Ex-Guatemalan dictator found guilty of genocide

On May 10 a court in Guatemala found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for his part in the massacre of native Americans of the Ixil Maya group during his brief presidency from 1982 to 1983.

A three-judge panel headed by Judge Jazmin Barrios sentenced him to 80 years in prison: 50 for the genocide, 30 for crimes against humanity. An associate, former intelligence chief Jose Rodriguez Sanchez, was acquitted. Under Guatemalan law, nobody can serve more than 50 years, but Rios Mont is 86.

Rios Montt seized power in a coup d’etat against another military dictator, Fernando Lucas Garcia, in 1982. Paz in turn had been the latest in a series of dictators who had ruled Guatemala after the United States overthrew democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.

Arbenz was overthrown because his land reform plans threatened both the local landholding elites and the interests of the monster – United Fruit Company (ancestral to today’s Chiquita Banana) which held vast amounts of idle land in Guatemala.

Major investors in United Fruit included U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Alan Dulles. Arbenz was replaced by a military man, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, who repealed Arbenz’ measures and instituted a harshly repressive regime against the left.

Castillo was assassinated in 1957 but after him came a series of military strongmen who carried out a bloody war against left wing guerillas as well as farmers and workers. This war was increasingly funded by the United States, as U.S. and Israeli advisors gave the Guatemalan military tips on methods of torture and murder. The war cost an estimated 200,000 lives, with 93 percent of the killing done by government troops and right-wing paramilitaries allied with them. A 1996 peace accord ended the formal fighting, but left Guatemala scarred and still plagued by violence.

Rios Montt seized power in March, 1982 and only ruled until August of the following year. In this short period he showed himself to be an overachiever in the murder and mayhem departments: Troops under his command are thought to have killed at least 40,000 people.

He was tried, however, only for one specific campaign, against the Ixil subgroup of the Maya indigenous people. In this operation, Rios Montt’s men destroyed 600 indigenous villages. He was found guilty of command responsibility in the slaughter of 1,771 people including women, children and old people. Small babies were killed by picking them up by the feet and smashing their heads against walls.

Eventually, Rios Montt was himself overthrown and replaced by another brutal military dictator, Oscar Mejia Victores, who continued the repression.

The fall of Rios Montt had less to do with his cruelty and violence and more with the fact that as a fanatical evangelical Christian (the Church of the Word), he had gotten on the nerves of Catholic elites in Guatemala. He fell in spite of the fact that he had excellent relations with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who publicly praised Rios Montt as a man of “integrity.”

Rios Montt was a graduate of what was then called the “School of the Americas” in Fort Benning, Georgia, which has produced scores of the Latin American military’s worst murderers and human rights violators, giving them training in how to “win the hearts and minds” of the people by means of various forms of torture. A specialty of the Rios Montt period was the creation of “self-defense” patrols which would pit Maya villagers against each other; another was the “Kabiles,” an elite killer squad which still exists and is being used by the U.S. and allies in the “humanitarian” task of chasing down Joseh Kony in Central Africa.

The people around Rios Montt, including his daughter, Zury Rios, are still powerful and influential in Guatemala, and still have powerful connections in the United States. Rios is married to former Republican Congressman Jerry Weller of Illinois. In the 2006 elections, the Rios Montt’s party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, organized violent riots in Guatemala city, which many saw as a chilling reminder that the days of the general could return.

At the time the genocide in Guatemala was being carried out, the reason given to outsiders was that to get rid of the plague of “communism”, it was necessary to kill everybody who showed signs of being infected. Now, however, Rios Montt claims, as his defense in the trial, that he, as president of the country and commander in chief of the armed forces, had no idea these things were going on and never gave the orders.

There was an element of uncertainty in the trial, due to the power still exercised over the judiciary and other institutions by wealthy economic strata which have been the support of the military regimes and the political right. An attempt was made to get the trial annulled, but this failed. Although a large group of Ixil Maya survivors and technical specialists testified to the events, the current president of Guatemala, General Otto Perez Molina, has denied that genocide ever took place and is himself reported to have played a subordinate role in the repression against the Ixil. However, President Perez has also said he will abide by the court’s decision. For his part, Rios Montt says he will appeal up to the Supreme Court if necessary.

For the many people in the United States who are nauseated and horrified by the Guatemalan genocide, we still have important tasks to do. One is to shut down the School of the Americas, now euphemistically renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” Another is to bring to book surviving U.S. government and private individuals who aided, abetted and inspired Rios Montt and his cohorts in their bloody deeds. Reagan has gone to his reward, but there are plenty left. Above all, we must never let this happen again.

Photo: Efrain Rios Montt Moises Castilo/AP


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.