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About Guatemala

The Central American country of Guatemala is steeped in ancient traditions, culture, languages, and a strong sense of pride in their communities. These hardworking people are direct descendents of the powerful Mayan Indians, who developed one of the most advanced civilizations in the Western Hemisphere. They were once the richest society in the region and built temples of gold as well as universities where early educational discoveries are still studied today.

The great days of the Mayan civilization are gone, and the standard of living has fallen dramatically over the past 1,000 years for the indigenous Mayan people of Guatemala. Exposed to diseases for which they had no cure or natural defense, Mayans died in massive numbers after European discovery. Survivors struggled to maintain their ancient culture, languages and internal systems that brought them immense power in the past, but they were outnumbered and eventually became second-class citizens on their own land.

Today Mayan descendents still dress in traditional clothing hand-woven with colors of their ancient tribes but now face modern conflicts of unstable economies, civil wars, national disasters, and poverty. They have struggled bravely and proudly, yet their country is consistently one of the poorest in Central America. Clean water is scarce, crime rates are high, half of the population lives below the poverty line, and Guatemala has the lowest literacy rate in Central America.

Guatemala also has suffered through 36 years of brutal civil war that ended in 1996 when peace accords, negotiated by the United Nations, were signed by both sides of the conflict. The country now enjoys free elections and political peace, however, the scars of three-plus decades of genocide and oppression are still evident. From 1960 to 1996, more than 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, and more than one million people became internal and external refugees. Experts estimate that 200,000 people were killed during the Guatemalan Civil War. [1]The U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission states that 83 percent of the victims were Mayan Indians. CEH

Since peace accords were signed in 1996, the freely elected leaders of Guatemala have made tremendous strides in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and trying to heal their war-torn nation. Roads, schools and airports have been built across the country. The economy slowly is growing, but Guatemala is still a developing country with very few resources to help those who need it most.

In the past ten years, Guatemala also has been affected by two major hurricanes that killed thousands and washed away towns and villages that were just beginning to rebuild after the war. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 was the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane in history. As a result of catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Mitch, approximately 11,000 people were confirmed dead in Central America, and more than 8,000 were reported missing. Hurricane Stan in 2005 killed more than 1,500 people in Guatemala alone.

We often think the distress caused by global poverty is happening halfway around the world, and we wonder what we can possibly do to help people so far away. Many Americans do not realize that Guatemala City is only a three-hour flight (1,100 air miles) from Houston, Texas. Because of Guatemala’s proximity, many opportunities exist for Americans to help relieve some of this suffering.


[1] Washington Post article

[CEH] UN-Sponsored Historical Clarification Commission

State Department website on Guatemala