Two-thousand years ago, the Maya were at the height of their power. The Mayan empires lasted for millennia; even today, extensive ruins in five countries bear witness to the engineers, astronomers, agriculturalists and architects who built cities larger and more advanced than any that existed in Europe during those centuries.
By the time the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in 1523, the great days of the empires were over, and many small Mayan groups were vying for control. The Spanish, aided by cavalry and gunpowder, were able to subdue most of Guatemala's population and establish a colonial rule designed to put wealth into Spanish pockets. Between the brutal working conditions imposed by the Spanish and the new diseases they brought with them, in some regions 90% of the population died under Spanish rule.
Even when the colonial system ended, the pattern of exploitation remained. Guatemala's declaration of independence in 1821 led to a succession of governments that encouraged foreign investment - to the point of giving communally-owned land to investors and granting them the right to use 25% of the male population as plantation workers. Communities who protested these policies (and there were many) were massacred.
Two successive reform governments were elected after World War II. They repealed the most abusive laws and forced some of the large land-owning companies to sell their unused land to the government, so that it could be given to landless agricultural workers.
These events threatened some United States interests, and in 1953 the U.S. authorized the C.I.A. to overthrow the Guatemalan government. Afterwards, the military, backed by the U.S., dominated Guatemalan politics. Political assassinations and death squads became a fact of life. A guerilla resistance movement led to increased violence.
While church workers, union leaders, academics and those who criticize the government were singled out as targets, the bulk of oppression has fell on the Indian population. In a single campaign from 1983-1985, an estimated 150,000 people died, many thousands were detained or went missing, and over 400 villages were destroyed. Many were replaced by "model villages," where inhabitants were forced to speak Spanish and work under government direction. People were forbidden to leave the villages, which are patrolled by the army.
In the mid-1990s, government agreed to reform the military, judicial and agrarian institutions. The guerilla resistance movement became an official opposition party. While the resistance movement and the army declared a formal ceasefire in 1996, whether Guatemala can move toward a safe and stable political environment is still uncertain.