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Rio Dulce, Guatemala

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Not being a historian, this section has been an extreme challenge for me. Finding literature here is a challenge and finding a complete history is non existant as far as I know. So this is a compilation of bits and pieces I have been able to find. The accuracy of dates, names, and various details hopefully follow an overall truth that at some point I will find some help by someone better versed than I. I have to admit to being shocked and dissapointed to learn much of the information I have located from relatively reliable sources. With that in mind, this History section could just as easily be titled "Why I'm an Ex-Pat" and humbled and proud to be accepted by these people. If you get the opportunity to take time and get to know the indigenous of this country, you will also learn how amazingly resillient, creative and compassionate they are. I hope that my studies and recollections of my experiences here portray them in a respectful and accurate way that you too will begin to understand their plight and why our interactions with them are as they are.

Indigenous People

The cultural differences can be drastic in that their ethics are so foreign to our modern consumeristic society that they often seem totally illogical. But for them, they maintain their non-materialistic ways of respecting the earth and what it provides. Granted, with what we know today about the environment and what is going on, there is a dire need for some of the traditional ways to make room for more effecient, healthy means to accomplish some things. To us, their non-materialistic ways seem wasteful as they don't put value on "things" and don't care for them as we do and they just get discarded. But that will take time and the ability to show by example.

Guatemala is the center of Mayan culture and contains important remnants of this important ancient civilization. The Maya are among the three great ancient civilizations of the Americas, along with the Aztec of Mexico and the Inca of Peru. The history of the Maya can be traced back almost 4,000 years, reaching its pinnacle around the 6th to 8th centuries, before eventually succumbing to the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. The Mayan Empire stretched through parts of Guatemala, Belize, the Yucatan Peninsula and in to the western areas of present-day Honduras and El Salvador. Mayan architecture, agriculture, mathematics and astronomy was advanced and they left behind a writing system which has yet to be fully deciphered.

The Maya civilization flourished in Guatemala and surrounding regions during the first millennium A.D. After almost three centuries as a Spanish colony, Guatemala won its independence in 1821. During the second half of the 20th century, it experienced a variety of military and civilian governments, as well as a 36-year guerrilla war. In 1996, the government signed a peace agreement formally ending the conflict, which had left more than 100,000 people dead and had created some 1 million refugees.

The first evidence of human settlers in Guatemala goes back to at least 12,000 BC. There is evidence that may put this date as early as 18,000 BC, such as obsidian arrowheads found in various parts of the country. There is archaeological proof that early Guatemalan settlers were hunters and gatherers, but pollen samples from Petén and the Pacific coast indicate that maize cultivation was developed by 3500 BC. Sites dating back to 6500 BC have been found in Quiché in the Highlands and Sipacate, Escuintla on the central Pacific coast.

The Chol Indians

Some two thousand or more years ago, the Chol Indians inhabited the region which is now known as Guatemala and Honduras. Over time, they split into two main groups, the Chol migrating gradually to the region of present day Chiapas, and the Chortis staying in the region of Guatemala. The Choles of the present day call themselves "Winik" ("Man") and primarily occupy northern Chiapas, adjacent to the states of Tabasco and Campeche.

The Chol Indians of Campeche numbered 8,844 in the 2000 census and accounted for 9.4% of the indigenous-speaking population of the state. The small number of Chol living in Campeche, in fact, represented only 5.47% of the 161,766 Choles who lived in the entire Mexican Republic. According to, the Chol belong to the Chol-Chontal subfamily of the Maya Linguistic Group. The Chontal of Tabasco are, in fact, a very closely related language as are the Chortí of Guatemala. The Chol are the dominant indigenous language in three southern Campeche municipios: Calakmul (4,253 speakers in 2000), Escárcega (1,804), and Candelaria (1,388).

Exploitation of South and Central America has existed for hundreds of years including here in Guatemala, first by the Spanish conquistadors, pirates, then the British Empire, and most recently the United States. Now this part is totally up to personal interpretation because some people say that what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, and there are many who say that Guatemala wouldn't be what it is today if the people who came to exploit hadn't done so. I am empathetic and one for the underdog so I will just write based on what I've seen and what I've researched.

Capitalism, as it always has been and is still structured, for the most part is designed to drain wealth or resources like a parasite from some countries to enrich others; in the process creating poverty that only serves to perpetuate the cycle of impoverishment and enrichment. The poorer (and more illiterate) your population is, the cheaper is the labor pool and the more you have to export of your national wealth: minerals, agriculture or beef. And to keep all those poor in their place, you need terror and dictators to implement it. The result is what we often derisively refer to as the "banana republics" where most of the wealth, land and power are held by a handful of ruling families who have the military and secret police to keep the masses of poor subjugated and working for poverty wages. And because the movement of the nation's wealth flows through fingers of power brokers and latifundista, they continue to become richer and richer and the impoverished stay where they are.

To my knowledge so far, the Izabal/Rio Dulce area was first inhabited by the Chol Indians who were traders with the Spaniards and now mostly reside around northern Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. Guatemala, as an integral part of the ancient Mayan civilization, came under Spanish control in 1524 and became free from Spanish colonial rule in 1821. In 1831, the government ceded a large amount of territory to Britain that became British Honduras, and present day Belize. In 1839 the Republic of Guatemala was established.


Conquistador is the term widely used to refer to the Spanish soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under the control of Spain in the 15th through the 19th centuries following Europe's discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The leaders of the conquest of the Aztec Empire were Hernán Cortés and Pedro de Alvarado. Francisco Pizarro led the conquest of the Incan Empire. The conquistadors in the Americas were more volunteer militia than an actual organized military. They had to supply their own materials, weapons and horses. Some were supported by a government, such as Hernan Cortes, by Spain.

To the indigenous, they saw these people come in great ships with huge wings of cloth, strange pale men clad in iron. They rode astride great beasts they bent to their will, just as they bent the people to their will. Recent genetic studies on the skeletal remains of native peoples found that while many hundreds of thousands were killed by violence, an even higher number died by disease. They brought small pox, chicken pox, and measles with them to South America.

Such might have been the words of a native of Central America in the early 1500's describing the Spanish conquistadors (literally, conquerors). These were soldiers of the Spanish Crown who were seeking personal riches, as well as wealth and land for Spain. They also sought to extend the boundaries of Christendom by converting the natives to Christianity. For the most part they succeeded. Today, it is hard to find much sympathy for these conquistadors who destroyed Native American cultures from Mexico to the southern tip of South America, enslaved and decimated the Native American population, and then imported some 8 million Africans as slaves (now known as the Garifuna) to work on their plantations and in their mines over the next 300 years.

In 1517 Cuban governor Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, commissioned a fleet of three ships under the command of Hernández de Córdoba to sail west and explore the Yucatán peninsula. Córdoba reached the coast of Yucatan. The Mayans at Cape Catoche invited the Spaniards to land, upon which Córdoba had the Spaniards read the Requirement of 1513 to them. Córdoba took two prisoners whom he named Melchor and Julian to be interpreters. On the western side of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spaniards were attacked at night by Maya chief Mochcouoh (Mochh Couoh). Twenty Spaniards were killed. Córdoba was mortally wounded and only a remnant of his crew returned to Cuba. The year after the ill-fated Córdoba expedition, Governor Velázquez decided to commission another expedition under the leadership of his nephew Juan de Grijalva. Grijalva's expedition of four ships sailed south along the coast of Yucatan to the Tabasco region, a part of the Aztec empire.

Not being part of the Aztec Empire, the conquest and initial subjugation of the independent city-state polities of the Late Postclassic Maya civilization came many years later. With the help of tens of thousands of Xiu Mayan warriors, it would take more than 170 years for the Spanish to establish control of the Maya homelands, which extended from northern Yucatán to the central lowlands region of El Petén and the southern Guatemalan highlands. The end of this latter campaign is generally marked by the downfall of the Maya state based at Tayasal in the Petén region, in 1697.

Whatever they may have been ethically, and whatever their goals, the conquistadors transformed Central America into an entirely new culture. Having crushed the Mayan, Incan and Aztec empires, Spain set about consolidating the New World territories. This started as early as 1501 when Spain legalized intermarriage with the natives to encourage soldiers to settle in the New World, leading to the emergence of the "mestizos." By 1540 most of what is now Central America was organized into the Captaincy-General of Central America.

Along with the imposition of their political rule, the Spanish also brought their language and their religion. Following the conquest of Mexico, they established the "Encomienda" system, granting land, along with the natives living on it, to Spanish royalty and gentry. Under the Encomienda, the native people were virtual slaves and treated as such. That harsh treatment, along with European disease, created horrific conditions. The system was reformed in 1542 into the "Repatrimento" that gave Royal officers authority to regulate the granting and administration of the estates. This was partly due to the humanitarian efforts of a former conquistador, Bertolomo des Las Casas, to secure better treatment of the native people. It's likely his success was more due to concern about the dwindling numbers of Native American workers, however.

With the institution of the Repatrimento, Spain had virtually recreated the feudal social structure of Europe. At the top of the social hierarchy were the "Peninsulars"the Spanish-born whites, and just below them whites born in the New World, the Creoles. The native people had some rights, but had been transformed into a peasant class dependent on the owners of the great estates and plantations. Those rights were not extended to African slaves, however. Which somehow fits in about the Garifuna who the Spanish got involved in this scenario around 1635. To learn that history click here.

This was the structure of Central American society that evolved and to an extent it survives today. The region that is now Central America (with the exception of British Honduras, now Belize) declared independence as the Federal Republic of Central America in 1821, while Spain was occupied with the Mexican Revolution.

Today, the nations of Central America are societies largely shaped by the actions of those long-gone conquistadores. Most of the population speaks Spanish, though the old native languages survive to some extent in remote rural areas. Catholicism is the dominant religion. Society is still stratified, with a distinct upper class elite, a middle class, and the poor at the bottom many of whom continue to live traditional lives of non-materialistic living off the land much as their peasant ancestors have for more than 400 years. Their philosophy is using only what they need and making offerings and prayers for what the earth provides them. To them, people who just use, take the wealths of the earth are considered greedy and often labeled, thieves. The influence of the Spanish conquest and rule permeates all facets of Central American culture, and can be easily discerned in architecture, art, and cuisine, as well as religion, language, and social structure.

Pirates of the Caribbean;

pirayesIn the early 1600's, with the trade between Guatemala and Spain via what was then called the Golfo Dulce. It was only natural that enemies of the Spaniards and those "not so moral" sailors who learned of the riches the Spanish plundered, wanted some of the wealth that the Caribbean held. Constant attacks by pirates began in the Gulf of Mexico and incursions into Guatemala through the Rio Dulce made it necessary to defend the entrance to Lake Izabal where warehouses had been set up for goods entering from or leaving for Spain. A simplified timeline here may be the easiest way to document this as the information on the actual history is sketchy and hard to find.

In 1595 The Governor informed King Philip II of Spain of the attacks suffered and it was decided to build a tower equipped with twelve artillery pieces and twelve soldiers. The tower was called the Sande Tower.

1604 After the first tower was destroyed it was rebuilt by Captain Don Pedro de Bustamante, from whom it took its name, the Bustamante Tower. It was around this time that the port at Santo Tomas de Castilla was founded.

1640 The pirates intensified their attacks in this area. Some rather famous (or infamous) pirates were involved in the attacks on the Rio Dulce including: Diego the Mulatto, Lieutenant of "Pegleg" Anthony Shirly. Shirly was a pirate of aristocratic birth, called the Adventurous Gentleman, the Highwayman from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Also involved were Carefull and William Jackson who had their base of operations on the islands of Guanaja and Roatan. William Parker, known as the plunderer of Santo Domingo and Puerto Bello also made attacks on the Rio Dulce.

1651 Judge Lara y Mogrovejo rebuilt the fort a second time, calling it San Felipe de Lara Castle in honor of the king and himself.

1655 Pirate attacks decreased and the fort became a prison and place of exile because of the harsh climate.

1660-1666 The De la Costa brothers were pirates established on the island of Tortuga. During this time, they renewed attacks on the Rio Dulce, pillaging the fort and once more causing it to be returned to its original defensive purpose.

1669 Martin de Andujar, a military engineer, was sent to carry out an inspection of the fort. In his report he stated that the fort was greatly damaged and not functional. It had only a 10 yard circular tower covered with straw and rotten wooden plates.

1672 Artillery General Francisco de Escobedo was ordered to improve the fort, enclose the entry with a portcullis and to raise the ramparts.

1679 A new attack took the castle lookouts by surprise and the pirates were able to seize the fort. They then proceeded to attack "Bodegas", today called Mariscos, where provisions and other material going to and from Spain were loaded and stored. Following this attack, Sergeant Major Diego Gomez de Ocampo was sent to make an inspection of the fort. He determined the nature of its tactical deficiencies and drew up a plan for the fort.

1683 The Dutch pirate Jan Zaques and the Corsair called Lorenzo terrorized the Rio Dulce and the Coast of Campeche constantly.

1684 Zaques took the fort at San Felipe de Lara, setting fire to it and stealing munitions and artillery pieces.

1685 Following the attack and destruction of the fort by Zaques, a meeting of captains was held to determine the feasibility of holding the fort. They finally agreed on its reconstruction because of its strategic location and because it was the sole defense of the route to the interior of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.

1688 The fort was again rebuilt and its defensive capacity expanded with ramparts and 100 guard positions. This work was done by the military engineer Andres Ortiz de Urbina. The attacks stopped and peace returned to the region for a while.

1736 Three lookout points were established at Fronteras, Zapote and Tameja because of fighting along the coast and at sea.

1955 Restoration: Dr. Janos de Szecsi was asked to do the basic investigation of the ruins of the fort. He supervised the plans and works which were carried out by the architect Francisco Ferrus Roig. Roig and others did research at the General Archives of the Indies in Spain where he found old plans and documents relating to the castle. Excavations at the site uncovered foundations and remains of different eras. The cannons which can now be seen were found upriver from the fort. Reconstruction was completed in 1956.

After a detailed study, it could be seen that existing parts from different eras could be superimposed without losing the unity of the whole, increasing The Castillo's historical interest and stimulating the visitors' imagination. Thus the first fortification, Bustamante Tower, on which the bulwark of San Felipe was erected, could be preserved.

British Involvement In Central America

As early as 1638, the British used Belize as a source for logwood, a tree used to make a wool dye. The area was claimed by Spain but they had not settled it or been able to control the natives. The Spanish destroyed the British colony in 1717, 1730, 1754 and 1779. The Spanish attacked a final time in 1798, but were defeated. The colony was known as 'British Honduras' until 1973, whereupon its name changed to 'Belize'. Although Guatemalan claims to Belize delayed independence, full independence was granted in 1981 although Guatemala still claims some 12,700 square kilometres of Belizean soil - more than half of the former British colony's total territory.

From the time of Central American independence in 1823 until the signing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty with the United States, in 1850, Great Britain exercised a preponderant influence among foreign powers in the development of the Central American states. Moreover, she was able, until 1849, to follow a unilateral policy in Central American affairs, despite the fact that she had neither recognized the independence of those states nor established diplomatic relations with any of them. Although Great Britain played a dominant role in Central America during the formative years of the five Central American republics, historians have failed to analyze satisfactorily the nature and extent of British activities in that area. This inadequacy arises partly from their alomst complete disregard of economic considerations in their attempts to explain the objectives and motivtion behind British policy. In particular, they have ignored the significance of Anglo-Central American commercial relations.

The traditional account of British activities in Central America prior to 1850 is written in terms of British imperialism. The British are accused of engaging in political intrigue and military aggression for the purpose of extending their rule over what had by 1848 become the vitally strategic isthmus of Central America-an objective that was thwarted supposedly only by the timely intervention of the United States. This interpretation originated chiefly with the writings of the Central American Liberal, Lorenzo Montufar, and of the United States charge d affaires to Guatemala, Ephraim George Squier. Muntufar's multi-volume study of Central American history from 1829.

United States Involvement In Guatemala

December 2, 1823, U.S. President James Monroe made a speech to Congress which introduced its new foreign policy, the "Monroe Doctrine". In short, he told the European powers to keep their "hands off the Americas". The U.S. considered the Caribbean and Central America its back yard and wanted to control the countries and instill U.S. values in them. As U.S. influence expanded throughout the Americas, their businesses began to invest heavily in these countries.

In 1901, the government of Guatemala hired the United Fruit Co. to manage the country's postal service. By 1930, the Company had absorbed more than 20 rival firms, acquiring a capital of $215,000,000 and becoming the largest employer in Central America. In 1930, Sam Zemurray (nicknamed "Sam the Banana Man") sold his Cuyamel Fruit Co. to United Fruit and retired from the fruit business. In 1933, concerned that the company was mismanaged and that its market value had plunged, he staged a hostile takeover. Zemurray moved the company's headquarters to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he was based. United Fruit went on to prosper under Zemurray's management; Zemurray resigned as president of the company in 1951. To read more on the United Fruit Company, click here.

1920 April 9 to 27. US forces protected the American Legation and other American interests, such as the cable station, during a period of fighting between Unionists and the Government of Guatemala. In the 1920s, after a century of involvement in agriculture in Guatemala and the export of its food crops, the US established military missions in all Latin American countries under the guise of a "drug war". Guatemala's military was tied to the US military through training, aid, and a commitment to protect US economic interests, and the Army became a major force. To read more on this click here.

1954 CIA directs exile invasion and coup d'Etat after newly elected government nationalizes unused U.S.'s United Fruit Company lands; bombers based in Nicaragua; long-term result: 200,000 murdered.

1965 Military government allowed Canadian based INCO huge tracts of land surrounding Lake Izabal for a nickel mining project. It operated briefly in the 1980's.

It should be noted here that the world economy has reached some critical times. The United States has gone from a "War on Poverty" in the Johnson Administration to a "War on Crime" in the Regan Administration that capitalized on the effects of poverty and mental illness, to a "War on Terrorism" in the Bush Administration where the Constitution has become an inconvenience for lawmakers to remove civil rights to enforce new legistation to protect the country from people angry about their lands being terrorized by the U.S. Guatemala's current state is one of history repeating itself and being raped by foreign interests. Relatively speaking, travel here is safer than any metropolitan city in the world if common sense and respect for the people is practiced.

The Return of the Guatemalan Military

Timeline By Simon Granovsky-Larsen

At the end of Guatemala's 36-year internal armed conflict in 1996, the military was ordered to scale down in size and mandate. With many officers holding onto influential political positions, however, the military was able to block significant reform and orchestrate a gradual return to power. There have also been important advances against impunity, including sentencing for wartime massacres and the trial of dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, but these have been hard won alongside increasing military power.

1999: Military Reform Defeated

A referendum on measures recommended in the peace accords was defeated by less than 1%. Racist fervour against Indigenous rights recognition led the No campaign, but the military was able to hold on to legal responsibility for internal security in the process.

1999: Party Elected which was Founded by Former Dictator

The Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) wins the presidential election under civilian candidate Alfonso Portillo. General Efrain Rlos Montt, responsible for the worst period of genocidal massacres during the war, is re-elected to Congress and remains head of the FRG.

2000: Return to Internal Policing

With their role in internal security affirmed by the defeat of peace accord reforms, the military heads back to the streets to take part in police patrols, anti-narcotics, and guarding prison perimeters.

2003: Land Evictions

Since 2003, when soldiers took over the El Maguey farm, the military has participated in evicting land occupations and communities of small farmers from contested land. Among hundreds of cases, the military participated in the eviction of over 800 families from 14 communities in the Polochic Valley in 2011.

2005: Anti-Mining Protester Killed by Troops

Soldiers shot into the crowd at a protest blocking mining equipment from reaching the Canadian-owned Marlin gold mine in San Marcos. One man was killed.

2006: State of Prevention, State of Emergency

Since 2006, the governments of Oscar Berger and Alvaro Colom have declared short-term measures to increase military control and limit constitutional rights. Many of these were ordered in the department of San Marcos, where mobilization is strong against transnational mining and electricity projects. Activists have denounced abuses under the measures.

El Estore,  INCO`On January 8th and 9th 2007, hundreds of police and soldiers in El Estor on Lake Izabal, Guatemala forcibly evicted the inhabitants of several communities who were living on lands that a Guatemalan military government had granted to Canadian mining company INCO in 1965. Local indigenous people claim the land to be theirs, and resent the exploitation of a foreign corporation. Canada's Skye Resources now lays claim to the land, and paid workers a nominal sum to destroy people's homes. With the force of the army and police, company workers took chainsaws and torches to people's homes, while women and children stood by. Skye Resources claims that they maintained "a peaceful atmosphere during this action." To read more on this click here.

2009: Wartime Bases Reopened

President Alvaro Colom reopened a notorious military base in the Ixcan region where more than 100 massacres were committed during the armed conflict. The region is now important for a mega-highway project, and communities have organized against its construction. Other wartime bases have since been re-opened, as have new ones.

2010: State of Siege

The first "state of siege," or martial law, issued since the end of the war was ordered in December 2010, ostensibly to combat drug traffickers in the department of Alta Verapaz. A second of the decrees, which include the suspension of civil liberties and temporarily hand political control to the military, took place in the Peten in 2011. The third instance of martial law-in Barillas, Huehuetenango in May 2012-made clear the government's intention to use military force to suppress social mobilization, when it was ordered to shut down protests against a Spanish hydroelectric project.

2011: Wartime General Elected President

Retired general Otto Perez Molina, who oversaw counterinsurgent slaughter in the highlands, is elected to a four-year term as president beginning January 2012. Perez Molina has asked to have the ban lifted on US military aid to Guatemala, in the name of the war on drugs.

2012: Guardians Evicted from their Ranch

At least 180 agents of the National Civil Police and Ministerio de Publico were deployed to evict a family of five who worked as guardians of the estate Rio Cienega, Livingston, Izabal, a move that was criticized by the Human Rights Ombudsman ( PDH). The suspects were identified as Mario Rene Hernandez Pineda, his wife and their 2, 4 and 7 years. Agents arrived in 50 police cars, because they "believed" that 150 families had invaded the farm.