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16th - 19th century
     Within Guatemala

20th century

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Within Guatemala: to1821

Within the Spanish empire the long narrow strip of central America is known as Guatemala. It is among the earliest of colonial conquests on the mainland. Pedro de Alvarado, a leading member of Cortés' small party in the conquest of Mexico (1519-21), is sent south in 1523 to subdue the smaller area now known as Guatemala. In 1524 he pushes on into El Salvador. In the same year Spanish conquistadors enter Costa Rica and Nicaragua from the east, invading from Panama.

Honduras, the buffer region between east and west, is disputed between the rival groups of Spaniards. An advance guard from Panama gets there first. Cortés sends a force from Mexico, which eventually prevails.

These rivalries persuade the Spanish crown to treat central America as a special case. In 1539 it is established as the captaincy general of Guatemala. This is part of the wider viceroyalty of New Spain (administered from Mexico City) but the captain general, operating from his own capital at Antigua, has considerable autonomy in local affairs.

The arrangement survives until the end of the colonial period (except that the capital moves to Guatemala City after Antigua is destroyed by an earthquake in 1773), and it is this larger region of Guatemala which declares independence on 15 September 1821 - just three weeks after neighbouring Mexico, under Agustín de Iturbide, has won freedom from Spain.

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