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A country of striking features and a strong indigenous culture, Guatemala's natural beauty and powerful identity stand in stark contrast to its bloody past and troubled present.

Mountainous, heavily forested and dotted with Mayan ruins, lakes, volcanoes, orchids and exotic birds, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in Central America.

Its indigenous population, the Maya, make up about half of the population. Mayan languages are spoken alongside Spanish, the official tongue. Many Guatemalans are of mixed Amerindian-Hispanic origin.

In 1996 it emerged from a 36-year-long civil war which pitted leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents against the army, which - backed by the US - waged a vicious campaign to eliminate the guerrillas.

More than 200,000 people - most of them civilians - were killed or disappeared.

Despite an official finding that 93% of all atrocities carried out during the war had been committed by the security forces, moves to bring those responsible to account started only after a long delay.

Guatemalans live in one of the most inequitable societies in the region. Poverty is particularly widespread in the countryside and among indigenous communities.

Illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition are among the highest in the region, life expectancy is among the lowest and, in common with many of its neighbors, the country is plagued by organized crime and violent street gangs. It is a major corridor for smuggling drugs from South America to the United States.

Despite talks and international mediation, a long-running territorial dispute with neighboring Belize remains unresolved. Guatemala lays claim to thousands of square kilometers of land.

A timeline explores more than 50 years of violent suppression and revolving dictatorships in the country and the role played by the U.S.  

(Sources: Amnesty International, BBC, Britannica, The Commission for Historical Clarification (“Guatemala Memory of Silence” report),, Global, The National Security Archive, Nations Encyclopedia, The New York Times).

With a population of 14 million people (estimated March 2014), Guatemala is the second most populated country in Central America (after El Salvador). Guatemala has a long history of violence, political instability, and foreign corporations exploiting the country’s natural and economic resources. There’s a marked disparity in income distribution within Guatemala, and Mayan Indians, the majority of the population, are the most impoverished. A former Spanish colony, the country has been run by an oligarchy of wealthy landowners. For decades, one of Guatemala’s most influential corporations has been the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, what some Guatemalans call el pulpo ("the octopus"). The company is the largest landowner and employer in the country, and many people have criticized it for receiving large tax breaks and using its political influence to instigate a U.S.-backed coup in 1954 that led to an era of human rights violations against Guatemalans.

Reconciliation Begins, Immunity Remains 2000–2008

In March 1999, after more than 40 years since the U.S. first financed the counter-terrorism campaign that led to thousands of civilian deaths in Guatemala's civil war, President Bill Clinton publicly apologized to Guatemalans during a short visit to the country.

In July 2005, thousands of records were discovered at the Guatemala National Police archive. The documents contain information about the 36 years of internal armed conflict that resulted in 200,000 deaths and "disappearances." Families of the victims and human rights organizations believe that the documents could lead to knowledge about the whereabouts of the "disappeared."

On July 12, 2005, the court issued a historic ruling authorizing the PDH (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission) to inspect the files and documents. The PDH is working on the restoration of the documents. With a $2 million grant from the governments of Switzerland and Sweden, archive workers are focusing on the restoration and organization of the documents.

Twelve years after the end of the civil war, impunity remains, as little progress has been made toward promoting accountability and to bringing human rights perpetrators to justice. Human rights investigators and defenders continue to be the targets of threats, and clandestine security organizations still operate with impunity.

Guatemalans continue to face high levels of violence and weak and corrupt law enforcement institutions. Sixty percent of the country lives in poverty, and the increasing levels of crime, gang violence and drug dealing show a society where inequality, racism and poverty dominate many peoples' lives.


The U.N. World Food Program is working to combat child malnutrition in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala - four of Latin America's poorest countries - amid food shortages provoked by a combination of factors including drought, low coffee prices, environmental degradation and high rural unemployment.

"They cannot withstand a lot more of this," said Dorte Ellehammer, head of U.N. food program in Guatemala. "Now we're entering this critical period because they have no food left, and they don't have the money in reserve that they would have in past years."

Jocotan's (Chiquimula region) small church-run nutritional clinic treated as many as 73 children at a time when starvation was the most acute. At the time, the extremely emaciated children reminded aid workers and experts of starvation they had seen in Africa, and the crisis reached a level not often seen in the Americas.




Guatemala has the highest rate of malnourished children in the Western Hemisphere, even higher than Haiti, the region's poorest country. The Central American nation also ranks sixth in the world for chronic malnutrition.

Malnourished children do not grow properly. Often, they are much thinner and shorter than they ought to be for their age.  Malnutrition is most prevalent in mountain villages like Jocotán and Camotán in the department of Chiquimula, east of Guatemala City. Here, most everyone is petite, the result of years of insufficient food. Most families live in adobe homes with thatched roofs and dirt floors and depend on agricultural work. 

Three-year-old Antonio, who has the weight of a 6-month-old baby, is being treated at a health center for malnourished children. Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America. (Patrick Farrell/Miami Herald). Slide show

Guatemala's malnutrition facts

  • Guatemala has the highest rate of malnutrition in Latin America and ranks sixth in the world for chronic malnutrition.
  • More than 1 million children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. An estimated 69.5 percent are indigenous children.
  • An estimated 53 percent of children who die under the age of five die as a result of complications linked to malnutrition.
  • Two national initiatives launched in 2004 aim to reduce chronic malnutrition to 25 percent from the current 49.3 percent by the year 2016.

Source: UNICEF