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The Verapaces History

Verapaz is the only Guatemalan region which was conquered by the cross and not by the sword, earning it the name of “verdadera paz”, or “true peace”, later shortened to “Verapaz”.



The first inhabitants of the area were pipil-speaking nomads from what is now Mexico, who cultivated cacao for trade and corn for subsistence. They were conquered by the Quichés, but rebelled and eventually resettled nearer to the Pacific, where they were subjugated by the Spanish conquista. The mainly Qeqchi population who lived in the central mountains area, on the other hand, fought the conquistadores so fiercely that the name of their territory, Tuzulutlán, became known as the “land of war”. By 1528, Pedro de Alvarado, the governor of Guatemala, had suffered enough defeats to give “pacific conquest” a chance and invited Dominican friars to try to convert the natives. The first three friars to foray into Tuzulutlán, Luis de Cancer, Domingo Vico and Pedro de Angulo, followed local trade routes, accompanied by indigenous translators. Following the proposal of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, they began peacefully evangelizing the area, carrying with them gifts as well as crosses and images. They succeeded in winning over the ruler of the area, the cacique known as Aj Pop Baz,: he was baptized as Don Juan Matalbatz and encouraged the construction of churches. The warrior-sounding name of Tezulutlán was changed to Verapaz in 1547, the original full moniker “Vision de paz de la nueva Jerusalem de las Indias” proving a bit too much of a mouthful. Then in 1573, Padre de las Casas obtained from the Audencia of Mexico a capitulation by which the indigenous people, though Christianized and now under the authority of the King of Spain, could not be subjected to the encomienda system of forced labor which prevailed elsewhere in the colonies. Indeed, Verapaz grew pretty much as an independent territory, until it was annexed to Guatemala in 1608. The friar's religious presence left a strong mark on the area, as they founded villages and convents, planted crops and raised cattle over the two following centuries.

But when General Francisco Morazán took power in 1829, he initiated a secularization process – in short, he appropriated the clergy's lands and squeezed the religious orders out of their dominant position. One of the liberal government that followed in the late 1870s, that of Justo Rufino Barrios, encouraged foreigners to settle in Guatemala – but civilians this time. Many Germans came to Alta Verapaz, and took advantage of the favorable climate to create coffee plantations – and even one tea plantation – to the point that two thirds of the department's coffee production were in German hands by the late 1890s. It is also around that time, in 1877, that Verapaz was divided in two departments: the smaller Baja Verapaz to the south, with Salamá for capital, and the larger Alta Verapaz with Cobán as capital. But this European colony came to an end during the two world wars, as the Germans were deported from Guatemala, under pressure from the U.S.A.

Yet the coffee and cardamom plantations, the many colonial churches, and of course the names of such towns as Fray Bartolomé de las Casas remain as a legacy of the Verapaces' distinct history.

By Andrea Davoust
After more than two years of working and living out of a suitcase in Eastern Europe and in various improbable African countries that no-one has ever...
11 Dec 2009

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