Modern-day Guatemala was once the heart of the Mayan empire, a civilization that thrived in Central America between 250 and 900 AD before beginning a mysterious, precipitous decline. The Mayans organized powerful, warring city-states and built massive stepped pyramids and other monuments. Archaeologists think Mayan cities had hundreds of thousands of residents at their peak.
The Mayans developed the only full written language in the Americas, an invaluable source of information for archaeologists. Carved on imposing stone slabs and the walls of tombs, Mayan writing chronicled the exploits of rulers. Forms of the Mayan language are still spoken by indigenous Guatemalans today.
Guatemala was also home to hunter-gatherers at least as far back as 12,000 BC. Pre-Mayan civilizations in the region included the Olmec, a culture that preceded the Maya. Distinctive Olmec stone and jade statuary is particularly prized on the international art market.
Experts estimate that 85 percent of Guatemala’s 5,000 known archaeological sites have been damaged by looters. In the 1970s, the sale of stolen and illegally excavated artifacts may have reached $13 million per year, with many of the items ending up on the international art market.
Looting increased again after the end of Guatemala’s three-decade civil war, in the vacuum of power left when both guerillas and government forces stepped back. Most looting is local, with impoverished villagers living near archaeological sites digging artifacts to sell to middlemen. Thieves have shifted their attention from massive stone stelae and sculptures to more easily-portable grave goods, including polychrome ceramics and jade objects found in royal or noble tombs. Sites on the Guatemala-Mexico border and on the country’s border with Belize are most threatened.
The jungle around Tikal, a national park since 1955 and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, is suffering from deforestation as a result of unsustainable agriculture and population pressure.Indigenous groups have occupied archaeological parks and sites, using slash-and-burn agricultural techniques to clear land for corn crops. The results have left the sites more vulnerable to flooding.
Government projects to promote tourism have increased the number of highways and tourist areas in sensitive rainforest areas around Mayan sites like Tikal and Quirigua. The damage to buildings and monuments is compounded by the disruption to the natural environment, including bird and other animal habitats.
Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic with a troubled history. A Spanish colony for more than three centuries, Guatemala became a “banana republic” in the late 19th century, virtually ruled by Boston-based United Fruit Company (today Chiquita Brands International.)
After a 1954 coup orchestrated by United Fruit and the CIA, Guatemala endured a civil war that lasted more than three decades, pitting anti-communist government forces against leftist guerillas. An estimated 200,000 people, nearly all civilians, were killed. The decades of war badly destabilized the country. Peace accords were signed in 1996, bringing an end to the fighting. In the years since, a truth and reconciliation commission was founded to create a dialogue about the past.
Guatemala is still plagued by deep corruption (it is ranked 120th in the world on Transparency International’s corruption index), but the national government has been more aggressive about rooting out embezzlement and fraud at the national level in the last decade.
Since the end of Guatemala’s civil war, indigenous groups have also begun asserting their rights to govern and manage Mayan sites, many of which are considered sacred.
Guatemala is Central America’s poorest country in terms of GDP per capita. It is also the region’s most populous, fastest-growing. More than half the population is below the poverty line, and poverty is highest among Guatemala’s indigenous groups. Nearly half of Guatemalan children under 5 years old are chronically malnourished.
Guatemala’s main industry is agriculture, particularly sugar and bananas. Textile and clothing manufacturing are also major industries. Tourism is increasingly important, with foreign visitors contributing $1.3 billion to Guatemala’s economy in 2011. The tourism sector, particularly ecological and archaeological tourism, has steadily improved since 2002. Rumors that the Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012 reportedly gave Guatemalan tourism an additional boost last year.
Looters have been successfully prosecuted and imprisoned under new national heritage laws passed in 2003. Major sites like Tikal are well-guarded, but smaller sites are often unmonitored and vulnerable to organized gangs of looters.Only 10 percent of Guatemala’s 5,000 known sites are under guard. The legacy of the civil war also means guns are widespread, and looters are often as well armed as the police.
A signatory to the 1970 UNESCO convention, Guatemala forbids the exportation and sale of antiquities. It has been aggressive in demanding that foreign museums and collectors return artifacts it considers stolen. A memorandum of understanding with the US signed in 1997 has made it easier for Guatemalan officials to recover artifacts seized by US Customs, and the country is working to negotiate similar agreements with trading partners including Spain, Italy and Colombia.
Antiquities are the responsibility of Guatemala’s Ministry of Culture and Sports, under the direction of Carlos BatzinChojoj. A recently-formed department within the State Prosecutor’s Office coordinates the efforts of some 15 agencies, including the airport authority, the Guatemalan Institute for Tourism, and the Ministry of Culture and Sport.