there was no obligation to vote for the non-illiterate): at the President of the Republic was elected (in the second round, in January 1991) J. Serrano Elías, candidate of the Movimiento para Acción y Solidaridad (MAS), new moderate formation; of the 116 seats in Congress, 41 went to UCN, 28 to DCG, 18 to MAS, while the decline of the old right continued. Serrano established a center-right minority government, continuing the moderate policy of his predecessor.