Verapaz, a mountainous district in central Guatemala, divided since 1877 into two departments, Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz.
Alta Verapaz covers 3,354 square miles. The population was 958,417 in 2004, an increase of 22.5 percent from 1999; its chief agricultural products are coffee and cardamom. The capital is Cobán. Baja Verapaz covers 1,206 square miles and has a population of 150,000 (1985); its chief agricultural products are corn, beans, sugarcane, and citrus. The capital is Salamá. Ethnically, the population of Verapaz is mainly Kekchí and Pokonchí Indian.
Sharply folded mountains have isolated the Verapaz from cultural, religious, and political changes to the north and south. The inhabitants of the region, which the Kekchí called Tezulutlán, repulsed conquest with such ferocity in 1530 that the Spaniards named it the "Land of War." But Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas saw in this area an opportunity to put into practice his precept of a peaceful conquest and conversion of the Indians. Around 1542, Dominicans entered the region and began missionary work by establishing reducciones, with Cobán as the principal mission center. The crown declared the area the exclusive domain of the Dominican order and forbade Spanish settlement there. By the end of the decade, most of the area, now renamed Verapaz (Land of True Peace), was under Dominican control and nominally Christian.
Dominican control continued, albeit somewhat diminished, until the early part of the nineteenth century. In defiance of royal orders, Ladinos (Guatemalans of European heritage) settled in the Baja Verapaz in the colonial period, and their influx accelerated after independence. Difficulty of communication kept the Alta Verapaz isolated until mid-century.
About 1860, Ladino and foreign merchants, especially Germans, moved into the Verapaz. In the Alta Verapaz, settlers appropriated communal lands which they turned into large estates. The inhabitants of those communities were transformed into servile laborers. The new owners transformed the Verapaz into a leading coffee department.
The commercialization of the coffee industry came about largely through the efforts of a small group of Germans who controlled production, processing, and distribution. They provided capital resources, marketing connections, entrepreneurial skills, and a capitalist approach to investment and profit. Germans initiated transportation improvements and built a railroad to connect with a water route to the Caribbean port of Livingston, which reinforced the department's economic separation from the rest of Guatemala. German hegemony continued until World War II, when the Guatemalan government expropriated and then nationalized most German-owned properties.
The construction of a paved highway between Cobán and Guatemala City in the early 1970s linked the Verapaz more closely to the rest of the country and brought economic and social changes. The opening of roads, however primitive, into areas previously accessible only by muleback, stimulated commerce and attracted immigrants from other parts of Guatemala. This influx of non-Kekchí/Pokonchí will doubtless alter the character of the Indian population.
Evangelical groups have been active throughout the area, and a significant minority of the population now belongs to various Protestant sects. The Verapaz was the scene of considerable guerrilla activity in the early 1980s, which resulted, in part, in an increased national military presence in the area.
José Victor Mejía, Geografía descriptiva de la República de Guatemala (1922).
Guillermo Náñez Falcón, "German Contributions to the Economic Development of the Alta Vera Paz" (M.A. thesis, Tulane University, 1961).
Arden R. King, Cobán and the Verapaz (1974).
Francis Gall, comp., Diccionario geográfico de Guatemala, 4 vols. (1976).
Karl Theodor Sapper, The Verapaz in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, translated by Theodore E. Gutman (1985).
Danien, Elin C. Maya Folktales from the Alta Verapaz. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 2005.
Guillermo NÁÑez FalcÓn