Guatemala is the northernmost and most populous country in Central America, known to tourists for its Mayan ruins. Although officially a democracy, it has a long history of military coups and political instability.

Geography: Guatemala is tucked between Mexico, which borders it on the west and north, and Honduras and El Salvador to the east. It also borders tiny Belize to its northeast. The nation has a broad coastline on the Pacific Ocean to its south and a 50-mile shore on the Caribbean. Its area is 42,042 square miles, about the size of Tennessee. Most Guatemalans live in two mountain ranges stretching across the south. The northern Peten flatland is sparsely populated.

Population: Guatemala's population in 1981 was estimated at 7.25 million. The country is noted for its high proportion of Indians, descendants of the Mayas, who make up nearly half the population. The rest of the people include people with blood of the Spanish conquerors or other Europeans, plus assimilated Indians. The largest city by far is the capital, Guatemala City, with more than 700,000 people.

Politics: After winning its independence from Spain in 1821, Guatemala was governed by a series of prolonged dictatorships. The latest, led by Gen. Jorge Ubico, was toppled in 1944 by a group known as the October Revolutionaries. They proposed a land reform, which was opposed by major landowners, and legalized the Communist Party.

In June 1954, reformist President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown by CIA-backed, rightist exiles, who invaded from Honduras led by Col. Carlos Castillo. He was assassinated in 1957, and his successor was overthrown by a coup in 1963. Leftists launched guerrilla warfare in the early 1960s, which continues today.

A new constitution paved the way for the election of a civilian president, Julio Cesar Mendez, in 1966. Elections have been held every four years since then, but the military has repeatedly been accused of rigging them. Col. Carlos Arana was elected in 1970 amid widespread terrorism including the kidnaping of the nation's foreign minister.

In 1974, an opposition candidate initially appeared to have won the vote by a wide margin, but the government later declared that the candidate of the ruling right-wing coalition, Gen. Kjell Eugenio Laugerud, had won.

Similar confusion reigned in 1978, when the electoral council waited five days before ruling that Brig. Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia had narrowly defeated his right-wing opponent.

In the most recent election March 7, the military's candidate, Gen. Angel Anibal Guevara, was declared the victor, but his three opponents charged widespread ballot fraud. Numerous foreign governments and international human-rights organizations have accused the government of backing by right-wing death squads, whose activity intensified after 1978.

Economy: While underdeveloped by Western standards, Guatemala is the most highly industrialized country in Central America and its principal export is coffee. It is rich in mineral resources, particularly nickel, and is believed to have oil deposits. Per capita income is about $1,000.