Rigoberta Menchú Tum


Guatemala proclaims its independence in 1821, but real reform is not achieved until 1944 when a civilian is elected president. The following 10 years see the introduction of a land acquisition program designed to improve the livelihood of the landless Mayan peasantry. In June 1954 the reformist government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état.

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. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 9 January 1959 near the township of Uspantan in the Quiché ethnic region of the western highlands of Guatemala. Menchú's family is Quiché and holds title to almost 3,000 hectares of land. The Quiché are a subgroup of the Mayan Indians. The region where Menchú is born will suffer the greatest proportion of human rights abuses and acts of violence during the Guatemalan civil war.

1962 - A welter of guerrilla groups emerge in Guatemala following a government crackdown on dissent. The Guatemalan civil war goes into full swing when the groups begin to engage in armed conflict with the security forces.

The army doubles its troop numbers, establishes control over the police, and develops an intelligence network to gather information on the guerrilla groups and their supporters.

1965 - The first massacre of civilians by the army is reported in the eastern region of the country.

1966 - The army launches a major campaign against guerrillas operating in the countryside, forcing them to retreat to Guatemala City. The guerrillas reorganise and consolidate then begin a campaign of high-profile kidnappings and assassinations. United States ambassador John Gordon Mein is assassinated in 1968. German ambassador Karl von Spreti is kidnapped and murdered in 1970.

The guerrillas are pursued by the police. Unofficial "death squads" are also formed. The squads use civilian informers and lists prepared by military intelligence to target alleged "subversives" for elimination. They are tolerated by the government and receive clandestine military support.

In December 1974 the government sets up the Commando School (Escuela de Comandos) to train an elite counterinsurgency force. The school is renamed the Kaibil Centre for Training and Special Operations (Centro de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales Kaibil) in March 1975. The centre's graduates, known as the Kaibiles, will be implicated in numerous human rights abuses over the coming years. Their motto is "the Kaibil is a killing machine".

Civilians suffer the most in the fight between the guerrillas and the state. Between 1966 and 1970 about 10,000 civilians are killed in army campaigns. At least 50,000 more are killed during the 1970s.

Many guerrillas flee the country. Some go to Cuba to receive military training and support from Fidel Castro's communist regime.

1978 - Military strongman General Fernando Romeo Lucas García becomes president of Guatemala. His period in office is marked by an escalation of the civil war violence, especially between the months of October 1981 and March 1982.

Three members of Menchú's immediate family die during García's rule. Her 16-year-old brother, Petrocinio, is arrested and executed by the army. Menchú's mother is kidnapped by state forces, abused then left to die. Her father, Vicente, dies along with 38 others when a fire breaks out at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City during a meeting between activists and the Spanish ambassador in January 1980. All inside the embassy compound are killed except the ambassador, who escapes but is badly injured. Menchú's father had been representing Mayan peasants at the meeting.

Menchú is increasingly politicised by the experiences of her family and people. She joins and becomes active in the Peasant Unity Committee (CUC). The CUC advocates land reform and respect for the human rights of the Mayans. It becomes the largest peasant organisation in the country. Menchú is made a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the CUC in 1986.

In 1981 she participates in large demonstrations in Guatemala City and joins the radical 31st of January Popular Front. In 1982 she helps found an umbrella opposition group, the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition.

Menchú's political activities place her life in danger. She goes into hiding in Guatemala and then into exile in neighbouring Mexico.

1981 - The guerrillas widen their campaign. They occupy municipal capitals, sabotage installations, block roads and conduct executions. Police stations in the capital are attacked. Sabotage becomes widespread.

The army sets up and sponsors civilian vigilante groups, the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Self-defence Patrols), throughout the country to keep so-called "subversives" in check. Between 600,000 and one million mostly Mayan peasants are conscripted into the patrols.

1982 - Brigadier-general Efraín Ríos Montt takes control of the country following a military coup on 23 March. A three-member junta is installed. The junta annuls the constitution, dissolves parliament, suspends political parties and cancels the election law.

Ríos Montt disbands the junta and assumes the presidency on 8 June. He rules as a dictator until he too is ousted in another military coup on 8 August 1983.

The 14 months of Ríos Montt's rule become the bloodiest period in Guatemala's history since the invasion of the country by the Spanish some 400 years earlier. Mayans suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas are killed en mass or subjected to atrocities. Women and girls are raped. The use of torture is widespread. Over 400 Mayan villages are razed. Crops and livestock are destroyed. At least 20,000 and possibly as many as 70,000 civilians are killed or "disappeared".

Altogether, in the period 1981 to 1983, as many as 100,000 civilians are killed or "disappeared" by the military and civilian patrols. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million are displaced.

1983 - During a trip to Paris, Menchú tells her life story to Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, a French leftist whose husband was involved with Che Guevara's ill-fated attempt to start a revolution in Bolivia during the 1960s. The tape recording of the four-day interview forms the basis of Menchú's autobiography, which Burgos-Debray transcribes.

1984 - Menchú's autobiography, 'I, Rigoberta Menchú - An Indian Woman in Guatemala', is published to wide acclaim and brings international attention to the plight of the Mayan Indians in Guatemala. Menchú begins to emerge as an internationally recognised advocate for her people. She speaks throughout the Americas and at the United Nations (UN) and becomes one of the first Indian delegates to the UN.

Menchú is labelled a communist by the Guatemalan authorities and accused of being linked to the guerrilla movement. She returns to Guatemala to plead the cause of the Mayan peasants numerous times, but is continuously forced back into exile by death threats.

1987- Guatemala begins to move towards peace when representatives of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the government establish a dialogue during a meeting in Spain.

The URNG is a grouping of Guatemala's principal guerrilla groups. While some progress is made, including the creation by the government of the National Reconciliation Commission, both sides continue to engage in armed actions.

1992 - Menchú is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples".

Speaking at the presentation ceremony, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "By maintaining a disarming humanity in a brutal world, Rigoberta Menchú Tum appeals to the best in all of us, wherever we live and whatever our background. She stands as a uniquely potent symbol of a just struggle. ...

"It is stupid to meet the world with too much trust, but even more stupid to meet it with too little. The goal of Rigoberta Menchú Tum's work, as she has said on many occasions; is reconciliation and peace. She knows, better than most, that the foundations for future reconciliation are laid in the manner in which one conducts one's struggle. Even in the most brutal situations, one must retain one's faith that there is a minimum of human feelings in all of us. Rigoberta Menchú Tum preserved that faith."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

Menchú is the first indigenous person and, at 33, the youngest ever to receive the award. She uses the US$1.2 million prize money to establish and direct the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation. The foundation's mission is to work to secure the rights of indigenous people around the world. It receives further financial aid from international funding agencies.

The granting of the award to Menchú is generally applauded, though critics state that she should have been disqualified because of her alleged participation in violent guerrilla actions against the Guatemalan Government.

Meanwhile, the government and representatives of Guatemala's large exiled population sign an agreement setting the conditions for their return from Mexico. The first group of refugees returns on 20 January 1993.

The Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation provides aid to the refugees, including assistance with the acquisition of land. The foundation also develops projects aimed at improving the education, health care and human rights of the Mayans. Menchú subsequently becomes a nationally recognised figure in Guatemala.

1993 - The UN declares 1993 as the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples and 1994-2003 as the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples. Menchú is appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for the year, then as the official spokesperson for the decade. She is also appointed as personal adviser to the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

1994 - UN-moderated peace talks begin between the Guatemalan Government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Both parties agree to the establishment of a Commission for Historical Clarification in order "to clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people".

In May the Indigenous Initiative for Peace (IIP) is established at an assembly held in Mexico City. Directed by Menchú, who also played the leading role in its foundation, the IIP is a network of indigenous leaders committed to ensuring the complete acknowledgement of the rights of indigenous people around the world.

1995 - The URNG declares a cease-fire. In April the Guatemalan Government and the URNG sign the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The accord acknowledges that the issue "of identity and rights of the indigenous peoples constitutes a point of fundamental and historic importance for the present and future of Guatemala".

The accord commits the government to act to end civil rights abuses against the indigenous population by recognising ethnic discrimination as a crime, publicising the rights of the indigenous peoples through education, the media and other means, and opening the legal system to indigenous communities.

The government will also sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples being developed by the UN and implement constitutional reforms to establish indigenous cultural and linguistic rights.

However, the accord will not take effect until a final peace pact is signed. The accord also fails to meet Indian and URNG demands for ancestral territory, local political autonomy and measures to alleviate the extreme poverty of Indian groups.

The government and the URNG chart the road to lasting peace when they sign the Accord of Oslo on 23 June. The accord outlines measures for widespread social reforms, including the drafting and approval of a national reconciliation law, and activates the Commission for Historical Clarification.

The commission has the backing of the UN as well as governments from around the world and international non-government organisations. It spends four years interviewing survivors and identifying and examining grave sites. It receives thousands of testimonies, speaks to former heads of state and the high command of both the army and the guerrillas, and reads thousands of pages of documents submitted by non-government organisations. It hopes that by establishing the truth of the violence committed during the civil war it will aid the process of reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Menchú outlines initiatives proposed for the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples. Chief among these is the ratification of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN.

"I resolutely believe that respect for diversity is a fundamental pillar in the eradication of racism, xenophobia and intolerance," Menchú says. "There is no excuse for evading the responsibility of finding the most suitable path toward the elimination of any expression of discrimination against indigenous peoples."

1996 - Peace comes at last on 29 December when the URNG and government sign the Accord for Firm and Lasting Peace. Guatemala's 34-year civil war, the longest in Latin America's modern history, finally comes to an end.

1998 - Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera presents the Roman Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory (Never Again) Report detailing the Guatemalan Army's involvement in the atrocities of the civil war. The report attributes about 90% of human rights violations committed during the conflict to the state forces. Two days later, on 26 April, the bishop is beaten to death.

In 2001 three army officers and a Roman Catholic priest are brought to trial for the murder. Despite intimidation of prosecutors, witnesses and judges involved in the case, the three are convicted. The officers are sentenced to 30 years jail each. The priest receives a 20-year sentence. The identities of those responsible for issuing the order to kill the bishop are never revealed. The convictions are annulled by a Guatemalan appeals court in 2002. All four accused remain in jail pending a retrial.

During the year, Menchú's credibility is called into question when it is revealed that her autobiography, 'I, Rigoberta Menchú', contains numerous inconsistencies and exaggerations. On 15 December 'The New York Times' publishes an article corroborating the revelations and characterising Menchú as the "tarnished laureate". Critics subsequently label the autobiography, which in large part led to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Menchú, as a massive fraud.

While Menchú initially refuses to comment directly, a statement from the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation claims that the critics are seeking to restore a "paternalistic vision" and that the investigation that led to the revelations of the autobiography's inaccuracies was "of dubious seriousness".

The Nobel Committee dismisses calls to rescind Menchú's Peace Prize, and the autobiography remains on the curriculum for school students in the United States.

At a later press conference, Menchú states that her book was not an "autobiography" but a "testimony".

"It tells my personal testimony, but it also has parts of the testimony of the collectiveness of Guatemala," she says. "For common people such as myself, there is no difference between testimony, biography, and autobiography ... What we do is tell what we have lived, not just alone."

Menchú, meanwhile, publishes a second book, 'Crossing Frontiers'.

1999 - The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) hands down its report in May. Titled 'Memory of Silence', the report finds that the army and the Civil Self-defence Patrols were responsible for 93% of the human rights abuses documented by the CEH, including 92% of the arbitrary executions and 91% of the "forced disappearances". Eighty-five percent of all abuses were attributable to the army, and 18% to the patrols.

The guerrilla groups were responsible for 3% of the human rights abuses, including 5% of the arbitrary executions and 2% of the forced disappearances.

Of all the violations documented by the CEH, 91% were committed during the years 1978 to 1984.

"The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state," the report says.

"In consequence, the CEH concludes that agents of the state of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in the four regions analysed."

The report documents 42,275 victims of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the civil war, including 23,671 victims of arbitrary execution and 6,159 victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of the identified victims are Mayan, and 17% are Ladino (people of European decent). According to the CEH, these figures "are only a sample of the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation".

"Combining this data with the results of other studies of political violence in Guatemala, the CEH estimates that the number of persons killed or disappeared as a result of the fratricidal confrontation reached a total of over 200,000," the report says.

"State terror was applied to make it clear that those who attempted to assert their rights, and even their relatives, ran the risk of death by the most hideous means. The objective was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term."

The report finds that the greatest proportional of human rights abuses and acts of violence (46%) occurred in the Quiché ethnic region in the country's west, the homeland of Menchú and her family.

The report's recommendations to encourage "peace and national harmony in Guatemala" include the prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses and the introduction of new socially responsible codes to govern the behaviour of the army, the intelligence forces and the police.

Full copy of the report (PDF - English).

Despite the signing of the peace accord and release of the CEH report, an atmosphere of fear remains in Guatemala.

In May 1999 Guatemalans reject constitutional reforms granting rights to the Mayans and restricting the influence of the army. Demands by Mayan organisations for compliance with the 1996 peace accords, including the redistribution of land and prosecution of war criminals, are countered with intimidation and violence. A Mayan leader is shot dead in 2000. Threats to journalists, human rights workers, judges, prosecutors and Mayan citizens increase.

Menchú receives death threats. She moves to Mexico City full-time. In April 2002 an accountant working for the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation is shot dead shortly after his office receives four anonymous phone calls of taped funeral music. Several members of the country's Catholic Church, including a bishop, receive death threats prior to a visit to Guatemala by the Pope John Paul II in July 2002.

From her exile in Mexico, Menchú comments, "Genocide will not return, nor torture nor disappearances, but the situation is grave," she says. "True peace has become a myth."

2002 - On 3 September a trial commences of three former senior commanders of the presidential security and intelligence unit who are accused of instigating the 1990 murder of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, a vocal critic of the military's mistreatment of rural indigenous communities.

The trial is the first in which prison terms are being sought for high-ranking officers implicated in crimes committed by the military during the civil war and is seen as an important test of Guatemala's judicial system. One of the accused, the retired Colonel Juan Valencia, is subsequently found guilty of ordering the murder and is sentenced to 30 years in jail. The two other defendants are acquitted.

Valencia escapes custody in 2004.

2004 - On 15 January the new president of Guatemala, Oscar Berger, invites Menchú to join his administration as "goodwill ambassador to the peace accords" in charge of monitoring the country's adherence to the agreement. According to President Berger's wife, Wendy Widmann de Berger, the new administration believes that Menchú "is the person who can show the world the changes we want to make".

Menchú accepts the invitation, saying she "would like to play this role and offer to Guatemala all the contacts of friendship that many communities have given me".

2007 - Menchú announces the formation of an Indian-led political movement designed to back her expected bid for the presidency at elections scheduled for 9 September.

"For 200 years of the Guatemalan republic we Indians have been voters but not elected officials and this is the moment to change that," Menchú tells a press conference.

The movement is called Winaq, a Mayan word meaning "the wholeness of the human being".

Menchú stands as the presidential candidate for the left-leaning Together for Guatemala party but polls poorly when the election is held, finishing sixth in a field of 14 after receiving only 3% of the vote.

2011 - On 17 June retired General Hector Mario Lopez is arrested on charges of genocide and forced disappearance arising from the civil war. Lopez was allegedly involved in about 200 massacres committed while he was chief-of-staff of the Guatemalan military between 1982 and 1983. He is the highest-ranking official to be detained for alleged crimes committed during the war. Retired General Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez is also charged with genocide for his role in the massacres.

On 26 January 2012 Efraín Ríos Montt is ordered to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the case against Lopez and Sanchez. Ríos Montt is alleged to have been involved in 266 incidents that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans.

A second genocide charge is lodged against Ríos Montt on 22 May. Prosecutors allege Ríos Montt was responsible for a military operation that killed 201 farmers in the northern village of Dos Erres on 7 December 1982.

The trials of Ríos Montt and Sanchez drag on over the following years, through a conviction then an annulment then debate over whether Ríos Montt is mentally and physically capable of understanding the charges against him and participating in his defence. Ríos Montt dies on 1 April 2018. His trial ends without a definitive verdict.


The revelations in 1998 that Menchú's autobiography may not have been the whole truth and nothing but the truth caused a bit of controversy at the time and got pundits from both the left and the right up and riding on some rather high horses. It was a classic case of the critics not seeing the wood for the trees.

Menchú's recollections may have been unreliable - so what. She is a Mayan woman born and breed in the ethnic region that suffered the worst of the reign of terror orchestrated and carried out by the Guatemalan state forces. Of that there is no doubt. As a teenager and young woman living in Guatemala she witnessed and experienced the terror first hand. Again, little doubt there.

Menchú herself has described her book as a testimony of the experience of her whole people, and she has become something of an icon, not just for the experience of the Mayans in Guatemalan, but for the experiences of indigenous peoples around the world. The genocide that took place in Guatemala may have been a particularly extreme current example of the discrimination suffered by indigenous populations, but it is far from a precedent.

Consider the history of all the Indian nations across the Americas, or of the Aborigines in Australia, or the Tibetans in their homeland, to name just a few. The stories are not edifying; and it often appears that they are something the rest of the world would rather forget. Menchú, and others like her, jolt that complacency. That is why she is represented here.