Spatial and Temporal Patterns in Civil Violence: Guatemala 1977-1986

Timothy R. Gulden


This paper examines detailed records from the civil conflict in Guatemala between 1977 and 1986. It reveals a number of novel patterns which support the use of complex systems methods for understanding civil violence. It finds a surprising, non-linear relationship between ethnic mix and killing; thereby inviting analysis based on group dynamics. It shows the temporal texture of the conflict to be far from smooth, with a power spectrum that closely resembles that of other, better understood, complex systems. The distribution of incident sizes within the data seems to fall into two distinct sets, one of which, corresponding to “regular” conflict, is Zipf distributed, the other of which includes acts of genocide and is distributed differently. This difference may indicate that that agents of the state were proceeding under different types of orders. These results provide an empirical benchmark for the modeling of civil violence and may have implications for conflict prevention, peace keeping, and the post-conflict analysis of command structures.


Much of the existing literature examining quantitative aspects of civil violence concentrates on risk factors and searches for correlation between these factors and various indicators of violence. [Bates, 1983; Doyle and Sambanis, 2000; Fearon and Laitin, 1996] The foundation of these studies is generally annual, country level data on conflict deaths [Gurr and Harff, 1996]. While certain types of inferences can legitimately be drawn from such data, it does not lend itself to the study of internal conflict dynamics. This paper examines a substantially more detailed dataset covering the conflict in Guatemala during the ten year period 1977 to 1986. By shifting the basic unit of analysis from the country-year to the municipality-month, many intriguing patterns emerge. These patterns are generally indicative of “complex systems” behavior and point toward the use of new methods for exploring the dynamics of civil violence.

The aim of this paper is not a comprehensive statistical, political, or historical portrait of the Guatemalan conflict – a task which has been ably undertaken by others [Ball, Kobrak and Spirer, 1999; CEH 1999]. Instead, the objective is to uncover patterns in the data which illuminate spatial and temporal dynamics in the conflict and which might be used to guide quantitative modeling of civil and state violence.