Guatemala's beauty and strength of identity have not been accompanied by cohesion and prosperity. In 1996 it emerged from a 36-year-long civil war which pitted leftist, mostly Mayan insurgents against the army, which - backed by the US - waged a vicious campaign to eliminate the guerrillas.
More than 200,000 people - most of them civilians - were killed or disappeared.
Despite an official finding that 93% of all atrocities carried out during the war had been committed by the security forces, moves to bring those responsible to account started only after a long delay.
Dancers celebrate St Joseph's Day in Guatemala City
Social inequality is a major feature of Guatemala. Poverty is particularly widespread in the countryside and among indigenous communities.
Illiteracy, infant mortality and malnutrition are among the highest in the region, life expectancy is among the lowest and, in common with many of its neighbours, the country is plagued by organised crime and violent street gangs. It is a major corridor for smuggling drugs from South America to the United States.
Despite talks and international mediation, a long-running territorial dispute with neighbouring Belize remains unresolved. Guatemala lays claim to thousands of square kilometres of land.
He defeated populist businessman Manuel Baldizon, winning nearly 54% of the vote.
After his election, Mr Perez promised to govern with an iron fist to reduce to half the homicide rate in a country living under the threat of gangs, organised crime and international drug traffickers.
He also announced plans to rejig the country's fiscal system to reduce tax avoidance and boost government revenues.
However, with his right-wing Patriotic Party controlling only 54 of 158 in Congress (parliament), his administration was expected to face tough negotiations to have legislation passed.
Born in 1950 in Guatemala City, Mr Perez was educated at Guatemala's National Military Academy and the US School of the Americas, before going on to a career as a military intelligence officer.
He was one of the group of army officers who backed the 1983 coup of Defence Minister Oscar Mejia against military ruler Efrain Rios Montt, whose regime was accused by a UN report of having committed atrocities during the civil war.
Mr Perez himself has denied any involvement in rights abuses during his time as army general.
As head of the army's powerful intelligence service, he played a key role in instigating the 1993 departure of then President Jorge Serrano, who had sought to acquire extraordinary powers by dissolving Congress and appointing new members to the Supreme Court.
Mr Perez represented the military at peace talks that ended the 36-year-old civil war in 1996. He founded the Patriotic Party in 2001, was elected to Congress in 2001 and came second to Alvaro Colom in the 2007 presidential election.
Press freedom is enshrined in the constitution and newspapers freely criticise the government.
Nonetheless, many journalists face intimidation because of their reporting. It is dangerous for them to "take too much interest" in organised crime, corruption or human rights violations during the civil war, Reporters Without Borders said in 2011.
Private operators dominate the media. Four national TV channels share the same owner and have a virtual monopoly in TV broadcasting. They have been criticised for being pro-government.
There were 2.28 million internet users by June 2010 (via Internetworldstats).
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.