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Former Guatemalan dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt (l) during his trial on charges of genocide in 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

Former US-backed Guatemalan Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt Dies Facing Genocide Charges

Victims of the genocide and human rights advocates said Rios Montt's death brings a measure of closure.

Brett Wilkins

General Efraín Ríos Montt, the former US-backed Guatemalan dictator on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role during his country’s civil war, has died at age 91.

The New York Times reports Rios Montt suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday in Guatemala City. He had long suffered from dementia as well as heart and lung problems. At the time of his death, the former general was on trial for genocide for the second time. In 2013, he was convicted and sentenced to 80 years’ imprisonment for ordering the murder of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya indigenous people during his rule in 1982-1983. It was the first time a former head of state had been charged with genocide by a court in his own country.

However, within days his conviction was overturned on a technicality, with Guatemala’s high court ruling that Rios Montt should face a new trial.

Born in 1926 into a poor family in the Huehuetenango highlands, Rios Montt distinguished himself as a student at Guatemala’s military academy. As a young officer, he participated in the successful CIA-orchestrated coup against the democratically elected reformist president Jacobo Arbenz. Four years before the coup, Rios Montt graduated from the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the “school of coups” and “school of assassins” because it produced so many of both. SOA students, who included future dictators Manuel Noriega, Leopoldo Galtieri and Hugo Banzer, were trained in counterinsurgency, democracy suppression, kidnapping, interrogation and assassination, sometimes using US-authored torture manuals.

Known as a hard worker, Rios Montt rose quickly through the ranks and in1970 was promoted to chief of staff of the Guatemalan army under military dictator General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio. He ran for president on a center-left ticket in 1974 but was defeated in what is widely believed to have been a fraudulent election. Years of exile in Spain followed.

Upon his return to Guatemala, Rios Montt’s politics grew increasingly conservative. He also abandoned Catholicism and  became a preacher in Church of the Word, a California-based evangelical church, counting American evangelical leaders including Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Luis Palau among his friends.

In 1982, Rios Montt led a successful military coup, proclaiming himself president and commander-in-chief in June. He continued the previous regime’s civil war policy of fusiles y frijoles (rifles and beans), under which all adult males were forced to join civil patrols, while ramping up a scorched earth policy against leftist insurgents. The Guatemalan elite feared the country would end up like Nicaragua, where the successful Sandinista revolution had ushered in a period of progressive reforms aimed at uplifting the poor. They — and their allies in Washington — also looked warily around them at leftist uprisings in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras and determined they would not suffer a similar fate. Rios Montt’s hard-line policies reassured the ruling elite, even as they terrorized the indigenous population.

“If you are with us, we will feed you,” he said in an address to Guatemala’s peasants. “If not, we will kill you.” Beans for the obedient, bullets for the rest.

According to Amnesty International, government forces killed more than 10,000 indigenous Mayan peasants during the first five months of Rios Montt’s rule. Over 600 villages were exterminated. In one of the worst of these massacres, soldiers from the elite, US-trained Kaibiles unit slaughtered more than 200 men, women and children at Dos Erres on December 6, 1982. The men were tortured. Children were thrown alive into the village well. Babies' heads were smashed against walls. Girls and women were raped before being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers. Fetuses were torn from pregnant girls and women.    

President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt on the same day the Kaibiles attacked Dos Erres, lauding the genocidal dictator as "a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice.” Reagan added that he felt Rios Montt had gotten a “bum rap” from human rights advocates. Documents later declassified by the US State Department revealed the Reagan administration was fully aware of the massacre at Dos Erres. However, instead of sanctioning the perpetrators, the US hired Kaibiles commander Pedro Pimentel Rios — later sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the massacre, which included raping children — to teach at the SOA. Pimentel Rios was also awarded the US Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service and was allowed to settle in California until he was extradited to stand trial for genocide.

The Reagan administration and Rios Montt’s US Christian allies stood by him through the worst of his atrocities, with Palau, the evangelical leader, gushing in 1983 how “great [it is to] have a Christian president as a model.” Rios Montt, after all, was ruthlessly crushing a rebellion of godless communists and famously said that “a true Christian carries the Bible in one arm and a machine gun in the other.”

Rios Montt was overthrown by General Mejía Víctores in August 1983 after some leading officers grew weary of his rule and his strict evangelicalism. Mejía Víctores infamously declared that “Guatemala does not need any more prayers, just more executions.”

Many more executions would follow. However, a State Department report later determined that Rios Montt’s 17-month rule was "probably the most violent period of the 36-year internal conflict, resulting in about 200,000 deaths of mostly unarmed indigenous civilians.” Guatemala’s civil war finally ended in 1996; three years later, a United Nations truth and reconciliation commission found that fully 93 percent of war deaths were attributable to government forces.

Rios Montt denied committing genocide until the very end, declaring that while “I may not be spotless, my conscience is clear.” He repeatedly insisted he did not pursue a scorched earth policy, only one of “scorched communists.” Rios Montt remained popular among many middle- and upper-class Guatemalans, serving several terms in Congress and even running for president in 1990 and again in 2003. While in Congress, he enjoyed immunity from prosecution, but that protection ended in 2012 after he left the legislature. By the following year, he was ordered to stand trial for genocide.

Victims of Guatemala’s genocide and human rights advocates said Rios Montt’s death brings a measure of closure. Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her advocacy work on behalf of indigenous victims of genocide, said the former dictator “has already been judged and [his] crimes have been set out.”

“He died facing justice,” tweeted Claudia Paz y Paz, a former Guatemalan attorney general who played a key role in charging Rios Montt. “Thank you to the survivors for their dignity and bravery. May it never happen again.”

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Brett Wilkins

Brett Wilkins

Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.


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