Ríos Montt, Running Despite Everything

Ríos Montt
Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, a former dictator accused of genocide, hours after registering as a presidential candidate in Guatemala's coming elections (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP-Getty Images).

Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, who took power in 1982 through a coup and during whose administration the greatest number of killings in Guatemala were committed, has obtained his registration as a candidate for the presidency.

Since the signing of the peace accords in 1996 and the release in the 1990s of reports that held him responsible for killings during the civil war, the general has drawn more than 14 verdicts that disqualified him as a presidential candidate.

But on July 14, a majority of the Constitutional Court (CC) ruled that Article 186—which since 1986 has disqualified former de-facto rulers [those who came to power through extra-legal means such as a coup] from being president—could not be applied retroactively. It was a triumph in his struggle to be president in peacetime.

The resolution provoked a storm in which visions of catastrophe and calls to civil resistance flourished. Civic organizations, business groups, and political parties accused the CC of violating the constitutional order, and Ríos Montt—current president of the Guatemalan Congress—of orchestrating a “technical coup.” They compared the situation of the country with the Fujimorazo [Alberto Fujimori’s so-called “auto-coup” to impose quasi-authoritarian rule in the early 1990s in Peru—WPR] and called on the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) not to obey the order to register the general.

In previous weeks, the TSE and the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) had rejected appeals by the Party of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) to enroll Ríos Montt as its candidate.

After the ruling, the general did not hide his glee. Smiling on July 15, he faced questions from the press, including those that made reference to the accusations of genocide that weigh against him. He affirmed that “due process was followed” in the decision of the CC. And he downplayed the reactions to his eventual registration: “Those who lose in a verdict always criticize the decisions.” He described his adversaries as “groups who wish to destabilize the country” and asserted, “They should wait until Nov. 9 (the day of the elections) and then let them tell me what they have to say.”

Ríos Montt issued calls for a rapprochement with his former opponents and the Guatemalan business leadership. And he reassured his adversaries: “No one is saying that I am going to win; I am just one more option.”

From the first hours following the CC’s verdict, the FRG launched a massive radio and television campaign defending the legitimacy of the resolution. It asserted that the verdict “protects democracy and heeds the clamor of a people who had been denied the right to elect whom they chose.”

The resolution of the CC exposed the broad antipathy that Ríos Montt inspires among diverse sectors. Groups that typically oppose each other—such as human-rights groups and the old Guatemalan business oligarchy—closed ranks against the general’s candidacy. In front of the Constitutional Court building, groups of demonstrators—standing out among them, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchú—put up piñatas that symbolized the four judges who voted for the registration of Ríos Montt. At the same time, they set up coffins, candles, crosses, and black capes to represent the death of the CC. In addition, they hurled tomatoes at the building. Old photos of the general in military uniform during the counterinsurgency era, placed on posters bearing the legend, “Wanted for genocide,” were dusted off by pro-human-rights organizations.

The Group of Mutual Support, one of the organizations that assist victims of the civil war, asserted that the CC ruling “is a setback for Guatemala and an offense to thousands of victims of human-rights violations.” The group indicated that the “most genocidal and terrorist general in Latin America” permitted, during the 16 months of his de-facto government in 1982 and 1983, “more than 400 massacres in which 12,000 persons lost their lives, and which resulted in the forced disappearances of at least 3,000 individuals.”

The most radical critiques equated Guatemala’s situation with recent crises in Argentina and Peru. In an editorial titled “Fujimorazo, Guatemalan-style,” the daily El Periódico warned, “If the Constitutional Court decides to protect Gen. Ríos Montt and to order the enrollment of his presidential candidacy, in open contravention of what the constitution mandates, the state of law would cease to rule in Guatemala.”

In the same tone, the daily Prensa Libre warned in an editorial on July 10 that the justices of the CC could suffer the same fate as the justices of the Supreme Court of Justice of Argentina who unconditionally supported former President Carlos Menem, and who, with a new realignment of political forces, were obliged to resign and face the possibility of criminal prosecution.

Opinions were divided in the political parties and civilian sectors. Some called for citizen resistance and for pressure on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to “disobey” the order to enroll Ríos Montt. Others appealed to preserve institutional stability and respect the disputed verdict.

The Guatemalan Forum, a group with political influence that encompasses various social and political organizations, described the resolution as “an attack against the constitutional order.” It maintained that “the four justices [who voted for Ríos Montt’s qualification] responded to political commitments to the government and the Guatemalan Republican Front.” It decried that in the country, “The rule of law is being subjected to impunity and political manipulation.”

The Myrna Mack Foundation, one of the most prestigious groups in the field of justice, described the ruling as “a clear message that there are political and legal groups in the country with sufficient capacity to manipulate institutions in favor of their fixed interests.”

Both the Mack Foundation and the Guatemalan Forum appealed for moderation in citizen protests to avoid a greater legal crisis.

In a communiqué released on Wednesday, July 16, more than 40 organizations announced that they are weighing a possible appeal to the Organization of American States (OAS), invoking that organization’s Democratic Charter, which permits it to intervene in nations whose constitutional order has been damaged.

At the core of the questions with respect to the CC are the open ties between several of the justices and [Ríos Montt’s party] the FRG. Mario Ruiz Wong was FRG interior minister; Francisco Palomo was defense attorney for Ríos Montt and an FRG deputy in the Central American Parliament; and Manuel de Jesús Flores was director of the Office for Property Registration in the FRG government. Their votes, along with that of Cipriano Soto, representative of the University of San Carlos, opened the door for the registration of Ríos Montt: four votes against three, the latter cast by the representatives of the Supreme Court and the Association of Attorneys.

Flores had just been designated as a judicial substitute on June 17. He and Palomo, another judicial substitute, were chosen to join the CC in a selection process conducted behind the backs of some magistrates.

With the ruling in its favor, the FRG will continue its electoral campaign. In the first weeks on the stump, the meetings headed by Ríos Montt have not been free of scandals that recall past events from his period as a counterinsurgency military officer. On June 14, in one of his first electoral events in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, one of the districts that suffered most from the counterinsurgency assault, the general and his followers were stoned by relatives of victims of the war who were participating in funeral rites to bury the bones of 85 persons whose remains were recently exhumed.

On June 22, in Nebaj in the district of Quiché, FRG sympathizers were met with more stones on the outskirts of a field where the general was leading a meeting.

Returning to his old political ways, the general has again taken to delivering evangelical harangues and has challenged the media opposed to his campaign. He has maintained that those who wished to prevent him from standing as a candidate “are injuring the civil and political rights
of Guatemalans.”

On the other hand, the political and civil opponents of Ríos Montt have begun to warn of the risk of electoral fraud. Already, indications are emerging as to how the state apparatus is supporting the FRG campaign: from letters in which party leaders exhort public employees to join the campaign, to compensatory payments awarded to thousands of civilian members of the squads who helped in the counter-insurgency campaign in the 1980s.

Now, one of the looming battles for the general will be to legitimize his candidacy before the international community. On May 27, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declared that his government is seeking normal and friendly relations with the next president of Guatemala, “but realistically, in light of the past actions of Mr. Ríos Montt, it would be difficult to achieve the type of relationship that we would prefer.” Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, John Hamilton, described himself as bewildered by the ruling of the CC and stated that the negative position of his government regarding Ríos Montt’s candidacy remains unchanged.

The latest poll released by the dailies Prensa Libre and El Periódico on June 1 put Ríos Montt in fourth place by order of preferences at 7.4 percent, far behind the candidate of the Grand National Alliance, Oscar Berger, with 37.8 percent.