A couple of days ago a Guatemalan court sentenced a former soldier to 6,060 years in prison for his part in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre during Guatemala's bloody civil war. During PhD fieldwork I came across some shocking human rights reports of massacres and abuses committed during Nicaragua's Sandinista-Contra civil war, but what happened at Dos Erres was truly brutal (for a report in Spanish see here, for some idea of its contents see the Wikipedia entry). Neither was this an isolated incident, with other military massacres and unspeakable atrocities by Marxist guerrillas replicated across Guatemala's highlands in a civil war taking as many as 250,000 lives.
The civil war looms large over Guatemalans to this day, and among them Evangelicals. In the Mayan highlands small indigenous Pentecostal groups were frequently targeted by Marxist guerrillas who considered them counterrevolutionary. Pentecostals were also co-opted by the military into civilian defence patrols (it was either that or find oneself on the receiving end of the government's brutal scorched earth policy in the region), which only served to intensify unwelcome guerrilla attention. Yet in the city there was a quite different expression of Evangelicalism - middle-class, educated, professional neopentecostals - notably the El Verbo church. It was a member of this megachurch who emerged as key player in 1980s civil war-torn Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, Guatemala's military leader during the Dos Erres and other massacres.
Among Rios Montt's advisers were elders of his church, and while the military brutally set about breaking the insurgency in Guatemala's highlands the president was broadcast weekly expressing religious opinions and preaching sermons. Did Rios Montt order the atrocities, or even know about them? His supporters maintain not, or that he was unable to exercise control over a military that was itself completely out of control. A Guatemalan court recently decided he had a case to answer and the case is ongoing. Thus Rios Montt and Guatemala's civil war continues to loom large over the country's Evangelical population.
But Evangelical involvement in Guatemalan politics is not limited to his controversial military presidency. In the 1990s the neopentecostal Jorge Serrano Elias was elected president (though in an attempt to seize more power through a failed self-coup was forced to flee several years later), while other megachurch leaders since have similarly sought to become involved in national politics. Moreover, Guatemala counts one of the largest percentages of Pentecostals of a national population (around 25% though some surveys inflate this somewhat on the basis of unlikely extrapolations).
The numerical strength of Guatemalan Pentecostals begs an inevitable question: If Pentecostals are so numerous and influential in Guatemala why does it remain one of Latin America's most violent societies? If the Kingdom of God reigns in the hearts of so many Guatemalans why isn't it having a wider impact upon society as a whole? Is this a structural or historical issue, whereby Guatemalan society has developed and is structured in such a way that its current problems are inevitable? Or is Guatemalan Evangelicalism overly otherworldly and has thus failed in promoting a prophetic vision and mission? Or is this in some way a spiritual battle, as many Guatemalan Pentecostals engaged in spiritual warfare believe? These and others are difficult questions for Evangelicals, particularly those of us living in a country where we represent a tiny minority who may wonder why, in a country where they represent at least one in four of the population, they are not having a far greater impact.
For those interested in knowing more about Evangelicals and Guatemala's civil war I would recommend any of several books by two excellent scholars, Virginia Garrard-Burnett and David Stoll, who have researched and written widely in this field. For a valuable ethnographic study offering fascinating insight into several of the questions I raise in the previous paragraph consider Kevin Lewis O'Neill's City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala.