The election in 1950 of President Jacobo Arbenz brought about immediate agrarian reforms. Arbenz had promised that if elected he would do whatever it took in order to elevate the living standards of the greatest masses of people. By June 1954, almost 100,000 peasant families had received free land and financial assistance. Eventually, the agrarian reform affected the vast properties of the United Fruit Company. At the time, the UFCO had over 550,000 acres of bananas under cultivation. Sometime in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a CIA plan for the removal of Arbenz. He was to be replaced by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas who had been exiled to Honduras.
Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles led the conspiracy to overthrow Arbenz. Both had been formerly employed by the United Fruit Company. Also involved was E. Howard Hunt of the Watergate fame. The staging center of the assault was Miami, Florida and the CIA budgted 6 million for the invasion. The Guatemalan Army barely put up a struggle when the CIA attacked. Under intense pressure, Arbenz resigned and turned over the government to a three man junta. However, United States Ambassador to Guatemala John E. Peurifoy insisted on CIA candidate Castillo Armas. One of Armas’s first acts was to murder 8,000 members of the opposition party. Next, he repealed all of the agrarian reforms. Thus, UFCO regained all of the properties that they had lost to the peasants.
During the 1960’s, the army further consolidated it’s control over the government and minor skirmishes with guerilla groups began to occur. At the time, the first guerilla groups were ladino (mestizo) and the Indians were bystanders in the rebellion. Initially, the Indians were not interested, and they believed it to be a ladino (mestizo) problem. However, the guerillas were convinced that if they were to be successful then they needed the Indians. Slowly, they began to gain the Indians’ confidence. Eventually, the guerillas convinced them that it was also their problem. Then, in the early 1970’s, the Guerilla Army of the Poor established its roots deep in the northern Quiche Department. Other guerilla groups began to form in other areas. Often they lacked food and medicine, and often they fought with antiquated weapons. The slaughter of civilians by the army started in 1978 when over a thousand Kekchi Indians were massacred at Panzos.
The first large scale operations against the guerillas began in 1981 with the election of born-again Christian General Efrain Rios Montt. In 1974, Rios Montt was far ahead on election night when suddenly the television screens went dead across the nation. When the country awoke the next morning, and the televisions came back on the “official government” candidate had been declared winner. Rios Montt knew that if he were to become president he could not do it without becoming a Christian Evangelist. Soon, Rios Montt aligned himself with the Word Church from Eureaka, California. The leader of the church was a man named Reverend Jim Durkin. Durkin’s view of the future was amazingly accurate. He preached about the dangers of “debt capitalism” while he prepared his followers for the impending financial crash.
Once elected, Rios Montt did everything possible to wipe the Mayans off the planet Earth. His scorched-earth programs left more than one hundred thousand Indians massacred and hundreds of thousands of people being displaced. Blacklists were compiled by the Kabiles or “Secret Police,” and people who were on the list frequently disappeared in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Indiscriminate attacks on villages became common place and the ones that ran the slowest frequently were killed. Often this meant the women and children. The army reasoned that if they were running away then they must be guilty, and the Mayans ran away because they were scared for their lives.
Soon, much of the civilian population was forced to seek refuge in the forests, mountains, and jungle. Here, they faced miserable conditions. Many areas were continually bombed and raked with machine gun fire from helicopters. The Mayans were exposed to days of endless rain without cover and had little medicine, clothing, and food. Many were forced to forge for roots and when they returned to their villages in search of food they found their homes burned and their livestock killed. Cutting off the Mayans’ food supply and waiting for them to return to town, starving became the army’s strategy. As soon as they reappeared, they would be cut down by gunfire. Supporting the “Communist” guerillas was a crime that would you get shot. Even when amnesty was offered, communities were afraid to surrender because they feared that they would be forced to collaborate with the army and thus cause the deaths of those who did not surrender.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in refugee camps set up along the Mexico/Guatemala border. Even after the Indians crossed the border, they found themselves being attacked by the Kabiles troops who commonly assaulted indigenous communities. The condition in the camps were deplorable and many were eventually relocated throughout Mexico. Most found employment in agriculture.
Over a thousand women were widowed in Chichicastenango in the 1980’s. More than 4,000 citizens of Chichicastenango were believed to have been killed. In one village near Chichicastenango, called Chupol, more than a thousand were killed in one massacre alone. A census taken in 1984 in departments (counties) of Chimaltenango, El Quiche, and San Marcos found 51,144 orphans. This represented about 25,000 adults. Another census taken in January 1985 reported a total of 116,000 orphans in Guatemala. The vast majority were from the western and central highlands. A peace treaty was finally signed in 1996, putting an end to 36 years of civil war.