Guatemala is steeped in Mayan ancestry that has survived through to this day. The Mayans were dominant through much of Central America from the fifth to the eighth century at which time their civilisation declined and a variety of other ethnic groups moved into the region. Europeans arrived in the 15th century, and Guatemala was conquered by Pedro de Alvarado in the 16th century. It wasn’t until the early 19th century however, that the Spanish conceded independence to their American colonies, principally Mexico, into which Guatemala was briefly incorporated in 1822. Guatemala enjoyed comparative stability, punctuated by brief periods of upheaval, under a series of dictators who were content to keep the country under a quasi-feudal regime underpinned by a small clique of land-owning families.
The government of Colonel Arbenz Guzman attempted various land reforms in the early 1950s, but was overthrown by a US-backed invasion led by military opponents. The country then slid into a state of almost perpetual civil war between a series of right-wing military governments and various leftist guerrilla movements.
Guatemala’s successful transition from military to civilian government began in May 1985, when the new constitution was put into effect. The centre-right Partido Democracia Cristiana Guatemalteca (PDCG) formed the majority party in the new National Congress, staying in control until 1995 when they came up against serious challenges from the Plan por el Adelantamiento Nacional (National Advance Party, PAN), and the Frente Republicano - Guatemalteco (FRG). A period of political musical chairs ended in 1995 with a FRG/PDCG coalition in control.
The FRG and PAN now dominate Guatemalan politics. Only now has the Government admitted that its predecessors, especially the Rios Montt regime, were responsible for massive human rights abuses: this is still a central and highly sensitive issue in Guatemala. A UN-sponsored investigation concluded in 1999 that the army was responsible for 90% of the estimated 200,000 killings. The complicity of American governments in the counter-insurgency campaign was also highlighted, and drew an apology from US president Bill Clinton.
In July 2002, the Pope visited Guatemala. This was a major event in this deeply Catholic country. John Paul canonised the country's first saint, the 17th-century missionary Pedro de San Jose de Betancur.