Tyrant Rios Montt dies, but his ghost still haunts Guatemala
Graffiti that reads in Spanish, "There was genocide," in reference to the genocide trial against former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, is seen on a wall in Guatemala City, Jan. 4, 2015. | Moises Castillo / AP

He died without ever facing real punishment for his crimes.

Former Guatemalan dictator José Efrain Rios Montt went to his reward on April 1, at age 91. He was still theoretically on trial for genocide and human rights violations, but his death saved him from any punishment.

Was the April Fools’ Day joke on him, or on the people of Guatemala?

Efrain Rios Montt, as a young officer trained by the United States in the precursor organization to the notorious “School of the Americas,” participated in the bloody military coup that the United States organized against the moderately progressive Guatemalan President, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.

As the aftermath of the coup against Arbenz, there began a long civil war in which over 200,000 people, most of them civilians and many of them members of the large indigenous Maya population of Guatemala, were killed. At least 90 percent of the killings were perpetrated by government forces.

Rios Montt, who had quit the Roman Catholic Church and become an Evangelical Protestant lay preacher, moving in the circles of people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, carried out a coup d’état in March 1982, and named himself president of a three-person junta.

Guatemala had suffered under years of bloody and corrupt dictatorships, but the brief tenure of Rios Montt exceeded his predecessors in ferocity. Under the pretext of crushing a left-wing guerilla insurgency, Rios Montt introduced a “beans and bullets” program, whereby peasant villages could choose whether to cooperate with the army and armed civilian patrols, or essentially be wiped out. Much of the worst repression was directed at the Ixil Triangle, a mostly indigenous Maya area in the Cuchumatanes Mountains in the West of the country.

In this May 24, 2013 photo, Ixil Mayans help forensic anthropologists during the exhumation of a clandestine grave near Ixtupil, Guatemala. While hiding from soldiers, the Ixil buried their loved ones who perished in the mountains in clandestine graves during the country’s bloody civil war. Forgotten by the state for centuries, the Ixil returned to public awareness after a court found former dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide for the ruthless policies used during his 17-month-long regime against the Ixil. A higher court later overturned the sentence. | Rodrigo Abd / AP

According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, the military and paramilitaries destroyed between 70 and 90 percent of the villages in this area and killed up to 5.5 percent of the entire Ixil Maya ethnic population—men, women, and children. Up to 75,000 deaths resulted from this army operation.

Certainly, genocidal attacks on Guatemala’s indigenous population, estimated by some to be about half of the entire nation of seventeen million, did not start under Rios Montt. They have been a frequent occurrence since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. But Rios Montt’s brief rampage would have broken all past records, had it not been for the fact that he was in turn overthrown by another military coup, on August 8, 1983. The new president, General Oscar Mejía Victores, continued the repressive policies.

During this whole time, the Guatemalan dictatorship had full access to U.S. (and Israeli) material and moral support, especially during the Reagan administration.

In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the government of then-president Álvaro Arzú and the main guerilla insurgency group, the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca, or the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union). But Rios Montt and his cohorts did not face any prosecution or punishment. Behind the façade of civilian government, the corrupt military officer groups that had grown up through the long years of civil war still remained, and remain, a powerful force in Guatemalan politics. The indigenous population, meanwhile, still suffers from extreme poverty, repression, and violence.

Rios Montt, his family, and cronies continued to swim happily in these bloody waters. The general was elected to Congress and ran for president in 2003 as the candidate of a party he founded, the Guatemalan Republican Front. This was supposedly illegal, as the constitution forbade the candidacy of anyone who had ever carried out a coup d’état. However, Rios Montt’s cronies on the Supreme Court allowed him to be on the ballot. When, after protests, the court changed its mind, Rios Montt and his supporters organized two days of violent street riots. However, he only got 11 percent of the vote anyway.

In 2012, Rios Montt’s congressional term ended, and thus he no longer enjoyed immunity from prosecution. The very brave and independent-minded attorney general at the time, Claudia Paz y Paz, got Rios Montt indicted for “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Paz y Paz also went after other military personnel on similar charges, but the indictment of Rios Montt was the first time anywhere in the world that a former president was called to account for such crimes in the courts of his own country. He was convicted on May 10, 2013 and given an 80-year prison sentence, but his conviction was overturned on technicalities just ten days later. When the trial started up again at the beginning of 2015, the defense claimed that Rios Montt had now become senile and therefore the trial would continue behind closed doors.

So, he was never punished

José Efrain Rios Montt is dead, but his ghost walks. The baleful network of interests that he, his colleagues, and their predecessors and successors in the Guatemalan military and government created still bedevils the country’s politics. Not only abuse of power, but also corruption is characteristics of the militarized state that was created after the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954.

Rios Montt’s immediate successor, Mejía Victores, also was accused of mass murder, and several of the other presidents since then have been accused of corruption, plotting coups, and other crimes.

A recent president, General Otto Pérez Molina, was removed from power and imprisoned in 2015 because of corruption charges. Pérez Molina was an army officer who had served in the Ixil Triangle during Rios Montt’s dictatorship. After the overthrow of Rios Montt, Pérez Molina served as director of military intelligence at a time when more brutal crimes were being committed by the army. When Pérez Molina was removed from power, he was succeeded on an interim basis by Constitutional Court Judge Alejandro Maldonado, who had been instrumental in annulling the conviction of Rios Montt, and who got his political start in previous violent military dictatorships.

And the current president, Jimmy Morales? Like Rios Montt, he is an Evangelical Christian, whose original claim to fame is that he was a TV comedian known for his crude skits that many consider racist, sexist, and homophobic.

Morales won the 2015 presidential elections by default in a situation where public confidence in the whole political establishment was at a rock-bottom low point. His political party, the National Convergence Front, is a far right party created by former military officers with histories of involvement in the civil war.

Morales is now in big trouble on the corruption front. His brother and son are on trial for fraud, he himself is under suspicion for election law violations, and he is trying to expel Iván Velázquez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), from the country. So far, the courts have not allowed him to do this.

The Commission was set up in 2006, according to an agreement between the United Nations and the government of Guatemala at that time. It has helped Guatemalan authorities in a number of important investigations of corruption and abuse of power. It played a role in the fall of Pérez Molina and other high officials. This is no doubt why Morales wants to cripple the CICIG, and why he is also trying to replace the current attorney general, Thelma Aldana, with a useful stooge. Aldana, like her predecessor Claudia Paz y Paz, has taken her responsibility for going after the perpetrators of corruption and bloody repression too seriously, it seems.

Clearly, the ghosts of Rios Montt and all those other bloody dictators still haunt Guatemala. But haunting does not stop at the Guatemalan borders, and nor does the responsibility. A similar situation exists in next-door Honduras, where President Juan Orlando Hernández is using repression to cover up corruption and election fraud.

In both cases, the United States, under Donald Trump, continues the old policy of supporting useful despots. Reagan supported Rios Montt because he was allegedly “fighting communism.” Trump’s administration supports such governments because they do the bidding of transnational mining corporations (both Guatemala and Honduras, as well as another despotic government, that of Paraguay, have shown their gratitude by supporting the U.S. plan to move our embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem).

An exorcism is needed in Guatemala. Given the immense backing of the Guatemalan right by our own government, we have a responsibility to join with the Guatemalan people to get it done.


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.