Guatemala is a mainly mountainous country in Central America, just south of Mexico and less than half the size of the UK. It was once at the heart of the remarkable Mayan civilisation, which flourished until the 10th century AD. When Spanish explorers conquered this region in the 16th century, the Mayans became slaves in their own ancient home. They are still the underprivileged majority of Guatemala's 12.3m population.
At the end of the 19th century Guatemala came under the rule of a dictator who put his country on the economic map by encouraging landowners to buy and run coffee plantations. The Roman Catholic church was deprived of its lands for the purpose, and within 30 years Americans were the major investors. A powerful army and police force were set up to protect the wealthy landowners and their flourishing businesses. The Indians, with the status of peasants and labourers, saw nothing of the wealth being generated under a series of grasping dictators.
But in 1944 the current dictator was overthrown, and a new, enlightened government introduced reforms which put the interests of the native people first. Indians in both town and country were given consideration, social security, and education. Labourers could now set up workers' unions, and this gave them political strength as well.
However, attempts at land reform brought Guatemala's 'Ten Years of Spring' to an end. When the Guatemalan government planned a programme of compulsory purchase of land so that it would come under State ownership, the USA, its business interests threatened, set up a scare: 'hostile communists were at work'. America organised and trained a corps of eager Guatemalan exiles, then launched an invasion to bring down the government. In and after this blood-stained encounter - in which thousands died - workers' unions and political parties were suppressed, other reforms cancelled, and dissidents hunted down for assassination. Many appalled liberals fled into exile (including the young doctor 'Che' Guevara). A military dictator was helped to take over the government, followed by a string of right-wing military leaders dedicated to eliminating the left wing. In 1962 their policies resulted in a civil war that was to last over 35 years.
The oppressed people did their best. Despite the civil war, church leaders helped peasants to reclaim unwanted marshland, build co-operative villages and sustain both their traditional culture and new left-wing politics. Work was done to teach and maintain literacy and good health practices. A quiet, non-violent opposition movement for civil rights began to grow.
But so did armed resistance groups. Guerrilla organisations were founded, adopting Marxist communist views to justify their use of violence; they got some backing from Cuba. By 1981 three guerrilla groups had merged to create Guatemala's United Front, Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). In that year, a small group of Mayan leaders marched to Guatemala City and occupied the Spanish Embassy, in nonviolent protest against government oppression of the native people. Though the Spanish ambassador urged the government to respond peacefully, his embassy was deliberately burned down, killing all the protesters together with all the Embassy staff (the ambassador survived).