Guatemala in the 1980s: A Genocide Turned into Ethnocide?

GIGA Working Paper No 19

26 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2006 Last revised: 5 Mar 2014

See all articles by Anika Oettler

Anika Oettler

German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA)

Date Written: March 1, 2006


While the Guatemalan Truth Commission came to the conclusion that agents of the state had committed acts of genocide in the early 1980s, fundamental questions remain. Should we indeed speak of the massacres committed between 1981 and 1983 in Guatemala as "genocide", or would "ethnocide" be the more appropriate term? In addressing these questions, this paper focuses on the intentions of the perpetrators. Why did the Guatemalan military chose mass murder as the means to "solve the problem of subversion"? In Guatemala, the discourses of communist threat, racism and Pentecostal millenarism merged into the intent to destroy the Mayan population. This paper demonstrates that the initial policy of physical annihilation (genocidal option) was transformed into a policy of restructuring the sociocultural patterns of the Guatemalan highlands (ethnocidal option).

Keywords: genocide studies, Guatemala, human rights violations, massacres

Suggested Citation

Oettler, Anika, Guatemala in the 1980s: A Genocide Turned into Ethnocide? (March 1, 2006). GIGA Working Paper No 19, Available at SSRN: or

Anika Oettler (Contact Author)

German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) ( email )

Neuer Jungfernstieg 21
Hamburg, DE D-20354

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