The Q'eqchi' have a long history of political conflict. Even before the Spanish Conquest, which began in earnest in 1529, Guatemala was known as Tezulutlan, or "the land of war." The combined factors of military resistance and the dispersal of the Q'eqchi' population for agricultural reasons made centralized governmental control by the Spanish highly difficult. For this reason, Friar Bartolomé de las Casas was given permission to attempt to pacify the Q'eqchi' through religious conversion. Although the church was never able to gain complete control, its actions did have a strong influence on the Q'eqchi' people. The church's attempts to protect the Q'eqchi' led to an isolated Q'eqchi' enclave that was not part of the economic growth of Spanish-colonial Guatemala. Once the church lost its ability to govern the Q'eqchi', the Indians were open to exploitation from outside sources.
During the nineteenth century, plantation agriculture, which was supported by government policies, had two marked negative effects on the indigenous population. First, communal tribal lands were privatized by the plantation owners, and second, it became increasingly necessary for the Q'eqchi' to work on the plantations as wage laborers for their economic subsistence. By 1877, all communal landownership was abolished by government decree. Because of the ensuing land pressures, in 1889 many Q'eqchi' began to emigrate east to Belize.
Because of the poverty created by these historical developments, there has been much political unrest during the twentieth century. The Guatemalan government has responded to indigenous activism with military repression which has often proved devastating to the Q'eqchi'. During the 1980s, as much as 25 percent of the Q'eqchi' population in Guatemala emigrated to the United States.