The Mayan civilization flourished throughout much of Guatemala and the surrounding region long before the Spanish arrived. There are temple ruins, courtyards and steles, which record events from A.D. 771 and A.D. 810. Tikal, located in Peten, north of Guatemala City, has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. The Mayan culture was already in decline when the Mayans were defeated by Pedro de Alvarado in 1523-24. During Spanish colonial rule, most of Central America came under the control of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.
The first Spanish settlement in Guatemala was in Iximché (the city of Santiago), but was destroyed by an earthquake. The second colonial capital, Almolonga, flooded in 1542. Survivors left the city and founded Antigua, located near Almolonga, which became the second capital in 1543. In the 17th century, Antigua became one of the richest capitals in the new world with many baroque churches and the first Central American university, Universidad de San Carlos, which is now the nation's most prestigious university, known for medicine and social expertise.
Always vulnerable to earthquakes, Antigua was destroyed by two earthquakes in 1773. The remnants of its Spanish colonial architecture have been preserved and declared a world monument and heritage site by UNESCO. The third capital, Guatemala City, was founded in La Hermita Valley in 1776, after Antigua was abandoned.
Guatemala gained independence from Spain on Sept. 15, 1821, but was officially established as a Republic in 1847 after a brief annexation with Mexico. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1980s, the country passed through a series of dictatorships, insurgencies (particularly beginning in the 1960s), coups and stretches of military rule, with only occasional periods of representative government.
Several attempts have been made to end the decades-old dispute in Guatemala, and the most recent was the 1996 signing of a series of peace accords by the government, leftist guerrillas and various other feuding factions.
A high crime rate and a serious and worsening public corruption problem were cause for concern for the government of Guatemala. These problems, in addition to issues related to the often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of human rights activists, judicial workers, journalists and witnesses in human rights trials, led the government to begin serious attempts in 2001 to open a national dialogue to discuss the considerable challenges facing the country.
Source: The World Factbook, 2014.