The centre of an ancient Maya civilisation, Guatemala is invaded and colonised by the Spanish early in the 16th Century, beginning a 450-year period of social and political turmoil characterised by coups, assassinations and military dictatorships.

The country proclaims its independence in 1821, but real reform is not achieved until 1944 when a civilian is elected president. The following 10 years, the so-called Ten Years of Spring, see the introduction of a land acquisition program designed to improve the livelihood of the landless Mayan peasantry, but at the cost of antagonising the powerful United Fruit Company.

The company controls much of the agricultural land in Guatemala and has connections at the highest level in the United States Government.

The reformist Guatemalan Government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état in June 1954. The CIA's involvement includes the compilation of lists of individuals to be "eliminated", imprisoned or deported following the coup.

An outbreak of protests against the now military-aligned government in March and April of 1962 marks the beginning a 34-year civil war between leftist guerrilla groups and the government. The Mayan peasants are caught in the middle and suffer the brunt of the violence and killings.

The military controls the government for 20 out of the next 24 years.