Nation in N Central America, with a short coast on the Caribbean Sea on the E and a longer coast on the Pacific Ocean, with Mexico to the N, Belize to the E, Honduras to the SE, and El Salvador to the S. Most of the population, a little more than half Indian and the rest mestizo or mixed, lives in the highland region, which runs from E to W. There are tropical areas along the coasts. The economy is largely agricultural. Before Europeans arrived, Guatemala was a main center of the Maya Empire, especially the Peten region in the northern part of the country. A Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Alvarado, was sent here in 1523 to seek a passage to the Pacific, and in 1524 he defeated the Quiche Indians, southern Mayans.
In 1527 Santiago de los Cabelleros de Guatemala, better known as Ciudad Vieja, was founded as the capital of what became the captaincy general of Guatemala, which also included the present countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In 1541 Ciudad Vieja was destroyed by a volcanic flood, and a new capital was established nearby in 1542 at Antiqua. Antigua became one of the richest cities in the New World, but in 1773 it was destroyed by earthquakes, and in 1776 Guatemala City was founded as the new capital, which it has remained. When the region achieved independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala became part of the Mexican Empire, but this lasted only until 1823. In 1825, along with the same land s that had once been the captaincy general, Guatemala became part of the Central American Federation, which lasted until 1838, when the various countries separated. Government from c. 1840 to 1909 was marked by the propensity of Guatemalan presidents to interfere in the affairs of neighbors and to attempt to reestablish the Central American Federation. After President Jose Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua made another attempt, a conference in Washington, D.C., in 1907 resulted in the establishment of the Central American Court of Justice to deal with such disputes.
For the most part, 20th-century governments have been dictatorial, although some have brought a measure of material progress and , at times, reforms to the country. Under President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, starting in 1951, Guatemala turned toward the left, and large foreign-owned estates were expropriated. Arbenz Guzman’s regime was overthrown in 1954 with the United States’s assistance. The 1960s were marked by greater violence from both the left and the right, the U.S. ambassador being assassinated in August 1968. In February 1976 a devastating earthquake killed or wounded up to 100,000 people. Under President Fernand o Romeo Lucas Garcia, who took office in 1978, violence has increased, and the government has used repressive methods against leftists and moderates, according to one estimate, murdering as many as 5,000 opponents. In 1982 General Efrain Rios Montt took power in a coup, but was deposed in 1983 by another general, oscar Mejia Victores. Under a new constitution in 1985, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo was elected president, but the military continued to hold power while fighting the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) leftist guerrillas in the countryside. In 1990 Jorge Serrano Elias was elected president, but was forced to resign by the military in 1993. Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the attorney general for human rights, was elected by the congress to succeed Serrano and won passage of anticorruption reforms.
In the 1996 elections, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen, a former mayor of Guatemala City and foreign minister, won the presidency. He conducted a purge of top military officers and signed a UN-supervised peace accord with the URNG guerrillas. In 1999, Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a conservative lawyer associated with former dictator Rios Montt, was elected president. In 2002 Guatemala and Belize reached an agreement on a longstand ing border dispute. In 2003 oscar Berger Perdomo won the presidency, while Montt came in third despite violence and intimidation by some of his supporters. In 2004 former president Portillo was accused of corruption and fled to Mexico. Guatemala continues to reduce its military as the peace process in the country continues.