Zoe Smith is a senior with majors in Politics and Chinese Studies


Latin America has often been the focus of international attention, particularly in the eyes of the United States. As neighbors to the South, there has always been evolving foreign policy between the U.S. and Latin America. As we evaluate the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords, the history of policy preceding and the outcome of the 1997 Peace Accords will come to light. The checkered past of the United States intervention in Latin America plays an important role in events leading up to the Peace Accord. Exploring this past leads to a new understanding of deep-seated conflicts in Guatemala, and the nature of the Peace Accords.


In 1944 Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected as president following a coup staged to depose dictator Juan Fredrico Ponce Vaides. Jacobo Arbenz was well supported by the people, his popularity showing through his success through democratic means. Unfortunately, the United States had hawkish policy focused on Latin America and any seemingly leftist political movement. This was because of events on the international stage, namely the Cold War. Upon review, the nature of Guatemala was not communist or anywhere near such radical ideology. This did not prevent the Eisenhower Administration and Congress from supporting military leaders in a coup in Guatemala through the CIA.

The efforts of United States lead to the strengthening of elites and military leaders in Guatemala. Underneath these leaders, the normalcy of violence and suppression began. The Guatemalan government was particularly stringent with revolutionists, and their response to guerilla groups horrified the international community. A 36-year civil war between these guerilla groups and the Guatemalan government led to the mass murder of thousands of Guatemalans. Human rights protection decayed as the government targeted indigenous Mayans in the Mayan Highlands where many guerrilla groups hid.

The United States, despite their role previously supporting military leaders, also agreed it was time to return power to the citizenship. They also backed United Nations peacekeeping actions in Guatemala (so long as monetary aid translates as support). The government sponsored genocide of Guatemalan citizens eventually led to the 1996 Peace Accord which was introduced and supported by the United Nations.

The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord

After 36 years of violence, the 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accord was established with the signing of a cease fire agreement between the Guatemalan government and URNG in 19. The URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca) was a leading group in the revolution against the government. Like many guerilla groups during this period, they established themselves in the Mayan Highlands and intertwined their struggle against the government with the historical trials of the indigenous Mayan people. Acknowledging their disadvantages, URNG took advantage of the opportunity to achieve political change through peace talks. The Guatemalan government was brought to the table through international influence and potential loss of foreign aid.

After this cease fire occurred, the United Nations began to gather information on the conflict and those affected. The Peace Accord promoted the use of various organizations to establish accountability for human rights violations, provide historical accounts, and verify the truth behind events that were considerably damaging for indigenous peoples and other communities. REHMI, organized by the Catholic Church, gathered 5,000 testimonies representing 25,000 victims… RHEMI has also identified more than 300 mass graves across the country, which the army had previously kept hidden.” (Wilson, 1997) These investigations were the culminations of efforts to provide future accountability for human rights protection and change the status quo of hidden government violence.

As investigations continued, the conversation around government reform progressed. The 1996 Peace Accord consists of a few necessary agreements, such as the ceasefire in 1996, and an exhaustive list of government reforms to be carried out. These reforms and agreements came about through discussions with various non-government organizations, URNG, and the Guatemalan government. The Peace Accord established provided a plan of reforms on human rights, the judicial system, economical development, military power, and various government structures.. This study of the 1996 Peace Accord provides insight on the nature of peace talks and the scope of the effort in Guatemala.

Though the efforts to provide future reform for Guatemala were considerable, the Peace Accord had fundamental imperfections that would dampen the effect of this policy. A core issue with the Peace Accord is that it failed to empower citizens, which in turn left them without the ability to hold the government accountable for reforms. There were some notable efforts on part of the Peace Accord, such as the Assembly of Civil Society. The Assembly of Civil Society attempted to represent all civil sectors, however, like other programs that were meant to give a voice to the citizens in these peace talks, it was ineffective. The Assembly was never truly representative of the people and failed to have lasting impact once implementation began.

Another failure of the Peace Accord was its inability to prioritize key issues for reform and implement timely solutions. This failure was due to the sheer scope of the policy and the lack of vision for government restructuring on the part of the administration. Peace talk solutions that address historical, systemic issues are more likely to have lasting impact, however, simple, practical solutions are more likely to be implemented. Had the Peace Accord prioritized human rights protection and gave clear instruction on how to restructure government institution to suit these priorities, it may have worked.

While there is much to be said in terms of what could be improved on, the 1996 Peace Accord did have a positive impact in Guatemala. Despite large adversity from the Guatemalan government and elites, or even the URNG at times, the Peace Accord brought forth a cease-fire after 36-years of violence. Furthermore, the revolutionists who disarmed were reintegrated into society and the violence of 36-years acknowledged.  The Truth Commission, which gathered data in subsequent years on the nature and sources of violence, provided a stark account of government activities.  The lack of implementation of reforms has meant a continued abuse of human rights and government power, however, the 1996 Peace Accord exhibits the potential of peace keeping policy if executed effectively. For this reason, policy such as this must be studied and understood to bring about lasting impact in the future.


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind