A Bit of History

Following the decline of lowland Mayan society in Guatemala's northern Petén region, beginning around AD 500, subsequent generations began to seek refuge in the adjoining highlands, carving out livelihoods of agriculture and commerce for themselves. Although we tend to think of "Maya" as a monolithic concept, these were several distinct peoples, speaking different languages, who saw little in common with their compatriots in the next valley. Alone, each group proved no match for Pedro de Alvarado and the Spanish conquistadors, who were able to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy to subjugate most of them.

Much of the country's 1960 to 1996 civil war was fought in the highlands. During the "scorched earth" campaigns of the early 1980s, entire towns were burned to the ground and tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed by paramilitary forces. The violence was designed to terrify the indigenous people into refusing to assist the rebel guerrillas. Thousands fled into the mountains or across the border into Mexico or Belize.

Although many issues remain unresolved, the people of the highlands are now weary of fighting, and most, regardless of their wartime sympathies, say that they simply are grateful for the peace that resulted from the 1996 accords. The army is gone, thankfully stripped of its internal-security role, and has been replaced by civilian police, whose members come from their local communities. Problems remain, and grievances are numerous, but everyone seems interested in moving on and putting the past behind them.

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