TheGuatemalan genocide stemmed from the Spanish conquest of Guatemala and repressionof its indigenous people, the Maya, in 1524. The Spanish enslaved the Maya towork the fertile land, and refusal of labor meant death. After encountering thehorrific treatment of Maya and other natives of the Indies, Dominican friarBartolomé de Las Casas appealed to Carlos V of Spain to end the violence. LasCasas had been in the Caribbean and Latin America since 1502, and had witnessedfirsthand the near complete genocide of the indigenous populations of Cuba and Hispaniola.
The king agreed with Las Casas and enacted the New Laws of 1542, which attemptedto cease the system of forced labor. The mass murder of Mayan lives stopped; however,slavery continued. Las Casas as well as other friars went on to convert theMaya to Christianity. It approached Mayan communities with pacifism and showed relativerespect to traditional beliefs.
Education was provided in the Mayan language aswell. Unsurprisingly, Christianity quickly became extremely powerful inGuatemala. By the time murmurs of independence started,Guatemalan society was already firmly established. Peninsulares, European-bornSpaniards, sat at the top of the social hierarchy. Next were the criollos, whowere Spaniards born in Latin America.
Below them were the mestizos, people ofSpanish and Mayan descent, as well as the mulattoes, people of Spanish andAfrican descent; both groups were also referred to as Ladinos, mixed people. Atthe bottom were the Maya and African slaves. While the peninsulares had a fargreater influence than all the other social classes, each social class used itspower on the classes below it. Consequently, the Maya and African slaves receivedthe harshest exploitation. The criollos were also upset at their social status,since they felt as though they should be equals with the peninsulares. Therefore,Guatemalan criollos revolted against Spanish rule after a Napoleonic attack in1808, which had rendered Spain weak. In 1821, Guatemala successfully achievedindependence from Spain, yet Ladinos, Maya, and Africans were still severelyoppressed. The Guatemalan government invariably tended to the Latin populationeven though Mayans and Ladinos comprised the majority of the country’spopulation.
Despite the seemingly ideal democratic institutions andconstitutions, Guatemalan politics continued to be dominated by corrupt, brutalleaders for the benefit of the commercial, military, landowning andbureaucratic ruling classes. The criollos prospered after Guatemala’s separationfrom Spain, but the lives of the Maya worsened. Spain’s safeguards, which hadgiven the Maya moderate protection, were deserted, and Mayan claims toancestral lands were largely disregarded while huge tobacco, sugar-cane andhenequen, agave rope fiber, plantations were set up. Debt peonage to richlandowners enslaved the Maya, yet the Maya were still legally considered free.