Obituary: Ricardo Ramirez

IT WAS an odd sight. Outside Oslo town hall one day in November 1996, the streets were covered in snow. Inside, the main hall was packed with guests, while up on the podium were the guests of honour from the distant country of Guatemala, plus a huge choir. After the speeches, two stocky men in their sixties exchanged a warm embrace. One was in uniform, the head of the Guatemalan army. The other, the man who had been fighting that same army for over 30 years, was Ricardo Ramirez, then better known by his nom de guerre Rolando Morn.

The embrace of the two middle-aged men marked a historic moment. After several years of hard bargaining, the Guatemalan authorities - and above all the army, the eternal powerbrokers in Guatemala - had finally agreed peace terms with the guerrilla organisations of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or URNG, of which Ramirez was one of the leaders and chief negotiators. All the guests signed the agreement, and the choir sang - in English - "Amazing Grace".

Ricardo Ramirez himself was born into a military family in Guatemala's second city of Quetzaltenango in 1930. Quetzaltenango was then a conservative, traditional city in a country where the majority of the people were still of obvious Mayan descent, although all political and economic power belonged to the smaller number of those of Spanish origin. Like many before and after him, Ramirez left the provincial life when he went to Guatemala City as a student at the end of the 1940s.

In the capital, he soon became involved in student politics, at a time when the reforming president Jacobo Arbenz was challenging the structures in a society still dominated by a small elite. Arbenz was deposed with CIA help in 1954, and from then on Guatemalan society became increasingly at odds with itself.

After university studies, Ramirez began to work in trade unions, but by the end of the 1950s he was seeking more radical changes. In 1962 he helped found the Rebel Armed Farces or FAR, the first organised guerrilla group in Guatemala. From then on, his life became one of clandestine struggle, often carried out from abroad.

Throughout the 1960s, he lived in many different countries - Czechoslovakia, where many Latin American revolutionaries went for training, Cuba, Argentina, where he was briefly imprisoned for his guerrilla activities, but above all Mexico. This country, which borders on Guatemala, was for many years a safe haven for guerrilla fighters from all over Central America, and became, as in Ramirez's case, a second home.

In Guatemala meanwhile, four different guerrilla groups had grown up. In 1971 Ramirez helped found one of them, the EGP, or Guatemalan Army of the Poor. The EGP became the largest guerrilla group, attracting more recruits because its message was directed mainly at the poor and discriminated- against Mayan Indians, who continued to suffer whoever was in power in Guatemala.

Realising that they needed to combine their efforts, Ramirez was instrumental in bringing the four different rebel organisations into the UNRG in 1982. But the Guatemalan army was entrenched in power, and employed ruthless tactics against the guerrillas and any suspected sympathisers. An estimated 120,000 people were killed in this civil war, most of them in the 1980s, when the armed forces turned the Guatemalan countryside into a vast war zone, razing villages, rounding up the poor Mayan farmers, and forcing hundreds of thousands into exile.

Although this ferocity guaranteed an influx of new members to its ranks, the guerrilla forces were unable to counterattack effectively, and unlike in neighbouring El Salvador they never seemed likely to topple the state. The Guatemalan army was in fact convinced that it had won the war, and that there was no need to talk peace with an enemy that had been crushed.

The end of the 1980s saw a return to civilian government in Guatemala for the first time in many years. In this new climate, peace talks with the guerrillas were started in which Ramirez played a prominent role. Between 1991 and 1996, he, other guerrilla representatives and government officials went painstakingly through a list of more than 30 areas which they felt needed to be considered to make any peace in Guatemala effective and long-lasting.

Much of this work was done in Norway, which explained Ramirez's presence in Oslo that November day for the signing of the first chapters of the final peace agreement. On that occasion, he gave a speech in which he recognised that it was now time for the guerrillas to pursue their goals of social change and justice through legal and political means, and put down their arms for good.

The peace process was brought to a triumphant conclusion on 28 December 1996 when Ramirez and the other guerrilla leaders were given an ecstatic reception as they finally returned legally to their country for the signing of a complete peace accord. Among its main points, the treaty gave the estimated 5,000 guerrillas an amnesty, set out plans greatly to reduce the size and power of the army, and promised respect and autonomy for the Mayan Indian groups.

Ramirez was one of those who was careful to say that the signing of the peace agreement was not an end but a beginning. He threw himself into the task of reorganising his guerrillas as a political party, becoming secretary general of what was now the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union, and was busy organising its campaign for elections next year when he became ill and died of heart failure after an operation. The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who met Ramirez during a trip to Guatemala in July, was among those who praised the way this veteran guerrilla leader had wholeheartedly given himself over to the task of bringing a meaningful peace to Guatemala.

Ricardo Ramirez de Len, guerrilla fighter and politician: born Quetzaltenango, Guatemala 29 December 1930; married Mara del Carmen Flores Rodriguez (three sons); died Guatemala City 10 September 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz