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Chronology for Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Chronology for Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala, 2004, available at: [accessed 19 May 2023]
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Date(s) Item
Dec 1990 In the Indian village of Santiago Atitlan, the military opened fire on a crowd of 2,000 Indians during a peaceful protest. However, upon governmental review of this case, the military's activities were denounced and the town was returned to self-governance. In 1990, the second civilian president was elected, Jorge Serrano Elias. One of his first acts in office was to form a Human Rights Commission (COPREDEH) at the cabinet level.
Apr 1991 The Serrano government and the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unit (URNG) opened peace talks. The URNG is the umbrella organization of the guerrilla groups, composed mainly of indigenous peoples.
Feb 6, 1992 The U.N. Commission on Human Rights assessed the human rights abuses in Guatemala in light of the 31 year civil war. This review of the commission was suggested by EC member-nations due to the killing of several European tourists as well as the Army's killing in January of four Indians, including a nine year old boy.
Feb 26, 1992 U.S. Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney visited Guatemala. He acknowledged President Serrano's efforts toward better human rights policies.
Jul 1992 Guatemala was reviewed by the U.S. Trade Commission and the AFL-CIO for unfair labor practices, including the prohibition of labor unions.
Oct 1992 The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mayan Indian, Rigoberta Menchu for her activities representing the Mayan Indians to the government of Guatemala and the international community. This award was ignored by Guatemalan government officials, except in a letter from President Serrano to Menchu.
Dec 1992 Forty-five thousand Guatemalan refugees returned home from Mexico. This return was organized by the Permanent Commission, the refugee leadership organization of the indigenous refugees in Mexico. The organization mobilized a massive return to publicize the event and to protect themselves from the danger of returning in small groups. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees provided money and resources for one year after this return.
Feb 1993 The U.N. Commission on Human Rights pressured the Serrano government to finalize a peace accord with the URNG. The accord included the repatriation of indigenous refugees and verification of international human rights standards. The refugees would be living in temporary settlements and could not purchase or regain title to their lands. Moreover, the refugees were represented in the peace talks through their own organization, the Communities of Peoples in Resistance (CPR).
May 28, 1993 The United States threatened to cancel its $67 million aid program due to human rights abuses in Guatemala. In 1992, the food and development assistance totaled $47 million, economic support totaled $20 million, and military aid totaled $270,000. The U.S. Trade office also was considered suspending Guatemala's trade benefits due to Serrano's prohibition of public protest and strikes. Nongovernmental media in Guatemala were also suspended.
Jun 1993 President Serrano was ousted from office by military forces. Serrano had suspended the constitution and seized decree powers. The U.S. Government publicly supported this coup due to the suspension of democratic institutions under the Serrano government. On June 5, the Guatemalan Congress elected Human Rights ombudsman Ramiro Carpio de Leon to serve the remaining 2 years of the term. De Leon purged the Congress of Serrano supporters, ousting 116 legislators from office.
Jan 1994 A referendum on reforms was held. It included measures to decrease corruption in the Congress.
Mar 1994 The Guatemalan government and the guerrilla group URNG signed a peace accord. This accord called for human rights monitoring and guerrilla demobilization. A Human Rights commission was designed to investigate human rights abuses as a result of this accord. The U.N. Human Rights Verification Commission was also allowed in the country to oversee the implementation of the accord. Aside from the government and the guerrillas, the negotiations received support and resources from the United Nations, Colombia, Venezuela, Spain, Mexico, the U.S., and Norway. The accord also abolished PACs (Civil Self-Defense Patrols) under which adult males between 15 and 60 from all Indian communities were forced to serve periodic 24 hour patrols in their local area. The purpose of PACs was to slow guerrilla activities and it was considered by indigenous groups as forced labor.
May 7, 1994 The new Education Minister Alfredo Tay Tocoy, a Quiche Indian, became the first indigenous person in Guatemala to hold a cabinet position.
Jun 20, 1994 The Guatemalan government and the URNG agreed in Oslo, Norway on the resettlement of indigenous refugees.
Mar 31, 1995 The government and the URNG reached an agreement and signed a peace accord to end their 34 year old conflict. Under the accord, the constitution will be changed to recognize the ethnic identity of Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna peoples. A proposal will also be sent to Congress to define "ethnic discrimination" as a crime. Bilingual judges will be appointed to communities with high populations of indigenous peoples and their languages will be used by social services as well. Furthermore, the accord gives indigenous people the right to administer natural resources on the land which they own.
Jun 16, 1995 In Mexico City, the U.N. negotiators and the government and URNG members could agree upon social and economic accords.
Jun 29, 1995 The Mayans traveled to a Conference on Indigenous Peoples in Copenhagen to call for a permanent forum in the United Nations to represent indigenous peoples.
Aug 22, 1995 Rebels of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit announced a cease-fire and a meeting with the Government's peace commission and Guatemalan and Central American legislators in Panama. During the talks, representatives of Guatemala's main political parties pledged that if they won the Nov. 12 elections they would carry out any accords resulting from peace talks sponsored by the United Nations. The rebels previously boycotted elections. (New York Times 8/24/95)
Oct 5, 1995 A Guatemalan Army patrol opened fire on a remote jungle village of resettled Indian refugees, killing at least 10 and seriously wounding 36. The dead were part of a group of 441 who had settled in a new village called Xaman in Alta Verapaz Province a year before. More than 6,000 Guatemalan peasants were repatriated in 1994, but the killing caused many to remain in Mexico in 1995. President Ramiro de Leon Carpio immediately announced the formation of a special commission to investigate the incident. The Minister of Defense said the 25 members of the patrol acted in self-defense after they were lured into the village in an ambush that left three soldiers wounded and six others missing. The incident led to the resignations of the Guatemalan defense minister and a high-level military leader. The military had been prohibited from entering the indigenous village. (New York Times 10/7/95 and Deutsche Presse-Agentur 10/9/95)
Nov 3, 1995 Two people carrying machine guns kidnapped the 22-month old nephew of Noble prize winning Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchu as she arrived at the family's home. (Agence France Presse 11/5/95)
Nov 12, 1995 Few indigenous voters turned up for Guatemalan elections, despite being sanctioned by indigenous rebels. Low literacy (especially in Spanish), high obstacles and the lack of indigenous candidates (none of the 19 presidential candidates were indigenous, only 2 vice presidential candidates and some local officials) were blamed. Indigenous farmers in the northeastern province of Coban were pressured not to vote for the FDNG, and in other provinces the PAN bused voters to the polls and gave them free meals. None of the presidential candidates won an absolute majority, forcing a run-off election in January. (Agence France Presse 11/9/95 & 11/13/95)
Dec 27, 1995 The Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund of Japan extended a 3.11 million yen loan to Guatemala for economic and social infrastructure programs targeting impoverished rural areas. More than 50 percent of that country's 10 million residents are categorized as "absolute poor" by the World Bank, and poverty was considered especially severe in areas populated by native Indians. The loans would improve Guatemalan medical services, education, housing and regional development--especially in rural areas--to reduce regional inequity. (Daily Yomiuri 12/29/95)
Jan 7, 1996 Alvaro Arzu, 49, won Guatemala's presidency with 51.22% of the votes cast. However, turnout across Guatemala was only 36.88%, and was especially low in the countryside and among the indigenous population, leading some to point out that Arzu did not truly have popular support. Arzu had promised during the campaign to fight discrimination against indigenous people and women and to combat crime and poverty. (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 1/8/96)
Feb 22, 1996 President Azru met with URNG leaders in Mexico. ([London] Guardian 3/27/96)
Feb 27, 1996 Anthropologists found the burned remains of 167 people killed by the army in a clandestine cemetery in the highlands state of Quiche. The remains were found in Agua Fria, a village about 50 miles northwest of the capital. They were killed in April 1982 when the army swept through, burning villages and killing suspected leftists as a part of a "scorched earth" policy of Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who governed Guatemala in 1982-83. (New York Times 2/28/96)
Apr 17, 1996 Squatters resisting a court-ordered eviction from a farm they had taken over ambushed and killed the chief of Guatemala's police rapid-reaction force. Three other officers were injured. The incident occurred as police attempted to oust the hundreds of landless who had been living on the estate for several weeks. (Agence France Presse 4/18/96)
May 6, 1996 The Guatemalan government and GRNU rebels signed a UN-brokered agreement on land reform and socio-economic issues in the Mexican foreign ministry. Officials did not disclose details of the agreements. (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 5/6/96)
Jun 13, 1996 Guatemala formally accepted the International Labor Organization's convention on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, one of the key demands of the Mayan rebels. (Financial Times 6/14/96)
Jun 20, 1996 According to an article in an American newspaper, the average indigenous boy in Guatemala had 1.8 years of schooling, while an indigenous girl had 0.9. This contrasted with the level non-indigenous males, who had 4.5 years, and females, who had 4.0 The illiteracy rate among indigenous males was reported to be 55.3% and indigenous females 81.2%; while only 23.6% of non-indigenous males and 37.1% of non-indigenous females in Guatemala were illiterate. (Washington Post 6/20/96)
Jul 26, 1996 The European Commission approved ECU 220 000 for a project by the French NGO Ecoles sans Frontiers to improve school attendance in communities of returnees from Honduras settled in the department of Alta Verapaz. The 42-month project would train educational promoters, foster bilingual education (indigenous language and Spanish), improve schools and provide teaching material. (Commission of European Communities Press Release 7/26/96)
Aug 4, 1996 The government announced plans to repatriate the last 30,724 refugees living in Mexico by the end of 1997. Thus far, 31,635 people had returned over the course of ten years. (Agence France Presse 8/4/96)
Aug 9, 1996 The government began formally dismantling the PAC Civil Defense Patrols. Over 700 patrolmen in Colotenango, Huehuetenango turned in their weapons to the army. Though the army planned to finish decommissioning the patrols by November 15, they did not announce a formal schedule. The PAC at this point consisted of 202,702 men and 15,500 weapons, including M-1 type rifles, M-1 and M-2 carbines, 12-bore shotguns, and 7.62-calibre Mauser rifles. (British Broadcasting Corporation 8/21/96)
Sep 19, 1996 The Guatemalan government and the URNG rebels signed the last preliminary agreement towards peace accords in Mexico City. In the agreement, the military agreed to reduce its 46,000 troops by one third in 1997 and cut its budget by one third by 1999. The armed forces were removed from responsibility for security matters inside Guatemala, returning them to the traditional role of defending the nation's borders from outside threats, and abolishing several notorious army-affiliated units, including the civilian anti-guerrilla patrols and the mobile military police, who were rented out for profit by local commanders to private farms and businesses. It also included governmental reforms including term limits and judicial reform, such as the right to conduct trials in native languages. (New York Times 9/20/96 and British Broadcasting Corporation 9/28/96)
Oct 19, 1996 Rafael Valdizon Nunez, deputy commander of the Organization of the People in Arms - one of four groups making up the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, was arrested while carrying a note from an 84-year-old wheelchair-bound hostage to her family. The group had kidnapped her in expectation of $6 million in ransom in the first act of violence since the UNRG declared a cease-fire in March. The outcry over the incident, in which Valdizon eventually exchanged his freedom for that of the hostage, led to the suspension of peace talks and the formal condemnation of the rebels by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the expulsion of Valdizon from the UNRG. (New York Times 11/7/96)
Dec 4, 1996 The Guatemalan Government and rebel leaders formally renounced the use of arms in an agreement in Oslo, Norway. It was the first and most symbolically powerful of three pacts that the former combatants approved before signing an overarching peace accord in Guatemala City on Dec. 29. (New York Times 12/5/96)
Dec 7, 1996 Guatemalan government and rebels signed an agreement in Stockholm recognizing Guatemala as a multi-ethnic, pluri-cultural and multi-lingual society for the first time. The agreement included the creation of a bilingual education system for education in both Spanish and one of the country's 23 native languages. The indigenous languages were given official status and could also be used in court. (Agence France Presse 12/7/96)
Dec 19, 1996 The Guatemalan Assembly approved a "law of National Reconciliation" that "extinguishes criminal responsibility" for offenses deemed to be political. Both the government and rebel groups had supported the proposal, which granted amnesty to many of the crimes committed during the 30-year civil war without breaking an United Nations agreement preventing the promotion of measures preventing the prosecution of human-rights violations. While the amnesty did not apply to genocide, torture and forced disappearance, human rights groups criticized it because illegal detention and extra-judicial killings were included in the amnesty, both for the doers and those who ordered the crimes. The law was part of a compromise aimed at meeting a Dec. 29 deadline for peace between the government and the rebels. (New York Times 12/19/96)
Dec 20, 1996 10,000 people spent the night in the street in celebration in advance of the signing of a permanent peace agreement with the UNRG rebels at the National Palace in Guatemala City. Under the terms of the accord, the URNG became a political party, which had received $105 million in international support. The text also recognizes the "inalienable right" of Guatemalan society to discover the truth about violations of human rights, though to facilitate the transformation of the rebel movement into a political party, political crimes and crimes of common law linked to the armed conflict would receive amnesty. The Inter-American Development Bank subsequently agreed to $92.3 million in social and community development programs. (Agence France Presse 12/29/96)
Jan 10, 1997 China blocked a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would have allowed the UN to send 155 observers to monitor the Guatemalan peace accord. China acted in part out of retaliation to Guatemala's support of Taiwan. The veto left Guatemala with no impartial observers to mediate potential government-Maya conflicts. China reversed its position after ten days of negotiations. (Washington Post 1/11/97 & 1/21/97)
Mar 3, 1997 The UNRG officially began disarming, and was expected to turn in 1,818 rifles and pistols, approximately 100 kg of explosives, and 409 mines, as well as other heavy weapons carried by 3,614 fighters recruited until the accords were signed. (British Broadcasting Corporation 3/6/97)
Apr 7, 1997 The Project to Recover Historical Memory, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office, stepped up its efforts to collect evidence of human rights abuses during the 30-year civil war in Guatemala, in light of what it viewed as a lax amnesty law. (New York Times 4/7/97)
Apr 17, 1997 Guatemala's former rebels cleared the last civil war land mines from around the Tajumulco Volcano, rendering the country mine-free. The ex-guerrillas deactivated some 1,500 devices in total, mostly from battle zones in the Escuintla, Huehuetenengo, Peten and Quiche provinces. (Agence France Presse 4/17/97)
May 21, 1997 The World Bank approved a US$ 33 million loan to the Government of Guatemala to help improve the coverage and quality of education for the poor, especially rural indigenous girls in areas most affected by the civil war. The program would support bilingual education and encourage community participation. (M2 Presswire 5/22/97)
Jul 30, 1997 A group of men, who identified themselves as members of the Poor People's Guerrilla Group, GGP, [Spanish: Grupo Guerrillero de los Pobres], blocked the Inter-American highway at Colomba Costa Cuca, Quetzaltenango. A similar group was reported in Quiche. Both groups wore olive green uniforms similar to the ones used by the guerrillas during the civil war. The army mobilized to investigate. (British Broadcasting Corporation 8/4/97)
Aug 3, 1997 Guatemalan anthropologists blamed returning refugees for the destruction of at least 13 ancient Mayan cities. The returnees had occupied the cities and removed artifacts in an attempt to farm. (Agence France Presse 8/3/97)
Apr 26, 1998 Bishop Juan Gerardi, a Roman Catholic priest in charge of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office, was found killed by at least eleven blows by a heavy blunt instrument, a few days after releasing his report on human rights violations during the Guatemalan civil war. While the president promised to investigate, he rejected a demand by the Archbishop's office for an initial report within 72 hours. A right-wing group called Jaguar Justice later claimed responsibility for the crime. (Agence France Presse 4/28/98 & 5/14/98)
Nov 30, 1998 A Guatemalan court condemned three former paramilitaries responsible for executing 269 people in two massacres carried out in 1982. The three were found to be members of the Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PAC) directly involved in massacres carried out on March 13 and September 14, 1982 in the northern provinces of Salama and Quiche. This marked the first time in this country that individuals had been condemned for carrying out mass killings during the conflict. (Agence France Presse 12/1/98)
Jan 8, 1999 The World Bank approved a US$ 23 million loan to Guatemala to facilitate access for rural poor communities to land and to improve the efficiency of land markets. The Land Fund program was a priority for the Government of Guatemala and a key element of the Peace Accords. (M2 Presswire 1/8/99)
Feb 25, 1999 A United Nations truth commission released a report on the human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war. In total, investigators documented some 42,000 cases of severe human rights violations and 29,000 executions or disappearances, and found that military and paramilitary forces were responsible for 93 per cent of the massacres carried out during the war. Only 3 per cent to 4 per cent of such rights violations were carried out by the insurgents. Eighty-three percent of "fully identified victims" were Mayan Indians and 17 percent were of European descent. The commission accused the army of genocide against the Mayans and recommended steps be taken to preserve the memory of the victims, compensate the families for the losses, and strengthen human rights around the country. (Deutsche Presse-Agentur 2/25/99 and Agence France Presse 2/25/99)
May 18, 1999 During a referendum on the constitutional changes necessitated by the December peace plan, 50.63% of those voting opposed the plan, while 40.40% approved it. 81.45 percent of registered voters did not vote, either because they did not realize its relevance or because they could not get to the polls. Indigenous leaders also blamed "racist elements" in the country, who lobbied hard for defeat of reforms which would have given greater recognition to indigenous languages and cultures, abolished the feared presidential guard, reduced the number of troops from 50,000 to 33,000, and limited the role of the military to defending the nation's borders. The second in command of the opposition Democratic Front of New Guatemala (FDNG), was gunned down by unidentified assailants three days before, leading many to fear violence during the voting. Hours before voting stations opened, a grenade was hurled at a residence south of the capital, killing three people and injuring 27 others. (Agence France Presse 5/18/99)
Jul 26, 1999 The Guatemalan Court of Appeals ordered the re-trial of a military commissioner accused of over 150 human rights violations which occurred in the 1980's. Though the commissioner had been acquitted twice, in each case international observers noted bias in the court officials and inadequate translation of the eyewitness testimony of the indigenous witnesses. In addition, a human rights worker testifying on behalf of the prosecution was kidnapped and told to avoid the trial in April. According to Amnesty International, at this point, tens of thousands of human rights cases in Guatemala remained unresolved, while no high-ranking military official had ever been convicted. They also criticized the retrials of officials, stating that witnesses in these trials were at increased risks. (M2 Presswire 7/26/99)
Jul 30, 1999 Mexico granted Guatemalan refugees citizenship status. At this point, 40,000 refugees had returned to Guatemala, but another 22,000 had decided to stay in Mexico. The United Nations formally ended the aid programs to the refugees. (Washington Post 7/30/99)
Aug 13, 1999 A Guatemalan court sentenced 25 army soldiers to up to five years in prison for the 1995 massacre of 11 Indians in Xaman (See 5/10/95). In addition, the soldiers would have the option of buying off the prison time at five quetzals (66 cents) per day of the sentence. The prosecutor had asked for the death penalty for all 25. The trial marked the first time a Guatemalan court sentenced soldiers for human rights abuses committed during the war between the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit (URNG) and the government. Amnesty International reported that the army had tampered with evidence, bribed court officials and intimidated witnesses during the trial. (Agence France Presse 8/14/99 & M2 Presswire 8/17/99 )
Oct 1999 A 54-page ledger allegedly smuggled out of the Guatemalan security archives detailing the names, photos and histories of 183 people arrested by the military surfaced in Washington DC. The document was widely believed to be a diary of the Guatemalan death squads, although no one had actually proven its authenticity. ([London] Financial Times 10/9/99)
Nov 7, 1999 Between 40 and 45 percent of Guatemalans voted in presidential elections which were deemed to be free and fair. However, little campaigning occurred outside the largest cities, and large numbers of indigenous people were not registered. The Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which was headed by Efrain Rios Mont, won over half of the seats in the Congress, and 48% of the presidential vote. Since the presidency required an absolute majority, a runoff election between the FRG and the other right wing party, the Party of National Advancement (PAN) which won 31%, was scheduled for December. The New Nation Alliance - made up of former rebels - won twelve percent of the vote and granted the first-ever parliamentary seat to an indigenous Guatemalan. (Agence France Presse 11/6/99, 11/7/99 and 11/10/99)
Nov 12, 1999 The Sentencing Tribunal of El Quiche region sentenced a military commander to a total 240 years in jail: 30 years each for the six murders and 20 years each for two kidnappings for which he was convicted. But the sentences were reduced to a total of 30 years. The guilty verdict and sentencing came at the end of the third trial of the officer (See 7/26/99). The former member of the Civil Self Defense Patrol (PAC) was tried on 11 counts of murder and seven kidnappings -- out of a total 155 crimes including robbery, rape and arson. The month before, the former chief of the PAC was sentenced to death for the March 1982 Rio Negro massacre. (Agence France Presse 11/13/99)
Dec 1999 Nobel prize winner Rigoberta Menchu filed suit in a Spanish court accusing Efrain Rios Montt, Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores and Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia of human rights violations -including murder and torture - in the 1980 military assault on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala (which killed Menchu's father), the murder of four Spanish priests, and the torture and killing of other members of the Menchu family. The Spanish judge was responsible for the earlier prosecution of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in Spain. ([London] Independent 3/24/00)
Dec 26, 1999 Alfonso Portillo of the FRG won the Presidential run-off election. He had campaigned on a platform of improved health care and education, but had also accused the ruling PAN party of financing the human rights abuses against the indigenous population through its support of the military. Between 35 and 45 percent of eligible voters showed up, however, in part due to an absence of buses to take the voters to the polls. (Agence France Presse 12/27/99)
Jan 14, 2000 President Portillo formally takes office, pledging to solve the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi. (See 4/26/98 entry) (New York Times 1/23/00)
Jan 22, 2000 The police arrested father-and-son military officers and charged them with the murder of Bishop Gerardi. They also held the bishop's cook, and announced plans to re-arrest the other people living with Gerardi, who had previously been arrested in connection with the murder. The chief prosecutor in the case, however, had fled to the United States in October 1999 after he and his family had received kidnapping threats. (New York Times 1/23/00)
May 14, 2000 On the sixth anniversary of the return of indigenous refugees to the town of Santa Maria Tzeja, arsonists burned down the local cooperative store. The indigenous population suspected that ladinos who had moved into the town after they left had lit the fire with the support of the local large army presence. The villagers reported regularly receiving threats signed Banda Negra, or Black Band. ([London] Financial Times 6/17/00)
May 24, 2000 About 1,000 indigenous women representing 14 of the 22 Guatemalan provinces marched to demand an end to discrimination, the protection of their rights, and literacy and social programs. (Xinhua News Service 5/24/00)
May 27, 2000 Rigoberta Menchu denounced the sudden increase in threats received by human rights workers, including herself. In a two week span, over 200 people had been harassed or threatened, including a dozen journalists. (Agence France Presse 5/27/00)
May 29, 2000 According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank, 64% of Guatemalans, and 81.6% of indigenous Guatemalans, lived in extreme poverty, defined as living on less than $2 a day. (Agence France Presse 5/30/00)
Jun 13, 2000 Denese Becker, an indigenous Guatemalan, accused the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank of complicity in the death of her parents and other indigenous people. The IDB and World Bank had funded a dam project in Rio Negro in 1982 over the resistance of the local communities, leading the army to wipe out the resistance. Becker was demanding the banks compensate her and other victims. (Agence France Presse 6/14/00)
Aug 9, 2000 The Roman Catholic Church accused the army, pro-government forces and leftwing guerillas of kidnapping dozens of children during the Guatemalan civil war, often children of Mayan decent. The fate of the children was not known, although many were believed to have been sold to firms specializing in foreign adoptions. ([London] Guardian 8/9/00)
Aug 10, 2000 President Portillo admitted that the government was responsible for human rights atrocities during the country's civil war, and pledged to investigate Guatemalan village massacres, to prosecute the murderers and to compensate the victims' families. ([London] Independent 8/11/00)

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