• Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Guatemala is home to 24 principal ethnic groups. Although the Government of Guatemala has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous peoples continue to face a number of challenges.

The Indigenous World 2022: Guatemala

Guatemala has a population of 14.9 million inhabitants, of which 6.5 million (43.75%) belong to one of the 22 Maya peoples (Achi', Akateco, Awakateco, Chalchiteco, Ch'orti', Chuj, Itza', Ixil, Jacalteco, Kaqchikel, K'iche', Mam, Mopan, Poqomam, Poqomchi', Q'anjob'al, Q'eqchi', Sakapulteco, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Tz'utujil and Uspanteko), or to the Garifuna, Xinca and Creole or Afrodescendant peoples.

Indigenous Peoples continue to lag behind Guatemalan society as a whole in terms of health, education, employment and income, a situation that is even worse for Indigenous women. Structural racism lies at the root of this inequality, social exclusion, and violations of the fundamental rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although the Political Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala recognises the existence of Indigenous Peoples, calls itself a multicultural society and has ratified international agreements on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, in practice the social, economic and political gap between Indigenous Peoples and the non-indigenous population remains wide. The State invests USD 0.4 per day in each Indigenous person, for example, but USD 0.9 per day in each non-indigenous person;[i] poverty affects 75% of Indigenous people and 36% of non-indigenous people,[ii]; chronic malnutrition affects 58% of Indigenous people compared to 38% of non-indigenous people.[iii] As for political participation, Indigenous people account for no more than 15% of parliamentarians or high-ranking public officials.

Guatemala has also ratified ILO Convention 169 (the Constitutional Court elevated it to constitutional status in 2010, which obliges the country to recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation's Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. Even with this framework, exclusion, discrimination and structural racism prevail.

The continuing struggle for the return of communal lands

Throughout 2021, the Mesa de Tierras Comunales, a body that brings together ancestral Indigenous authorities fighting for the return of their dispossessed lands, continued to file injunctions against mining licences and to recover lands dispossessed by the State, municipalities and large landowners.[iv] The Indigenous authorities of the Maya K'iche people embarked on the process to recover the communal lands anomalously held by Quetzaltenango municipality, home to the country's second largest city. The Maya Ixil people of Nebaj filed an injunction against the official regulation that requires land on which public works are being built with government funds to be transferred into the State’s name, which they consider tantamount to dispossession. For their part, the Tz'utujil, Q'eqchi, Ch'orti' and Xinca peoples continued to make progress in legal processes to recover their lands despite encountering many difficulties in the courts.

Indigenous Peoples’ vulnerability to climate change

2021 began with a worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic and also with the impacts of tropical storms Eta and Iota, mainly in the Maya Q'eqchi territory of Alta Verapaz. This situation has rekindled the debate on the lack of government climate action to address the country’s high vulnerability to climate change which, according to expert studies, places it among the most exposed countries in the world.

Bicentennial of Independence: nothing to celebrate

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the government planned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Central American independence with major events highlighting the benefits of this achievement for Guatemalan society. Indigenous Peoples have nothing to celebrate, however, since independence simply represented a transfer of colonial power to the European elite, perpetuating practices of discrimination, exploitation and dispossession that remain prevalent today and which form the structural bases on which the dominant economic model that causes poverty and exclusion is built. Faced with protests from Indigenous Peoples and various social organisations, the government suspended the scheduled festivities but continued with the construction of commemorative parks and other investments that lacked transparency and were challenged due to evident signs of corruption.

For their part, the Indigenous Peoples organised various activities to denounce the fact that independence had merely legitimised a form of colonialism that is still in force today. In return, some organisations commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Barbados Declaration which, in 1971, denounced colonialism and laid the foundations for a new deal with Indigenous Peoples. This included the events that were held to launch the book Towards the Conquest of Self-Determination, sponsored by IWGIA.[v]

Co-optation, a state of emergency and criminalisation

In 2021, the so-called Pact of the Corrupt, a group of people with significant political and economic power who are all suspected of corruption, managed to complete its co-optation of the State by gaining control of the Congress of the Republic, the Supreme Court of Justice, the Public Prosecutor's Office, the Constitutional Court and the Executive. As a result, investigations into and prosecutions of high-impact corruption cases ground to a halt, the public institutionality created in the context of the Peace Agreements was reduced, and human rights defenders, judges and prosecutors who are fighting corruption were criminalised. This included the dismissal of Juan Francisco Sandoval, Special Prosecutor against Corruption, and an attempt to remove Judge Érika Aifán from her post.[vi]

Indigenous Peoples used different forms of protest to express their opposition to government decisions that they consider to be an attack on their rights, such as the authorisation of licences for mining and hydroelectric projects without any consultation. In response, the government suppressed social protest by imposing a state of emergency which, among other things, meant restricting people’s right to move around as they please, organise and express themselves freely.

Judgements of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the State of Guatemala

In 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued two judgements in cases that have implications for the country’s Indigenous Peoples. The first, known as the Massacre at Los Josefinos Village Petén Department[vii] established that the State of Guatemala was responsible for the disappearance and forced displacement of the survivors of that massacre, which occurred between 29 and 30 April 1982 in the context of the internal armed conflict. Despite reaching a friendly settlement in 2009, the State has failed to comply with its commitments, resulting in the case being brought before the Court. The judgement requires the State to compensate the victims for material and non-material damages and requires it to remove all de facto and de jure obstacles that are perpetuating impunity in the case. It also requires it to investigate, identify, prosecute and punish those responsible for the human rights violations.

In the second case, Community Radio, Sumpango Indigenous Peoples et al. v Guatemala, the Court determined that the State had failed to respect and protect the right of Indigenous Peoples to establish their own means of communication in their own languages. The case was brought before the Court after the State, under pressure from the large business consortia that control the country’s radio waves, raided the headquarters of four community radio stations of the Kaqchiquel from Sumpango, Sacatepéquez; the Achi from San Miguel Chicaj, Baja Verapaz; the Mam from Cajolá, Quetzaltenango and the Mam from Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango, confiscating equipment and criminalising them for allegedly stealing frequencies.[viii]

The Court found that Guatemala had violated Indigenous Peoples’ right to freedom of expression, to equality before the law and to participation in cultural life. Broadcasting is regulated in such a way in Guatemala that there is a de facto, almost absolute, prohibition of the right to freedom of expression. The Court’s judgement requires Guatemala to adopt the necessary measures to allow the Indigenous communities identified as victims to freely operate their community radio stations. It also requires it to adapt domestic legislation in order to recognise community radio stations (particularly Indigenous community radio stations) as a distinct means of communication, to immediately refrain from prosecuting individuals who operate Indigenous radio stations, raiding their offices or seizing their transmission equipment, and to quash the convictions of (and any of the consequences related to) individuals from Indigenous communities convicted for using the radio spectrum.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, Francisco Calí Tzay, joined the demand, pointing out that these rights are set out in the Framework Law on the Peace Accords and that the country has legal obligations because it has ratified international instruments relating to Indigenous Peoples.[ix]

Justice for Indigenous Maya Achi women victims of sexual violence

In September, High Risk Court “A” agreed to send five men to trial, all members of the paramilitary group known as the Civil Self-Defence Patrols (PAC), an entity created by the National Army to contribute to counterinsurgency tasks during the internal armed conflict. The court considered that there was sufficient evidence linking them to serious human rights violations, in particular the rape, torture and sexual slavery of 36 women of the Maya Ixil Indigenous people in the municipality of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, committed between 1981 and 1983.[x] It should be recalled that this municipality was one of the hardest hit during the internal war (1960-1996): at least 20 massacres were committed against Indigenous communities such as those of Río Negro, Plan de Sánchez and Chichipac, all resulting from the peoples’ resistance to the evictions caused by the construction of the Chixoy dam. The Army labelled the situation as support for the guerrillas.

Coup de grâce for the Peace Accords

The 25th anniversary of the Peace Accords was commemorated on 29 December 2021 and was expected to be a great event highlighting the country’s achievements in peace building and reconciliation, an event that would contribute to consolidating these processes. It turned out to be a subdued event, however, attended by not one of the presidents of the three State bodies, demonstrating the current government’s determination to continue to dismantle the peace process. This government has abolished a number of the institutions created for this purpose, including the Secretariat for Agrarian Affairs, the National Reconciliation Programme and the Peace Secretariat, thereby suspending the commitments made by the State and contained in the Framework Law on the Peace Agreements approved in 2005.[xi]

In addition, the social and economic problems that gave rise to the conflict in the first place, such as poverty, exclusion, racism and a lack of access to land, will all remain unaddressed. This includes the slow recognition of Indigenous communities’ right to communal land due to the lack of legal certainty and the limited legal scope of administrative procedures and processes.[xii]

Migration crisis and tragedy for Indigenous villagers

Faced with a lack of job opportunities, a lack of income and violent harassment, migration to the United States increased in 2021, with massive caravans of Central Americans making their way to the border. Migratory flows have also increased through the system of “coyotaje”, a system of illegal human trafficking that exposes people to the risk of violence and accidents along the way. On 9 December, a group of 160 migrants of differing nationalities, men, women and children, including several Indigenous Guatemalans, were involved in a road traffic accident in Mexico when the truck that was surreptitiously transporting them overturned. This situation reflects the risks people expose themselves to when trying to escape poverty due to the lack of opportunities in their respective countries.[xiii]

Indigenous communities excluded from COVID-19 vaccination

In addition to the administrative and logistical difficulties the government has faced in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, a number of media channels have denounced the lack of culturally relevant communications aimed at the Indigenous population. Despite the fact that Indigenous people make up half the country's population, they have so far received only 15% of the total number of vaccines administered,[xiv] once again demonstrating the structural racism and exclusion that exists in the country. To this must be added the absence of specialised medical care, the lack and insecurity of public hospitals and the lack of reliable statistics on the impact of the pandemic on the Indigenous population.

Indigenous authorities from several Indigenous communities have filed a criminal complaint against the President of the Republic, Alejandro Giammattei, who they hold responsible for mismanaging the pandemic, arguing that they are being discriminated against.[xv]

Silvel Elías is Maya K'iche, a lecturer and coordinator of the Rural and Territorial Studies Programme (PERT) at the Faculty of Agronomy of the San Carlos de Guatemala University.


This article is part of the 36th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2022 in full here


Notes and references

[i] Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies. Inversión en pueblos indígenas, según el presupuesto ejecutado en 2015. [Investment in Indigenous Peoples, according to the 2015 budget]. Guatemala, July 2017. https://www.icefi.org/sites/default/files/inversion_en_pueblos_indigenas_0.pdf

[ii] Situación de Derechos Humanos en Guatemala. [Human Rights Situation in Guatemala]. Guatemala, IACHR, 31 December. http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/multimedia/2016/guatemala/guatemala.html

[iii] Ministry of Food Security and Nutrition, “Análisis de situación nutricional de Guatemala” [Analysis of the Nutritional Situation in Guatemala]


[iv] Carlos Ernesto Choc. “El Estor: autoridades Q’eqchi’ piden suspender operaciones a CGN-Pronico de Solway” [El Estor: Q'eqchi' authorities ask CGN-Pronico de Solway to suspend operations]. Prensa Comunitaria, 25 August 2021, https://www.prensacomunitaria.org/2021/08/el-estor-autoridades-qeqchi-piden-suspender-operaciones-a-cgn-pronico-de-solway/

[v] “Presentación del libro Por la Conquista de la Autodeterminación” [Launch of the book Towards the Conquest of Self-Determination], IWGIA, 20 January 2021.


[vi] Oscar García, “CIDH señala solicitudes de antejuicios como hostigamiento para operadores de justicia y gobierno rechaza señalamientos” [IACHR describes requests for preliminary trials a way of harassing justice operators but government rejects accusations]. Prensa Libre, 28 October 2021. https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/cidh-senala-solicitudes-de-antejuicios-como-hostigamiento-para-operadores-de-justicia-y-gobierno-rechaza-senalamientos-breaking/

[vii] Inter-American Court. Case of the massacre of Los Josefinos village v Guatemala. 3 November 2021. https://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_442_esp.pdf

[viii] Inter-American Court. Guatemala es responsable por violar la libertad de expresión y los derechos culturales de cuatro pueblos indígenas operadores de radios comunitarias [Guatemala responsible for violating the freedom of expression and cultural rights of four Indigenous Peoples operating community radio stations]. 17 December 2021. https://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/comunicados/cp_103_2021.pdf

[ix] César Gómez, “Estado de Guatemala discrimina a los Pueblos Indígenas, negándose el acceso a frecuencias radioeléctricas” [Guatemala discriminates against Indigenous Peoples by denying them access to radio frequencies]. Cultura Survival, 28 June 2021. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/news/estado-de-guatemala-discrimina-los-pueblos-indigenas-negandose-el-acceso-frecuencias

[x] Juan Calles, “Inicia el juicio por violencia sexual contra mujeres Achi durante la guerra” [Trial begins in case of sexual violence against Achi women during the war]. Prensa Comunitaria, 6 January 2022.


[xi] César Pérez Marroquín: “Sin la presencia de Giammattei ni de los presidentes del Congreso y la CSJ se conmemora el 25 aniversario de la firma de paz” [25th anniversary of the Peace Agreement commemorated without Giammattei or the presidents of Congress or the Supreme Court of Justice]. Prensa Libre, 29 December 2021. https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/politica/sin-la-presencia-de-giammattei-y-de-los-presidentes-del-congreso-y-la-csj-se-conmemora-el-25-aniversario-de-la-firma-de-la-paz/

[xii] “Diputada pide mayor atención a comunidades indígena” [Congresswoman calls for greater attention to Indigenous communities]. Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, 1 December 2021.


[xiii] “Accidente en Chiapas: al menos 55 muertos tras volcar en México un camión que transportaba migrantes centroamericanos” [Accident in Chiapas: at least 55 dead after truck carrying Central American migrants overturns in Mexico]. BBC News, 10 December 2021. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-59603693

[xiv] Mariajosé España, “Plan de vacunación contra el Covid-19 ha excluido a comunidades indígenas” [COVID-19 vaccination plan has excluded Indigenous communities]. Prensa Libre, 21 June 2021. https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/comunitario/plan-de-vacunacion-contra-el-covid-ha-excluido-a-comunidades-indigenas/

[xv] Grecia Ortíz, “Representantes de pueblos indígenas denuncian a Giammattei por varios hechos” [Representatives of Indigenous Peoples denounce Giammattei for different actions]. La Hora, 8 September 2021. https://lahora.gt/representantes-de-pueblos-indigenas-denuncian-a-giammattei-por-varios-hechos/



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