Guatemala: How can the cycles of violence be broken?

New Guatemalan President ex-General Pérez Molina

“It was like having to chose between cancer and AIDS.”

This is the phrase I heard frequently during a recent trip when talking with Guatemalans about the impossible choice that voters had in the elections in November 2011.

The key election issue was the escalating violence and national security. (Although one candidate highlighted a promise to get the Guatemalan soccer team to the World Cup in 2014 – always an important consideration!)

Of the final two candidates, one, Manuel Baldizón, was a multi-millionaire member of one of the most powerful business families in the Department of El Petén, who appeared to have links to narco-trafficking and the illicit acquisition of government contracts.

The other was Otto Pérez Molina,  a retired Army General implicated in the massacres of the early 1980s, and more recent political assassinations, including that of Bishop Gerardi in 1998. Pérez Molina was the commanding officer in Nebaj, Quiche during the counterinsurgency from 1982-3, when 77 Maya-Ixil villages were razed, and 3,102 civilians including elderly, women, and children were massacred.[i]

The ex-military general won the election by a narrow margin with promises of a “mano dura” (an iron fist) against the increasing violence and corruption.

Photos by Daniel Hernandez for the cover of the Catholic Church’s Historic Memory Project documenting the human rights violations during the armed conflict 1960-1996

While the Peace Accords of 1996 officially ended the 36-year armed conflict in Guatemala, the country continues to be plagued by violence, that is both directly and indirectly related to the mass crimes of the armed conflict. The  “mass crimes” include both the systematic government elimination of individual civil-society leaders considered to be threats, and the massacre of over 600 indigenous communities by the army.[ii]

Current forms of violence that are a direct consequence of the mass crimes of the 1980s include: organized crime, impunity, and lynchings. Forms of violence that are indirectly connected are petty crime, delinquency, and youth gangs.

On top of this, violence associated with the drug cartels has increased as the war against the drug cartels in Mexico has escalated and pushed the conflict into the Central American countries, particularly northern Guatemala.

And  of course, the underlying structural violence that has characterized Guatemala since colonization, that of severe poverty and inequality, continues. Over half the population lives in poverty, 49% of children are malnourished, and illiteracy remains at about 50%.

All Guatemalans have been marked by this violence, according to Willi Hugo Pérez, the Rector of SEMILLA, the Latin American Anabaptist Seminar in Guatemala City.

“The pervasive violence is evident even within the small community of people working at the seminary (about 15 people),” Rector Pérez told me. “The teenage son of one of the cook’s was acccidentally killed in a shootout between gang members, and the librarian’s sister-in-law was killed when she failed to immediately pay extortion for her small store. In the past couple of years, almost every staff member has been victim of assault, robbery, or extortion.”

“People have been traumatized, and have never been able to heal ,” according to José Luis Azurdia.  coordinator of REDPAZ, at a meeting of peace organizations in Guatemala City. REDPAZ is a peace network in Central America initiated by the Anabaptist churches and a partner of MCC. “The continuous experience of violence has normalized of the use of violence to resolve conflict and has perpetuated historical cycles of violence.”

Today in Guatemala there is a renewed interest in  the role of the church, restorative justice, and peace theology says Rector Pérez. “I have been asked to give talks about biblical and theological perspectives on peace in various churches including Nazarene, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian churches. Christians are searching for ways to respond and to live within this context of multi-layered violence.”

On January 16, fifteen Guatemalan peace organizations, both faith-based and secular, gathered at SEMILLA to begin forming a Peace Platform.

Participants voiced the need and purpose for a Peace Platform in Guatemala today: “We need to gather together to learn from each other. Reflection and action are linked together. We need to articulate a the peace-building process from  a social, rather than militarized perspective. We need to propose alternative models for peace, and these models need to come from the churches and community-based organizations.”


In an historic step forward, a judicial process against the ex-General Rios Montt was initiated on January 26. He is charged with mass crimes for the period when he was dictator (March, 1982- August, 1983), including over 100 massacres, 1771 deaths, 1485 young women sexually assaulted, and the forced displacement of more than 30,000 people.[iii]

[i]; EH, Guatemala Memoria del Silencio, vols.1-12 (Guatemala City: CEH, 1999); Violencia y Genocidio en Guatemala (Guatemala City: FyG Editores, 2003).

[ii] Informe REHMI: Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica, 1998,

Albane Prophette, Claudia Paz, José Garcia Noval,and Nieves Gomez, Violence in Guatemala After The Armed Conflict, 2003

This entry was posted in By country, Guatemala, Urban Peacebuilding. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Guatemala: How can the cycles of violence be broken?

  1. ellen says:

    It is hard to imagine that peace could settle in a country so torn by decades and centuries of conflict and strife. Yet, that is the message that Jesus brings. Blessings to all the MCC and other peace workers who continue to share the message that there is another way. Peace IS possible.

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