In 1986 civilian rule and a new constitution were set up, but the army held on to its power, not least because half a million Guatemalans were members of army, police or civil defence forces, many of them responsible for the civil war's worst brutality.
Peace talks were set up by the UN in 1991, but made poor progress. Suspended in1993, they were resumed in1994 under a new democratic government led by the country's former human rights ombudsman. An accord on human rights protection was signed by the government and URNG. Other issues were discussed over the next year. A peace agreement was finally signed in 1996.
Since then Guatemala has been trying to recover from its civil war, hard to do when so many civilians had taken part in atrocities and were now shielded by an amnesty law bitterly resented by victims. There were also many guerrillas and ex-soldiers to demobilise and resettle. All the same, a policy of reconciliation was introduced and, with difficulty, maintained.
Part of the peace agreement was the setting up of The Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), an investigation into the atrocities of the civil war. It began work in July 1997, funded by a number of countries (including the USA, a generous donor). The army was unable to provide its records for the period 1981-1983; but the three commissioners travelled through the country and collected 9,000 witness statements, protected by a UN confidentiality agreement. The Commission's mandate was limited - 'reflecting the strength of the Guatemalan armed forces in the peace negotiations', a commentator dryly observed: no names of human right violators could be given, and the Commission's work could have no 'judicial effects'.
The report, entitled 'Guatemala: Memory of Silence' was presented in February 1999. Its discoveries clearly revealed a governmental policy of genocide carried out against the Mayan Indians. Apart from being carried out by individuals, unnamed, the genocide was clearly also the responsibility of a hostile institutional structure.
The report had recommendations to make: the memory of the victims should be preserved, there should be compensation, and the democratic process should be strengthened. 'The CEH is convinced that construction of peace, founded on the knowledge of the past, demands that those affected by the armed confrontation and the violence connected with it are listened to and no longer considered solely as victims but as the protagonists of a future of national harmony.'
In April 1998 another report, the Catholic Church's 'Recuperation of Historical Memory' (also called 'Never Again'), had been published, which, like 'Memory of Silence' placed the responsibility for most of Guatemala's war crimes squarely on the army. The report was publicly presented by a noted human rights campaigner, Bishop Juan Gerardi; two days later he was murdered. In June 2001 a former head of military intelligence (a graduate of the School of the Americas) and two other officers were sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder. Guatemala's chief prosecutor, who secured the conviction, then faced repeated death threats, and was forced to go into exile. He himself had taken up the case when the previous prosecutor, also threatened, had resigned and fled the country.
Also in June 2001, a legal action on behalf of 12 Mayan communities succeeded in bringing a charge of genocide against a former dictator who had seized power in 1982 (ousted by another in 1983).
In November 1998 three former members of a 'civil patrol' were tried in the first case arising from the genocide. These patrollers, with 42 others, had massacred 77 women and 107 children. The younger women were repeatedly raped and then killed. One 10-year-old Mayan boy, holding his baby brother, was accosted by a patroller, a man from a nearby town: 'I'm taking you back home to work for me. But the baby can't come, he's too small.' Then the man sliced the infant in two. The boy survived and lived to be one of the few eye-witnesses at the trial (some witnesses had been threatened with death in the previous months, by other ex-patrollers still getting protection from the Army). The patrollers claimed they were elsewhere, planting trees. They were found guilty and sentenced to death. But 'civil patrollers come low in the hierarchy,' says a journalist working in central America, ' and perhaps their lives are expendable to protect the people who ordered the genocide.' Meanwhile the traumatised, impoverished survivors and the men who killed their families continue, somehow, to live in the same neighbourhoods.
It is estimated that up to 200,000 people were killed between 1966 and 1990, including the many thousands who died or 'disappeared' in the genocide of Mayan Indians.