In 1986, Vinicio Cerezo, the first civilian president of Guatemala in 20 years,
took power. This return to civil rule sparked a decade of talks but showed no
real change for the majority of society.
Though the 1996 presidential elections continued to reflect the country┤s increasing
lack of faith in the electoral process, with over 63 percent of registered voters
staying at home, the change of government that resulted did serve to refocus the discussions and relight the possibilities
The new president, ┴lvaro Arz˙ and his party, PAN the National Advancement Party,
met with the Unidad Revolutionaria National Guatemalteca (URNG) guerrilla leaders
with the aim of reaching an agreement that would bring to an end the bloody 36-year civil war that had claimed 150,000 lives
and resulted in the ┤disappearance┤ of another 50,000, most of which were attributed
to the government and its premilitary allies.
The resulting agreement, The Peace Accords, signed on December 29th 1996 between
the Guatemalan government and URNG, gave Guatemala a glimmer of hope, officially ending the civil war and laying the path
for creating a democracy.
The core purpose of the peace accords was
- to investigate previous human rights violations
through a Truth Commission overseen by MINUGUA (the UN mission to Guatemala) to recognize the identity of indigenous people
- to eliminate discrimination and promote socio-economic
development for all Guatemalans.
(For full details regarding the content of the 1996 Peace Accords, check out
the website http://www.usip.org/library/pa/guatemala/pa_guatemala.html)
Though the aims of the peace accords were undeniably ambitious, progress was
laboriously slow during the Arz˙ years. In one of the biggest set-backs, the electorate narrowly turned down a proposal to
amend the constitution to allow for greater Maya rights in May 1999. Turnout was woeful - around 18 per cent - with most of
the indigenous community failing to vote, a collective rejection that underlined the deep-rooted animosity felt by most Maya
towards a political system that had exploited them for centuries.
Though Arz˙ presided over a token reduction in armed forces numbers, their influence
and position as the nation's real power brokers remained unchallenged throughout his term. Blamed for 80 percent of the atrocities
of the civil war, army officers implicated in orchestrating massacres successfully
avoided prosecution - Arz˙ simply dared not touch them. Then, in April 1998, two days after publishing a long-awaited investigation
into wartime slaughters, Bishop Juan Geradi was bludgeoned to death in his own garage in Guatemala City, an event which stunned
the nation. Though Guatemalans had long been accustomed to horrific levels of political violence, most thought the days of disappearances and death squads were over - as one newspaper put it, "This wasn't
supposed to happen. Not any more."
Despite this horrific killing, levels of political violence did fall in the Arz˙
years. However, there was an alarming upsurge in the crime rate, with soaring
incidences of petty theft, muggings, robberies, drug- and gang-related incidents and murders. In 1997, despite its relatively
small population, Guatemala had the fourth-highest incidence of kidnapping in the world, with over 1000 people being abducted.
A new police force, the PNC, was retrained by experts from Spain, Chile and the USA, but quickly gained a reputation for corruption
and ineffectualness as bad as its predecessor.
According to a recent report by MINUGUA, the UN mission established in Guatemala
to verify the Peace Accords, key commitments of the Peace Accords and the Clarification Commission’s recommendations
regarding the armed forces have not yet been fully implemented. (United Nations
Verification Mission in Guatemala, Fourth Report on the Verification of Compliance with the Peace agreements, 12/1999).
Now, with most of the commitments of the accords not yet fulfilled, many are
wondering if the process has stagnated, or even started moving backward. Society
continues to feel the effect of military presence, poverty, threats to human rights, and social unrest. For example, while
a ban on military training (IMET) to Guatemala has been in place since 1990, there are fears that this decision could be reversed
easily in the current political atmosphere, a decision that would greatly affect the safety of much of Guatemalan society.
The Peace Accords were in principal a huge leap forward for Guatemala, but without
enforcement of their implementation, they will amount to nothing.