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Country Profile : Guatemala

Country profile: Guatemala

Map of Guatemala

A country of striking features and a strong indigenous culture, Guatemala's natural beauty and powerful identity stand in stark contrast to its bloody past and troubled present.

Mountainous, heavily forested and dotted with Mayan ruins, lakes, volcanoes, orchids and exotic birds, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful countries in Central America.

Its indigenous population, the Maya, make up about half of the population. Mayan languages are spoken alongside Spanish, the official tongue. Many Guatemalans are of mixed Amerindian-Hispanic origin.


Guatemala's beauty and strength of identity have not been accompanied by cohesion and prosperity. In 1996 it emerged from a 36-year-long civil war which pitted leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents against the army, which - backed by the US - waged a vicious campaign to eliminate the guerrillas.

Virgin of Guadeloupe procession, Guatemala City, 2006
Guatemalan pilgrims at a procession to honour the Virgin of Guadeloupe

More than 200,000 people - most of them civilians - were killed or disappeared.

Despite an official finding that 93% of all atrocities carried out during the war had been committed by the security forces, moves to bring those responsible to account started only after a long delay.

Guatemalans live in one of the most inequitable societies in the region. Poverty is particularly widespread in the countryside and among indigenous communities.

Illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition are among the highest in the region, life expectancy is among the lowest and, in common with many of its neighbours, the country is plagued by organised crime and violent street gangs. It is a major corridor for smuggling drugs from South America to the United States.

Despite talks and international mediation, a long-running territorial dispute with neigbouring Belize remains unresolved. Guatemala lays claim to thousands of square kilometres of land.


  • Full name: Republic of Guatemala
  • Population: 14 million (UN, 2009)
  • Capital: Guatemala City
  • Major languages: Spanish, more than 20 indigenous languages
  • Major religion: Christianity, indigenous Mayan beliefs
  • Life expectancy: 67 years (men), 74 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 quetzal = 100 centavos
  • Main exports: Coffee, sugar, bananas, fruits and vegetables, meat, petroleum, cardamon
  • GNI per capita: US $2,680 (World Bank, 2008)
  • Internet domain: .gt
  • International dialling code: + 502


President: Alvaro Colom

Engineer and businessman Alvaro Colom narrowly won the presidential election in November 2007 as centre left candidate of the National Unity for Hope (UNE).

Guatemalan president-elect Alvaro Colom
Alvaro Colom

He took office in January 2008.

He defeated right-wing retired general Otto Perez Molina, who said he would take a tough approach - mano dura, or strong hand - to social problems.

Although Colom does not belong to any of Guatemala's 23 Mayan ethnic groups, he is an ordained Mayan minister, and won a large share of the vote from the indigenous groups that represent 40% of the population.

Following his victory, he said he would create a government with a ''Mayan face'' that would seek national unity.

He also pledged to deal with the country's high crime and murder rates by tackling corruption in the security forces and judiciary, taking on the drug barons, and working to lift people out of poverty.

But the former deputy minister of economy inherits one of the poorest countries in Spanish speaking Latin America, where a large proportion of the population live on less than US$2 a day and the rich oppose tax increases.

In May 2009, Mr Colom's presidency was clouded by controversy when a murdered lawyer, in a video recorded before his death, said the president and other senior officials were trying to kill him and would be responsible for his murder.

Thousands of protesters marched though the capital to demand Mr Colom's resignation in response. The president insists he was not involved in the death of the lawyer, Rodrigo Rosenberg.


Press freedom is enshrined in Guatemala's constitution, and newspapers freely criticise the government.

Nonetheless, many journalists face intimidation because of their reporting, often in the form of anonymous threats. Reporters who expose corruption are particularly exposed.

Private operators dominate the media scene. Four national TV channels share the same owner and have a virtual monopoly in TV broadcasting. They have been criticised for being pro-government. Two state TV channels are licensed but are not broadcasting.

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