No Peace Dividend for Guatemala and the Irony of this Failure

Michael Lindberg

May, 2010

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords represented the culmination of many years of effort by Guatemalans and a host of international actors. The well-documented Guatemalan history between 1954 and 1996 testifies to the almost insurmountable challenges faced by those striving to finalize the peace accords. The deep-seated societal divisions between the Ladino and indigenous peoples are equally well documented. In 1996, Guatemala, having epitomized an "intractable conflict," [1] was on the road to reconciliation. Unfortunately the post-agreement euphoria has been followed by post-agreement disappointment.

The Human Development Index

Before exploring the process leading to the post-agreement disappointment, a look at the numbers from the Human Development Index tells the story of the post-accord era. In 1990 Guatemala ranked 55th in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI). By 1996, immediately prior to the adoption of the Peace Accords, the HDI ranking had slipped to 112. Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador ranked below Guatemala. By 2006 Guatemala slipped to 118th, trailing each of its Central American neighbors. In the latest report, 2009, Guatemala ranked 122nd. [2]. The downward spiral in the rankings speaks to the failure of Guatemala to reap any peace dividend from the accords. More alarmingly may be the decline in its rankings against developing countries throughout Central America and the world at large.

The Negotiation History 1987-1996

While the history of the peace negotiations is well documented, some review of the process leading up to the 1996 Peace Accords gives the context to this discussion. In 1987, following the second series of meetings of Central American leaders in Equipulas, Guatemala, President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo established the Commission on National Reconciliation ("CNR"). While little progress was made in the ensuing two years, in 1989, the Grand National Dialogue was undertaken under the leadership of Bishop Quezada. The principal insurgent organization, the, United National Guatemala Revolutionary (UNRG), was not permitted to participate; Mayan groups and women were also excluded and the influential Coordinating Committee on Farming Commercial Industrial and Financial Association (CACIF) boycotted the proceedings. Despite the absent groups, these meetings reflected the first open, public discussion of issues of conflict and underlying issues in recent Guatemalan history. Nonetheless, the boycott by the CACIF foreshadowed things to come.

The year 1990 brought "secret meetings" in Oslo, Norway under auspices of the Lutheran World Federation following several years of quiet efforts by Paul Wee, its General Secretary. Wee undertook months of shuttle diplomacy, eventually resulting in secret meetings, between UNRG and the Commission on National Reconciliation at a Norwegian government-owned chalet. The resulting Oslo Accord (The Basic Agreement on the Search for Peace by Political Means), created a framework that lasted through six years of on and off negotiations until the signing of the Final Peace Accords on December 29, 1996.

The Oslo Accord established an unprecedented series of meetings in 1990 between the UNRG and five groups representing the civil society of Guatemala: political parties, the Coordinating Committee of Farming, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations, (CACIF), religious and human rights groups, labor and small business. The military had acquiesced to the process, believing that the UNRG, so weakened militarily, sought only a face-saving accord, rather than a discussion of broad social, political and economic issues. The extent of the discussions between the UNRG and the various groups representing civil society belied the military's perceptions. Thus, the military attempted to halt the meetings but was unsuccessful in doing so. All groups, except the CACIF, issued joint statements with the UNRG following the meetings, with the CACIF choosing to issue a separate statement. Like the National Dialogue, CACIF actions foreshadowed the final negotiations.

The progress of 1990 was followed in 1991 by a series of meetings hosted by the government of Mexico and the issuance of the Mexico Accord, reincorporating the substantive issues of the Oslo Accord, as well as a framework for negotiation of both substantive and procedural issues. However progress remained uneven. While the parties continued to meet under the auspices of the Mexican government, little progress was made until the commencement of the UN mediated process in 1994.

In 1994, under the auspices of the United Nations and the "Group of Friends," (Colombia, Mexico, Norway, Spain, the United States, and Venezuela), bilateral talks began between the government and the UNRG. "The Framework Agreement of the Resumption of Negotiations between the Government of Guatemala and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity" created a role for civil society and led to the formation of the Civil Society Assembly (ASC) The ASC consisted of those groups that previously participated in the Oslo Consultations, as well as representatives of the Mayan peoples. However, the CACIF declined to participate. The ASC was asked to provide advice on 5 of the 6 general topics in the negotiations, including the critical issue of social and economic reform intended to broaden economic and social rights and opportunities for the indigenous peoples. Bishop Quezada chaired the ASC, which held extensive public deliberations on the issues presented for its consideration. After many drafts and lengthy discussions, the ASC reached consensus positions on five issues, which were presented to the parties to the negotiations.

As in the case of the Grand National Dialogue in 1989, the CACIF chose not to meet openly with the representatives of civil society. It refused to participate in the open, public discussions of the pressing need for economic and agrarian land reform or the broad spectrum of indigenous rights. It refused to negotiate its positions. Instead the CACIF chose to talk, in closed-door sessions, directly with the Group of Friends, the UN and the UNRG. While doing so, it brought strong pressure to bear on both the military and the government to prevent any erosion of the economic interests of members of the CACIF. While the ASC was successful in a number of areas, particularly in the crucial areas of land, tax and economic reform, the CACIF effectively prevented real change. By refusing to participate in the otherwise broad-based ASC and the issues underlying the conflicts dating back well prior to 1953, the CACIF worked to spoil, not the negotiation process, but to spoil the likelihood of the social and economic reforms necessary to realize the intended purpose of the Peace Accords.

Why the Negotiating History is Important

The monumental efforts to end the open military conflict and restore a semblance of democracy cannot be underestimated, nor undervalued. This critique is not criticism. It seeks instruction from the events only possible with the benefit of hindsight. John Darby and Roger McGinty offer twelve propositions necessary to successful negotiation and preservation of peace accords. [3] Of the twelve, three (numbers 1, 7 and 8) may help us understand the longer-term consequences of the negotiation process. First, number 1, says that a lasting agreement is impossible unless it actively involves those with the power to bring it down by violence. The second, number 7, asserts that a peace process does not end with a peace accord. Lastly, number , states that peace is a development issue.

On the surface, Proposition 1 seems out of place. All parties seem to have been involved. Moreover, the parties have not resumed armed violence some 14 years after the Peace Accords. However, an essential corollary to requiring the active participation of anyone with the power to bring the process down by violence is requiring the constructive participation of any party with the power to thwart accomplishment of the results envisioned by the accord. In the case of Guatemala, that vision sought greater social and economic security, as well as freedom from violence. The CACIF represents the industrial and landed elites of Guatemala. At each turn in the process, the CACIF either chose not to participate or participated in a way that maintained distance from the goals of the process. Despite their refusal to participate in the public process, the CACIF instead engaged in private discussions with the government, the military and the parties to the negotiations. The economic power wielded by the CACIF translated to political influence over both the government and the military.

The second proposition recognizes that the peace process did not, or should not, have ended in 1996. Implementation of the economic and social reforms is as integral to peace as the end of overt violence. It is through the implementation that the process moves from the structural violence of the "negative peace" to the positive peace envisioned by Johan Galtung and others. [4] The failure to effectively implement the Social Accord among other components of the Peace Accords leaves the peace process unfinished.

Finally, peace is a development issue. As the field of peace studies and peace building has grown, the critical nature of Johan Galtung's concept of "positive peace" becomes even more evident. One need only look at the HDI for Guatemala to confirm the failure to accomplish positive peace in that country.

One could look at the entire gamut of elements of the Social Accord contained in the Peace Accords, but space does not permit a full examination. However, the issue of land reform is as instructive as any, and demonstrates the ramifications of the failure to heed the Darby/McGinty Propositions. Land reform issues date back to the earliest times of Guatemalan independence. In more modern times, the CIA- assisted overthrow of the government of President Arbenz in 1954 was sparked in reaction to land reform and government expropriation of land for redistribution. The Social Accord section of the Peace Accord gave specific recognition to both the need for redistribution and the requirement to fund the program. So far, the program has been unsuccessful. In 1979, the last official land census, the Gini Land Coefficient was .85, reflecting one of the highest rates of inequality in Latin America. [5] In a recent study by Gauster and Isakson, the Gini Coefficient is stated to be an imperceptibly different .84. [6] Regardless of the calculation of a Gini Coefficient, the inequity is clear. The government's Agrarian Census of 2003 found 92.06% of small agricultural producers only work 21.86% of the territory. In contrast, commercial producers representing less than 2% of the population occupy 56.59% of actively farmed land. [7] Amazingly, despite chronic malnutrition affecting 43.4% of the population, [8] and a domestic food deficit requiring the importation of domestic food stuffs, [9] the Guatemalan Agrarian Census of 2003 reports that 72% of the country's fertile land is idle. [10]

To achieve a more equal land distribution requires that land concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy landowners (members of the CACIF) be transferred to the landless, principally indigenou, peoples of Guatemala. The Peace Accords anticipated a market-driven solution, funded by a tax structure sufficient to fund the redistribution. The model used in Guatemala to achieve land reform is referred to as Market-Assisted Land Reform (MALR). The MALR model, supported by the UN, the World Bank and the Group of Friends, sought by the CACIF, and grudgingly accepted by UNRG, envisions that the landless, assisted financially by the government will purchase land offered for sale by large landowners. This approach depends upon a combination of available financing and willing sellers. The government was supposed to implement the two pieces of tax reform required to promote the program; adequate levels of taxation and taxes on idle land. Guatemala has yet to establish tax rates believed adequate by the international community to support the social program commitments, including funding the land purchase program. Likewise, the government has not enforced taxation on idle lands. Thus there is no economic incentive to sell land. These factors coupled with a culturally imbedded unwillingness to part with land has resulted in both the lack of financial capability to purchase and a lack of supply of fertile land for purchase, even if funding were available. Guatemala has failed to achieve any substantial degree of land reform, a fact indicative of the general failure of the social reform of Guatemala.

The Irony of Failure (Refusal) to Implement Social Reform

Guatemala had an end to open conflict, a comprehensive Peace Accord reflecting a valid roadmap for reform, a willing and eager international community seeking to aid the process. One wonders how it could go wrong. But go wrong it did. The highest rates of homicide in Latin America, an HDI rank of 122, a Gini coefficient of economic disparity of .551, 13th worst in the world and a land disparity coefficient of .84 leaves Guatemala in a fragile economic and political state. On the other hand, the wealthy landowners and business owners of the CACIF continue to hold great wealth and political power. Thus, it can be said that this group prevailed in the terms of the peace, negative though it may be.

The victory, if that is what one calls it, may be impermanent. Guatemala struggles with economic growth, unemployment, health and educational shortfalls and a growing population all the while unable or unwilling to produce enough food for its people. If one compares Guatemala, or other Latin American countries with South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan, one wonders why the Asian countries have seen significant economic growth and substantially superior HDI and Gini index ratings. Cristobal Kay makes a compelling argument that the principal difference lies in land reform. [11] Kay argues that land reform in the form of widespread rural land distribution is critical for successful industrialization. In Taiwan, Japan, China and South Korea, land reform preceded successful industrialization. The agricultural sector, following reform, created economic surpluses necessary to fund industrialization and domestic markets necessary to foster internal business growth.

It is the first irony that by refusing to accept the need for land reform, the CACIF and the business community have prevented Guatemala from growing economically strong, leaving the country politically and socially fragile.

Despite the failure of economic reform, the activities of the international community, the United Nations and a host of NGOs, the issues of human rights, inequality and the failure of the government to effectively implement the Social Accord are part of the national discourse. Unlike 40 years ago, the people of Guatemala now engage in much more open discussion of what were once closed topics. As the UNDP stated in its 2006 report: "Indigenous groups are now very aware of their human and economic rights and rights as citizens of the state." [12] The UNDP identifies this as a potential flashpoint and threat for a return to violence.

The second irony lies in the fact that by refusing to support economic and social reform, the seeds of future conflict are sown, a conflict that will directly challenge the economic interests that the business elites look to protect.

Potentially more threatening to its peace, Guatemala is beset by organized crime and drug cartels that have turned Guatemala into a major drug and human trafficking hub. This presents a more immediate threat of violence. Violence in Guatemala continues to grow. There was a 65% increase in homicides between 2001 and 2005, heavily related to gang and drug activity. [13] The rise of the power of the drug cartels and organized crime in general can be traced to the failure to implement the economic and social reforms necessary to reduce economic inequality and move Guatemala on the path of economic growth. The demobilized military and paramilitary forces faced limited employment opportunities and many migrated to criminal organizations.

The growth of the drug cartels and organized crime pose a greater threat than mere crime and violence. In fact the growth of the power of these types of organizations ultimately threatens the political structure of Guatemala? In 2008 Ivan Briscoe considered the impacts of the growth of just such power, [14] identifying what he termed the rise of the criminalized "parallel state" as a threat to sovereignty. It is not not mere corruption that tends to be decentralized, nor is it a mafia state seeking to assume the political power of the state. Instead, deeply rooted in the government and the political establishment the parallel state seeks not the direct control of the government, but rather support and impunity for its criminal enterprises. Guatemala plagued by violence and crime is effectively powerless. The police, prosecutors and judiciary have proven incapable with dealing with the rampant criminality. The problem in Guatemala reached such a state that, at the request of the government, the United Nations, in an unprecedented act, established the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG). [15] Established in 2007 for a two-year period, in 2009 the mandate was extended September 2011. The objective of the CICIG focuses on assisting the Guatemalan State in investigating and dismantling violent criminal organizations believed to be responsible for widespread crime and the paralysis in the country's justice system.

The economic powers of Guatemala, by refusing to implement the changes necessary to lead to growth and economic strength, and by extension a strong and secure state, are now prey to the narcoticelements. While the political and economic elite may feel secure, seeing these groups as a "parallel state" and non-threatening to their economic interests, eventually that will change. The offensive by the Mexican government against the drug cartels have shifted the cartels' focus southward. They are now establishing training bases in Northern Guatemala and using Guatemala as a transport corridor for heroin and cocaine headed for the US. [16] Landowners in Northern Guatemala face threats from the cartels looking for usable cropland. The police and judicial systems are seen as ineffective and corrupted by the criminal element. The drug cartels are not a threat to the poor campesinos (peasants) because they have no money. Yet the same cannot be said of the landed and political elite. Only the naïve believe them immune from the threat of the criminal element.

The third irony is that the state is not powerful or stable enough to provide the protection needed. The intransigence of the elite may have delayed efforts to achieve economic and social equality in Guatemala, but it spawned an even greater threat. Eventually the drug cartels will find the wealth of the elites much too tempting.

In the endeavor to protect their economic advantage, the business and political elites unleashed the unintended consequence of economic regression, not progress. While the regression falls most heavily on the impoverished of Guatemala, the elites have not and will not escape the consequences. Guatemala is in danger of failing as a state. It cannot provide for the economic security of its citizenry. It cannot provide for the physical security of its citizenry. Enmeshed in violence, Guatemala suffers under the weight of well-funded, broadly based transnational organizations. These groups demand, and to date have received, the acquiescence of the governmental institutions otherwise charged with maintaining the internal peace of Guatemala. Its governmental institutions are compromised. The irony should not be lost on any observer: By preventing the implementation of the full Peace Accords, the political and business elites sowed the seeds of economic, social and ultimately political disaster thereby endangering that which they sought to preserve.

[1] Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. "What Are Intractable Conflicts?." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 .

[2] Human Development Report,

[3] John Darby and Roger McGinty, "Conclusion: Peace Processes, Present, and Future." In Contemporary Peace Making, 2d edition, edited by John Darby and Roger McGinty (New York 2008), 361-371.

[4] Johan Galtung, "Violence, Peace, and Peace Research," Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167-197.

[5] Land and Labor in Guatemala: an Assessment, US AID, 1982. The Gini Coefficient of Inequality using a mathematical formula, developed by Corrado Gini in 1912 is commonly used in economics to measure inequality in distribution of economic resources such as of income, education, and land distribution.

[ 6] Susana Gauster and S Ryan Isakson. Eliminating Market Distortions, Perpetuating Rural Inequality: an Evaluation of Market-Assisted Land Reform in Guatemala. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 8, 2007, p 1521.

[7] Eliminating Market Distortions, Perpetuating Rural Inequality: an evaluation of market-assisted land reform in Guatemala, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 8, 2007, pp 1519 - 1536. See, Guatemala's National Institute of Statistics (Instituto Nacional de Estadistica), Agrarian Census 2003.

[8] FAO/WFP Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to Guatemala, February 23, 2010.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Guatemala-10 Years after the Peace Accords, Social Alert International (2007).

[11] Cristobal, Kay. "Why East Asia Overtook Latin America: agrarian reform, industrialisation and development." Third World Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 6, 1073(2002).

[12] United Nations Development Program, Case Study Guatemala, Evaluation of UNDP Assistance to Conflict-Affected Countries (2006), 9-14.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Briscoe, Ivan. 2008. The Proliferation of the "Parallel State". Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior.


[16] Hal Brands, Guatemala and the Drug Cartels. American (2009),

Additional Resources

"Negotiating Rights: The Guatemalan Peace Accords," (1997), Conciliation Resources

For a succinct history of the Guatemalan peace process see,

Also, on the topic of the Peace Accords, .

"Rethinking a Model for Peace in Guatemala," (2002), International Development Research Centre,

Crime and Development in Central America, .