The Hour of Justice Approaches for Ríos Montt

Guatemalan girl one day before the elections
A native Guatemalan girl walks in front of graffiti reading "No more corruption" in Guatemala City, Nov. 8. 2003, one day before the general elections that removed Efraín Ríos Montt's ruling party from power (Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP-Getty Images).

As the ruling party’s leader in Guatemala’s legislature, defeated presidential candidate and former military ruler Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt has immunity from prosecution for the murder of thousands of Guatemalans during his reign. But his term ends in January. A group of survivors is reviving a case in the Spanish courts. In an article for Mexico City’s Proceso, Velia Jaramillo reports on Montt’s loss in the Nov. 9 elections and the efforts to bring him to trial.—WPR

Defeated in presidential elections on Sunday, Nov. 9, [former] Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt avoided the press, which he blamed for his electoral disaster, and remained behind closed doors at his home. Accused of genocide, his impunity “has reached an end,” his opponents warn.

The frontrunner from the first round of elections, Óscar Berger, told Proceso, “We’re not going to allow anyone to be exempt from punishment. If someone committed acts outside the law, we will ask that justice be done.”

Álvaro Colom, who came in second place, warned during one of his last campaign rallies in Chuiquimula on Nov. 6: “I wouldn’t forgive Ríos Montt if he came to me on his hands and knees. He’s 78 hours from losing his immunity, and the hour of justice has come.”

Edin Barrientos, the general’s running mate, said Ríos Montt would no longer speak with journalists—whom he demonized during the campaign—and added that in a Nov. 10 meeting with leaders of the Guatemalan Republic Front (FRG), the current ruling party [and Montt’s], the former president-by-coup asked his supporters to “look to the future.”

The fight was “tremendously unequal,” former guerrilla commander and Montt supporter Pedro Palma Lau told Proceso regarding the electoral race in which businessman Óscar Berger won 34 percent of the votes, followed by the representative of the former guerrillas, Álvaro Colom, who won 26 percent, and Montt, who came in third with 19 percent of the votes. Berger and Colom will participate in the run-off elections on Dec. 28.

“They gave us a bad name, blaming us for everything bad that’s happened in the history of this country. I spoke very briefly with the general, and he told me that we gave it a good fight,” added Palma, one of Ríos Montt’s closest collaborators during the campaign.

[Current FGR] president Alfonso Portillo—considered by the opposition to be a “puppet” of the general—insisted that Ríos Montt was “tranquil” in the face of his defeat. “I think a political career has ended,” Portillo said, “But it has ended with great dignity, satisfaction, and maturity…He is a man with a controversial personality, but the role he has played will be recognized in time.”

With his recent bid to be president, the man who was in the elite counterinsurgency military forces in the 1960s, part of the political opposition in the 1970s, and a de facto president in the 1980s stood up to a cool reception from the Guatemalan business sector and the U.S. government, his old allies during the [civil] war.

But his dream of reaching the president’s office in a time of democracy was shattered for the third time. Both of his attempts, in 1990 and 1995, to enter the presidential race were blocked by the courts.

During this last attempt, he managed to reestablish old alliances. He won the support of leftists such as former guerrilla commander Palma, now a FRG legislative candidate. He won the support of the paramilitary Civil Self-Defense Patrols, which Ríos Montt established during his regime in the 1980s and which the current Portillo administration reactivated, with the offer—partially fulfilled—to pay economic compensation to patrol members for “services” provided during the war.

Nevertheless, as these payments were delayed and politicized, he gained some adversaries among native Guatemalans, evangelicals, and the country’s poor. He tried to win their votes with his anti-oligarchy rhetoric, but they turned their backs on him—except in Baja Verapaz and Quiché, two of the regions most affected by the massacres committed during Ríos Montt’s government, but where, surprisingly, he won most of the votes.

Among the main sectors speaking out against the army general are members of Guatemala’s business elite, human-rights activists who accuse him of genocide, and the “international community,” which looked suspiciously at the possibility of this shady figure from Guatemala’s dirty war governing the country in times of peace.

On Nov. 7, just days before the election, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Richard Boucher, declared that “in light of Ríos Montt’s background, it would be difficult for the United States to have the kind of relationship with Guatemala we would ideally prefer if he were in charge.”

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan asked Guatemalans “to vote remembering their past,” while Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú insisted that Ríos Montt did not deserve votes “for all the crimes he committed.”

Antecedents of his defeat
According to some analysts, one of the factors explaining Ríos Montt’s poor performance at the polls, in addition to accusations of corruption against the Portillo administration, are the violent events of July 24, when the general’s followers paralyzed the capital city for 30 hours to protest a Supreme Court ruling that temporarily impeded his candidacy.

Barricades, damage to residences and businesses, the persecution and beating of journalists, and the harassment of the Supreme Electoral Court, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Constitutionality Court marked the tone of events that day.

Human-rights activists revived the memory of Ríos Montt’s giving evangelical speeches and televised messages with the Bible under his arm, while unleashing a campaign of violence that left more than 800 murdered and disappearanced every month over the course of his rule, according to documented testimonies.

“Ríos Montt is not the first unrestrained, disreputable old man in the history of Latin America who—despite having dragged behind him a bloody streak of crimes, in this case no fewer than 100,000 deaths—still goes up to the rostrum to speak to great masses of followers,” says Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez.

Days before armed men broke into his home and kidnapped him and his family, the director of [Guatemala’s] El Periódico newspaper, José Rubén Zamora, wrote that Guatemalans “were witnesses to [Ríos Montt’s] skills and abilities in building concentration camps, in extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, press censorship, secret tribunals, extermination policies, clandestine cemeteries, and the entire imaginable range of state terrorism.”

Yet President Portillo speaks for many of Ríos Montt’s allies when he retorts, “The general is not a violent man, as some have tried to paint him. He’s not a man of terrorism. He’s a 77-year-old man, and he’s beyond good versus evil.”

Old photos of Ríos Montt with Ronald Reagan were published by the FRG party with excerpts from a speech in which the former U.S. president recognized the general’s “personal integrity and commitment” as he faced the challenge of the country’s guerrillas. Reagan offered the U.S. government’s support to Ríos Montt’s “efforts” to “re-establish democracy and confront the causes that are the source of this violent insurrection.”

Analyst Luis Solano remembers that “when Ríos Montt became the de facto president, he had the support of many. He fulfilled his counterinsurgency role perfectly, and the conservative U.S. government backed him, as did the oligarchy and the extreme right in Guatemala. The problem is that Ríos Montt never worked toward implementing the neoliberal economic model. That very oligarchy, and the United States, betrayed him in the 1983 coup.”

Genocidal redeemer
Born in 1926, Ríos Montt has maintained a position within Guatemala’s elite since 1974, when, already a general and as the military attaché in Washington, he participated in presidential elections representing the Christian Democrats in an alliance of center-left political parties. Though he won the election, his triumph was not acknowledged, and he went into self-imposed exile in Spain.

Years later, he reappeared in the Guatemalan scene as an evangelical pastor with the Church of the Word, a version of the Californian Gospel Outreach, whose emissaries had come to the country after the 1976 earthquake. During the 1980s he formed part of a triumvirate that was dissolved through a coup d’état, which brought him to power until August of 1983.

In 1988 he founded the FRG political party and was then rejected as a presidential candidate in 1990 because of a legal prohibition against former coup leaders’ seeking the presidency. But he did manage to be elected to the legislature and was the president of Congress in 1994. Again barred from the presidential elections in 1995, the former general campaigned for Portillo, who lost that time. But Portillo won on his second try, becoming president in 1999 as the FRG party won an overwhelming majority in Congress.

As a legislator—he was in the National Congress for a total of 12 years—he built a network of influence that kept his daughter, Zury Ríos, and his grandson, Jorge Ríos, in key positions in Congress, while his son Enrique Ríos Sosa was promoted to the rank of general during the current administration.

Virginia Garrard of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas has analyzed Ríos Montt’s statements on religion. She says he “believed himself to be a prophetic leader brought to power by providence, at a particular moment in history in which he would lead the people of Guatemala against the evil forces that besieged them from every direction…”

Reports from the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission and the Historical Memory Project found that nearly half of all the state murders registered during 36 years of civil war were committed during the year and a half that Montt governed the country, with the total calculated in the thousands.

Gustavo Meoño, director of the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation, the organization that filed a complaint signed by victims’ families and charging Ríos Montt with genocide, torture, and forced disappearance with the Spanish courts, announced he would travel to Spain to attempt to reactivate this criminal proceeding.