Back to the Future in Guatemala
The Return of General Ríos Montt
by Jeffrey St. Clair
July 17, 2003
Efrain Ríos Montt, the genocidal general known as the Pinochet of Guatemala, is suddenly back in business. On July 14, the supreme court of Guatemalan overturned a 1985 constitutional ban and permitted the former military dictator to run for president of the Latin American nation in elections slated for November.
"Twenty years ago General Ríos Montt ran a military regime that killed thousands of people," says Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Today he should be on trial, not running for president."
Ríos Montt, who now serves as president of the Guatemalan National Congress, has run for president three other times. In 1974, the general narrowly won the presidential vote, but his election was never recognized. He tried again twice in the 1990s, but both times was prohibited by a provision of the Guatemalan constitutional banning people who had participated in military coups from becoming president.
In March 1982, Ríos Montt seized power in a bloody coup d'etat that was quietly backed by the CIA and the Reagan White House. He and his fellow generals, Maldonando Schadd and Luis Gordillo, deposed Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia and set up a military tribunal with Montt at its head. The junta immediately suspended the constitution, set up secret tribunals and began a brutal crackdown on political dissidents that featured kidnapping, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations.
The generals also unleashed a scorched earth attack on the nation's Mayan population that, according to a UN commission, resulted in the annihilation of at nearly 600 villages. Within 18 months, more than 19,000 people had perished at the hands of Ríos Montt 's death squads. The killings continued even after Ríos Montt was eased from office in 1983. By 1990, more than 200,000 people had died in Guatemalan's bloody civil war, with more than 90 percent of the dead killed by government forces. Of those, more than 83 percent were indigenous Mayans.
Perhaps as many as one million more Guatemalans, many of them Mayan peasants, were uprooted from their homes, many of them forced to live in "re-education" camps enclosed with barbed wire and armed guards. Many were later forced to work in the fields of Guatemalan land barons.
"Not even the lives of the elderly, pregnant women or innocent children were spared," declared the Guatemalan Council of Catholic Bishops in 1982 about the massacres under Ríos Montt. "We have never in our history seen such serious extremes."
Ríos Montt shrugged off such talk as leftwing propaganda. "We don't have a policy of scorched earth," he sneered. "We have a policy of scorched Communists."
The Reagan administration saw the slaughter the same self-sanitizing light. Even though the US ambassador to Guatemala cabled Washington that Ríos Montt was behind the wave of killings, Reagan continued to embrace the general and his regime. Reagan paid a visit to Guatemala City in 1982 where he hailed Ríos Montt "a man of great personal integrity and commitment" and assured the troubled nation that the man who came to power in a military coup was "totally dedicated to democracy."
The general's ties with the United States military go all the way back to 1950 when he received training by the Pentagon at the School of the Americas in Panama. In 1954, the young officer aided the CIA in engineering the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, whose nationalistic policies had irritated United Fruit.
From then on, Ríos Montt's rise was steady and almost unimpeded. In 1970, he became a general and chief of staff for the Guatemalan army, which ruthlessly suppressed peasant uprisings and served as armed guards for the big land barons. His career suffered a minor setback in 1974, when his apparent victory in the presidential elections was invalidated.
Ríos Montt apparently blamed his defeat on the meddling of the country's Catholic priests, who he saw as agents of the left. In 1978, he left the Catholic Church in a huff and became a minister in the California-based evangelical Church of the Word. He now counts among his closest prayer friends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, the reverend who recently beseeched the Almighty to smite three supreme court justices so that more conservatives could ascend to the high bench.
When the born-again general took power in 1982, his messianic fervor poured forth in bizarre torrents. "God gives power to whomever he wants," Ríos Montt raved. "And he gave it to me." Of course, Ríos Montt had plenty of secular help in the form of the CIA and the Pentagon, which sent advisors into his inner circle. Moreover, six of Ríos Montt 's top nine generals were also educated at the School of Americas in the arts of coup-making, political repression, torture, assassination and fealty to Washington.
The level of violence these generals perpetrated during their brief tenure was appalling and bloodthirsty. Indeed, it amounted to a form of state-sanctioned sadism whose purpose was not just to kill but to invoke terror and submission, a strategy with clear echoes of the CIA's Phoenix Program in Vietnam. A report on the slaughter by Amnesty International succinctly describes the kinds of atrocities that became commonplace in Ríos Montt 's Guatemala: "People of all ages were not only shot, they were burned alive, hacked to death, disemboweled, drowned, beheaded. Small children were smashed against rocks or bayoneted to death."
Ríos Montt and his gang were eased from power in 1983. But they never went away and the machinery of death they installed kept on killing throughout the decade and beyond.
Meanwhile, Ríos Montt formed his own political party, the ultra-right National Republican Front, appointed himself chairman for life and rules with an authoritarian rigidity. He has regularly toured the country giving speeches that blend neo-fascist politics with his feverish brand of evangelical Christianity. His children have advanced along with him. His son, Enrique Rios Sosa, is the head of finances for the Guatemalan army, while his daughter Zury Rios serves as vice-president of the National Congress.
Attempts to bring Ríos Montt to justice have failed. Nobel laureate and Mayan human rights advocate Rigobertu Menchu sought to have Spanish courts indict Ríos Montt on charges of genocide in 1999, but in 2000 the Spanish high court bowed to US pressure and ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him for crimes committed outside of Spain. Early this year, however, the court reversed itself slightly, allowing charges against Ríos Montt to proceed for crimes committed against Spanish citizens.
In June 2001 Center for Legal Action on Human Rights based in Guatemala City filed a complaint against Ríos Montt on behalf of the residents of 12 Mayan villages which were destroyed by Ríos Montt 's troops between March and December of 1982. More than 1,200 people were murdered in those raids on the remote mountain villages. Although Ríos Montt maintains he has legislative immunity from prosecution, the case continues to percolate through the courts, backed by dozens of graphic and heart-wrenching depositions from Mayan villagers.
Later that year, the general got in trouble once again for his role in a more run-of-the-mill legislative scandal. His party secretly re-wrote tax laws governing the sale of alcohol and beer at the behest of the liquor industry. The secret meetings were caught on tape. Charges of political corruption were brought against Ríos Montt and 24 of his fellow FRG party legislators. Then the legislature, under the control of Ríos Montt, passed a measure giving the lawmakers immunity. The immunity grant was initially struck down by the Guatemalan Supreme Court. Two days later a fusillade of gunfire ripped through the home of the chief justice of the court. The charges against the general were dropped once again.
This is the same court that has now given Ríos Montt the green light to run for the presidency. But now the chief justice is Guillermo Ruiz Wong, a childhood friend of the general, and Ríos Montt publicly bragged about having four judges in his pocket. He was right and that's all he needed.
So far the Bush administration has maintained a coy distance about the prospects of Ríos Montt becoming president of Guatemala. In June, the State Department publicly announced that it would prefer to deal with a less tarnished figure.
"We would hope to be able to work with, and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala," said state department spokesman Richard Boucher last month. "Realistically, in light of Mr. Ríos Montt's background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer."
This was hardly a stern condemnation of the war criminal and Ríos Montt doesn't seem the least worried about such low-grade sniping from Colin Powell's office. The general understands how Washington works. After all, he has old friends in the Bush inner circle, including UN ambassador John Negroponte, John Poindexter, Eliot Abrams and the repellant Otto Reich.
So could Ríos Montt, even with his grim resume of torture and assassination, be elected president of Guatemalan? The country is mired in poverty, its democratic institutions are frail and the government is plagued by official corruption. The current government, headed by Ríos Montt protégé Alfonso Portillo, recently instituted an unsavory program of "compensating" former members of civil self-defense patrols the paramilitary forces responsible for massive abuses during the Ríos Montt's infamous "Beans and Bullets" counterinsurgency campaign. In Guatemala, many observers see this as a smart way to buy votes in advance of the election from the general's natural constituency.
And it's still not safe to publicly criticize Ríos Montt and his allies for crimes committed 20 years ago. In 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the head of the Catholic Church's human rights office, had his skull crushed with a concrete block two days after he had submitted his report on the abuses of the Guatemalan Army. He was succeeded by Bishop Mario Ríos Montt - the general's brother. Big country, small world.
Still many people don't forget and can't forgive. On a recent campaign swing through the Mayan highlands, where so many perished at the hands of Ríos Montt's death brigades, villagers pelted the general with stones.
Even so, it would be dangerously ill advised to count the general out now that he has just gotten back into the game.
"The last word on the general who's maintained his presence in the country's political life for 20 years since the coup has yet to be said," warns Hector Rosada, a political analyst from Guatemala City. "He has an incredible ability to be born again, and he's very good at operating from the trenches. He retreats, digs in, waits as long as it takes, and then emerges once again."
Jeffrey St. Clair is author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press) and coeditor, with Alexander Cockburn, of The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Both books will be published in October. He is coeditor of CounterPunch, where this article first appeared (www.counterpunch.org).