The history of humans in the Americas goes back perhaps 18,000 years. It's hard to pinpoint such things, so scientists give estimates. White people tend to think history in the Americas began with the first voyage of Columbus, but many civilizations rose and fell long before his excursion. Even mass murder didn't start with Columbus. That is to say, the "Indians" learned to fight and kill each other thousands of years earlier. Then there was religion. Christopher brought his religion to the Americas, of course, but the ancient American civilizations were practicing mass human sacrifices long before Columbus began killing in the name of Catholicism. The history of religion is the history of bloodshed and control of one's fellow man. This is not to deny the good of religion. The history of man killing other men needs no excuse, though. It has gone on since the beginning of time.
The people who lived in the Americas before Columbus did their share of killing and treating their fellows unfairly. The Spanish came and killed and brought disease and took new diseases back home to Europe and treated the residents of the Americas terribly. This went on for a few hundred years before the British and the French came and killed and brought disease and treated the Americans terribly and unfairly. And, along the way, the people in America tried to kill as many of the invaders as possible.
I don't know if anyone would say things are much different today. Some people on both sides try, but mostly things don't get better for many of the descendants of those early Americans. As I see it, we have no real way to turn back the clock and make amends or do things differently. We do have the opportunity to change ourselves starting now, and some people of goodwill already have started doing their small part. Maybe someday we will all live in peace. I am not optimistic.
I like to read history books and look at the collections in museums. As I said before, I can't go back in time and make any changes, but I feel it helps me make better choices for the future if I study history and try to understand how we got to where we are today and why we are liked by some people and disliked by other people. As I read and study, I am horrified sometimes, but I never have the urge to try and apologize for what my racial ancestors did wrong. I think the very thought of apologizing for a whole race of people long ago is ridiculous. If I personally do something bad, I will apologize and try to make it right.
So I study history to learn how we got to where we are today, and try to use history to guide future choices, choosing as much as possible from knowledge instead of prejudice.
This post was intended to give an overview of Guatemala, because the history of Guatemala is typical of the history of much of Central and South America. In many ways it is typical of of the European takeover of North America as well.
With very few exceptions, the people who live south of the U.S. speak Spanish as their main language. Of course, individual "Indian" languages are preserved as well. In both North and South America, the system of conquest by the Europeans was pretty much the same: they came and took what they wanted, killed as many people as it took to subdue them so they could enslave them and take their land and goods and try to turn them into good Christians along the way. After that it was a simple matter of exploiting them as if they had no rights as humans at all. That is still the situation today, in the main. We are still in the exploitation stage and treating them as rather subhuman. From time to time, we ponder why they don't seem to like us.
In what is now known as Guatemala, the Spanish came and killed and took everything and enslaved the people and turned them into serfs. That is to say they took over from the former rulers who had enslaved the common people and treated them like serfs. After the Spanish were driven out, in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, more or less, the white people from the north began to come down and be their new friends. Banana and rubber plantations. Mines. Puppet governments who served the interest of the U.S. and others. And new novel religions.
In short, the history of Guatemala, and so many other countries, has, from the standpoint of the real owners of the land, been a history of oppression by outsiders, hatred of outsiders, exploitation by outsiders, a hope of someday throwing off that oppression. As we have mentioned before, this is the fertile ground for Communism - another form of oppression of the common people, but with the cruel false promise of liberation. Of course, the native leaders who promoted communism were not meaning to be cruel. They truly believed communism was the pathway for getting their land back from the oppressors. The leaders of numerous revolutions were taught the communist way by outsiders and then took it upon themselves to put theory into reality. They got some land back from the foreigners, but the new leaders didn't make their lives any better.
Is that where we are today in Latin America? Are things getting better? Certainly the governments seem to last longer than they used to. There seem to be more and more democratic elections, or at least manipulated democratic elections. Outsiders still covet their natural resources, but seem to have begun more and more to paying for them. Some countries are still communist or communist-leaning, but a lot of the people have stopped trusting that that is any better than anything else. There still seem to be a lot of large multinational companies making insider deals with the various elected governments.
The "recent" history of Guatemala is a 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, and events leading up through the present day. The civil war involved the national governments/army juntas and their various supporting factions; and the left wing "insurgents." The left wingers unfortunately tried to sabotage the economy as well as fight. And the government soldiers were brutal against the population as well. The people were squeezed in the middle as usual. The military massacred citizens.
In 1982, Rios Montt was elected under the Christian Democracy Party. He was a lay pastor in the Protestant evangelical "Church of the Word." In his inaugural address, he stated that his election resulted from the will of God. He had the support of U.S. President Reagan. He formed a three member military junta, annulled the constitution, disolved congress, suspended political parties, cancelled electoral laws. Then he dismissed the junta and declared himself "President of the Republic." [Wikipedia]
And indeed he was.
Rios Montt, July 1982, to an audience of indigenous Guatemalans: "If you are with us, we'll feed you; if not, we'll kill you." The Plan de Sanchez massacre occurred the same day.
The government began to form PACS (local defense patrols.) Young men who wouldn't join PACS were labeled guerillas. It was boys and old men too. At their peak, the PACS had a million "patroller" conscripts.
Rios Montt's brief presidency was the most violent period of the civil war. Thousands of indigenous peoples, noncombatants, and others, were captured, tortured, killed. Montt was deposed a year later, but survived to become President of Congress in 1995 and 2000.
In 1999, President Clinton apologized for U.S. support of the wrong people.
Much of the business of Guatemala today is concerned (some would say "bogged down") with investigations and litigations concerning events that happened in the civil war. Perhaps when everyone is hurt badly enough and enough money and retribution is exacted, the country can concentrate on making life better in Guatemala. I hope so.