Efraín Ríos Montt

Infobox President | name=José Efraín Ríos Montt

| order=26th President of Guatemala
term_start=March 23, 1982
term_end=August 8, 1983
predecessor=Fernando Romeo Lucas García
successor=Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores
birth_date=June 16, 1926
religion=Church of the Word
profession = Religious minister, General, Politician
birth_place= Huehuetenango
spouse=María Teresa Sosa Ávila
party=Guatemalan Republican Front

José Efraín Ríos Montt (born June 16, 1926) is a former "de facto" President of Guatemala, army general, and former president of Congress. In the 2003 presidential elections, he unsuccessfully ran as the candidate of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG).

Huehuetenango-born Ríos Montt remains one of the most controversial figures in Guatemala. Two Truth Commissions, one sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church and the other conducted by the government as part of the 1996 Accords of Firm and Durable Peace, documented widespread human rights abuses committed by Ríos Montt's military regime, including widespread , rape, torture, and acts of genocide against the indigenous population. Supporters claim that he had to rule with an iron hand because the country was becoming unstable due to the civil war. Ríos Montt has, at times, had close ties to the United States who gave him aid to fight against left-wing guerrillas.

Ríos Montt is best known outside Guatemala for heading a military regime (1982–1983) that was responsible in some of the worst atrocities of Guatemala's 36-year civil war. The war ended with a peace treaty in 1996. The civil war pitted left-wing rebel groups against the army, with huge numbers of Mayan "campesinos" caught in the crossfire. At least 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the conflict, making it one of Latin America's most violent wars in modern history.

Indigenous Mayans suffered greatly under his rule, and it is documented that his government deliberately targeted thousands of them since many of them in the countryside were suspected of harboring sympathies for the guerrilla movement. The UN-backed official Truth Commission (the Historical Clarification Commission) maintained that this was a campaign of deliberate genocide against the population. [ [http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/conc2.html Guatemala: Memory of Silence, Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification] ] [ [http://alertanet.org/verdad.html Comision Verdad - Alertanet ] ]


He attended the School of the Americas in 1950. [ [http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB32/Oficiales.RTF List of Military Officers in the Guatemalan Army] , document by the National Security Archive, The George Washington University] In 1954, the young officer played a minor role in the successful CIA-organized coup against President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán.

Following the coup, Ríos Montt rose swiftly through the military. In 1970, under the military regime of President General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio, he became a general and chief of staff for the Guatemalan army.

In 1973, Ríos Montt resigned from his post at the Washington embassy to participate in the March 1974 presidential elections as the candidate of the National Opposition Front (FNO). He lost the election to a rival right-wing candidate, General Kjell Eugenio Laugerud García, by 70,000 votes. Since Laugerud didn't get a majority, the election was thrown to the government-controlled National Congress, which promptly elected Laugerud. According to some accounts, Ríos Montt appeared to be on his way to a majority when the government abruptly halted the count and manipulated the results to make it appear Laugerud had won by a narrow plurality.

Ríos Montt denounced a "massive electoral fraud", blaming Catholic priests who had questioned the mistreatment of the Catholic Mayans, and claimed that the priests were leftist agents. It is alleged that he was given a payoff of several hundred thousand dollars along with the post of military attaché in the embassy in Madrid, Spain, where he stayed until 1977.

In 1978, he left the Roman Catholic Church and became a minister in the California-based evangelical/pentecostal Church of the Word; since then Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been personal friends. Efrain Rios Montt's brother Mario Rios Montt is a Catholic bishop, and in 1998 succeeded the assassinated Bishop Juan Gerardi as head of the human rights commission uncovering the truth of the disappearances associated with the Guatemalan military and his brother.

Military regime

"Frijoles y Fusiles"

On March 7, 1982, General Ángel Aníbal Guevara, the official party candidate, won the presidential election. On March 23, with the support of fellow soldiers, General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, Ríos Montt seized power in a coup d'état, that was quietly backed by the CIA, deposing General Romeo Lucas García. They set up a military junta with Ríos Montt at its head. The junta immediately suspended the constitution, shut down the legislature, set up secret tribunals, and began a campaign against political dissidents that included kidnapping, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations. The coup was described as being of the "Oficiales jóvenes" ("young officers"), and prevented Guevara from being installed as president on July 1.

Initially, there was some expectation that the extremely poor human rights and security situation might improve under the new regime. Drawing on his pentecostal beliefs, Ríos Montt invoked a modern apocalyptic vision comparing the four riders of the Book of Revelation to the four modern evils of hunger, misery, ignorance and subversion, as well as fighting corruption and what he described as the depredations of the rich. He said that the true Christian had the Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other. On April 10, he launched the "National Growth and Security Plan" whose stated goals were to end the extermination and teach the populace about nationalism. They wanted to integrate the campesinos and indigenous peoples into the state, declaring that because of their illiteracy and "immaturity" they were particularly vulnerable to the seductions of "international communism."

On June 9, the other two members of the junta were forced to resign, leaving Ríos Montt as the sole leader, head of the armed forces, and minister of defense. Violence escalated in the countryside, with the massacres becoming much more generalized in a campaign known as "frijoles y fusiles" (beans and guns). This was an attempt by Ríos Montt to win over the large indigenous population to his version of the rule of the law, unleashing a scorched earth campaign on the nation's Mayan population, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango, that, according to the United Nations truth commission, resulted in the annihilation of nearly 600 villages. One example was the Plan de Sánchez massacre in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, in July 1982, which saw over 250 people killed. The administration established special military courts that had the power to impose death penalties against suspected guerrillas. Tens of thousands of peasant farmers fled over the border into southern Mexico. Meanwhile, urban areas saw a period of relative calm. The June 1982 amnesty for political prisoners was replaced by a state of siege that limited the activities of political parties and labor unions under the threat of death by firing squad.

In 1982, an Amnesty International report estimated that over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed from March to July of that year, and that 100,000 rural villages were forced to flee their homes. According to more recent estimates, tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed by the regime's death squads in the subsequent eighteen months. Based on the number of people killed per capita, Ríos Montt was probably the most violent dictator in Latin America's recent history, more so than even other notorious dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Argentina's Jorge Rafael Videla, and Bolivia's Hugo Banzer.

U.S. backing

Given Ríos Montt's staunch anticommunism and ties to the United States, the Reagan administration continued to support the general and his regime, paying a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/3788229.stm] During a meeting with Ríos Montt on December 4, Reagan declared: "President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. ... I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice."1

Reagan later agreed, in January 1983, to sell Guatemala millions of dollars worth of helicopter spare parts, a decision that did not require approval from Congress. In turn, Guatemala was eager to resurrect the Central American Defense Council, defunct since 1969, in order to join forces with the right-wing governments of El Salvador and Honduras in retaliations against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Removal from office

By the end of 1982, Ríos Montt, claiming that the war against the leftist guerrillas had been won, said that the government's work was one of "techo, trabajo, y tortillas" ("roofs, work, and tortillas").

Three coups had been attempted since he came to power. On June 29 1983, he declared a state of emergency, and announced elections for July 1984. On August 8, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores overthrew the regime in a bloodless coup. The unpopularity of Ríos Montt was widespread, exacerbated by his refusal to grant clemency to six guerrillas during the visit of Pope John Paul II. The military was offended by his promotion of young officers in defiance of the Army's traditional hierarchy. Much of the middle class was alienated by his decision on August 1 to introduce the value-added tax, never before levied in Guatemala.

The killings continued even after Ríos Montt was eased from office in 1983. Some human rights groups charge that perhaps as many as one million Mayan peasants were uprooted from their homes, and that many were forced to live in re-education concentration camps and to work in the fields of Guatemalan land barons. The Mayan Indian and campesino population suffered greatly under Ríos Montt's government. Attempts to indict Ríos Montt on charges of genocide have so far failed. Rigoberta Menchú sought to have Ríos Montt tried in Spanish courts in 1999 for crimes committed against Spanish citizens. She recently won that case, though it is doubtful Ríos Montt will ever be penalized for his alleged crimes in Spain or Guatemala.


Ríos Montt founded the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) political party in 1989. He tried to run for president in 1990, but was prohibited from entering the race by the constitutional court due to a constitutional provision banning people who had participated in military coups from becoming president. He was an FRG congressman between 1990 and 2004. In 1994, he was elected president of the unicameral legislature. With his attempt to run in 1994 also banned, he supported his fellow FRG friend Alfonso Portillo as candidate for the presidency, which Portillo narrowly lost in 1995 and won in 1999.

Guatemalan campaigners on behalf of Maya survivors of the civil war, such as Nobel laureate and discredited Mayan human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchú, were amazed, in March 1999, when U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized for U.S. support of Ríos Montt's regime. Clinton declared: "For the United States, it is important I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong and the United States must not repeat that mistake." [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/march99/clinton11.htm]

The same August President Portillo admitted involvement of the Guatemalan government in human rights abuses over the previous 20 years, including for two massacres that took place during Ríos Montt's presidency. The first was in Plan de Sánchez, in Baja Verapaz, with 268 dead, and in Dos Erres in Petén, where 200 people were murdered.

Presidential candidate 2003

The FRG nominated Ríos Montt, in May 2003, for the forthcoming November presidential election, but his candidacy was initially, and once again, rejected by the electoral registry and by two lower courts. In July 2003, Guatemala's highest court, which had had several judges appointed from the FRG, approved his candidacy for president ostensibly ignoring a constitutional ban against former dictators running for president, which had prevented him from standing at earlier presidential elections, and which he claimed had been written specifically to prevent him from standing.

Later, however, the Supreme Court suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed to hear a complaint brought by two right-of-center parties that the general was constitutionally barred from running for president of the country. Ríos Montt denounced the ruling as judicial manipulation and, in a radio address, called on his followers to take to the streets to protest against this decision. On July 24, in a day known as "jueves negro" (black Thursday) thousands of masked FRG supporters invaded the streets of Guatemala City armed with machetes, clubs and guns. They had been bussed in from all over the country by the FRG amidst claims that people working in FRG-controlled municipalities were being blackmailed with being sacked if they did not attend the demonstration. The demonstrators blocked traffic, chanted threatening slogans, and waved their machetes about.

They were led by well known FRG militants, including several known congressmen, who were photographed by the press early in the morning while co-ordinating the actions, and the personal secretary of Zury Ríos Montt, the general's daughter. The demonstrators marched on the courts, the opposition parties headquarters, and newspapers, torching buildings, shooting out windows and burning cars and tires in the streets. A TV journalist, Héctor Fernando Ramírez, died of a heart attack running away from a mob. After two days of wreaking havoc on the main streets of Guatemala City, rioters disbanded when an audio recording of Ríos Montt was played in loudspeakers calling them to return to their homes. The situation was so chaotic over the weekend that both the UN mission and the U.S. embassy were closed.

Following the rioting, the Constitutional Court, packed with allies of Ríos Montt and Portillo, overturned the Supreme Court decision. The legal reasoning behind the final decision was not immediately made public. Legal reasoning had nothing to do with it; the riots were effective in scaring everyone into silence. However, Ríos Montt had argued that the ban on coup leaders, formalized in the 1985 Constitution, could not be applied retroactively to acts before that date. Many Guatemalans expressed anger over the Court's decision.

In the post-Cold War environment, U.S. support for Ríos Montt had subsided. In June 2003, the State Department publicly announced that it would prefer to deal with a less tarnished figure.

During tense but peaceful presidential elections held on November 9, 2003, Ríos Montt received just 11 percent of the votes, putting him a distant third behind businessman Óscar Berger, head of the conservative Grand National Alliance (GANA), and Álvaro Colom of the National Unity of Hope (UNE). As he was running for president, he could not also run to be a member of Congress at the same time, and thus ended his 14 years there.

In March 2004, a court order forbade Ríos Montt from leaving the country to see if he is eligible for trial on charges related to "jueves negro" and the death of Ramírez. On November 20, 2004, Ríos Montt had to ask permission to travel to his country home for the wedding of his daughter Zury Ríos Montt, to U.S. Representative Jerry Weller (a Republican from Illinois). But Ríos Montt has not been charged with any crime and, on January 31, 2006, manslaughter charges for the death of Ramírez were dropped against Ríos Montt.

Attempts to try Ríos Montt in Spain for crimes against humanity

In 1999, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú presented charges for torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism against Ríos Montt and four other retired Guatemalan generals, two of them ex-presidents. Three other civilians that were high government official between 1978 and 1982 were also indicted. In September 2005 Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that Spanish courts can try those accused of crimes against humanity even if the victims were not of Spanish origin. In June 2006, Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz traveled to Guatemala to interrogate Ríos Montt and the others named in the case. However, at least 15 appeals filed by the defense attorneys of the indicted prevented Pedraz from carrying out the inquiries.

On July 7, Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant against Efraín Ríos Montt and former presidents Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores and Romeo Lucas García (the latter of whom had died in May 2006 in Venezuela). A warrant was also issued for the retired generals Benedicto Lucas García and Aníbal Guevara. Former minister of the interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, who remains at large, and ex-chiefs of police German Chupina Barahona and Pedro García Arredondo are also named on the international arrest warrants. For his part, Ríos Montt admitted in a July 2006 press conference that there were "excesses" committed by the army during his rule, but strenuously denied his culpability [http://www.prensalibre.com/pl/2006/julio/13/146746.html] .

On January 17, 2007, Ríos Montt announced that he would run for a seat in Congress in the election to be held later in the year. As a member of Congress he would be immune from prosecution unless a court suspended him from office. [http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2007/01/17/america/LA-GEN-Guatemala-Former-Dictator.php] He won his seat in the election, which was held on September 9, and will lead the FRG's 15-member congressional delegation in the new legislature. 31 members of the United States Congress sent a letter to Guatemala's attorney general in April 2007, urging Ríos Montt's arrest. [http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/08/03/america/guatemala.php?page=2]

ee also

*History of Guatemala

External links

* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/2972468.stm "BBC" article: Guatemala coup leader defies ban]
* [http://www.ghrc-usa.org/ Guatemala Human Rights Commission]


Further reading

*Carmack, Robert M. (ed.). "Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis" (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) ISBN 0806121327
*Cullather, Nick. (fwd. by Piero Gleijeses). "Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954" (Stanford University Press, 1999). ISBN 0804733104
*Dosal, Paul J. "Return of Guatemala's Refugees: Reweaving the Torn" (Temple University Press, 1998) ISBN 1566396212
*Falla, Ricardo (trans. by Julia Howland). "Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975-1982" (Westview Press, Boulder, 1994) ISBN 0813386683
*Fried, Jonathan L., et al. "Guatemala in Rebellion : Unfinished History" (Grove Press, NY, 1983). ISBN 0394532406
*Gleijeses, Piero. "Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954" (Princeton University Press, 1991) ISBN 0691078173
*Goldston, James A. "Shattered Hope: Guatemalan Workers and the Promise of Democracy" (Westview Press, Boulder, 1989). ISBN 0813377676
*LaFeber, Walter. "Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America". (W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1993). ISBN 0393017877
*Nairn, Allan. [http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/CIA/DeathsquadsOct95_Nairn.html "CIA Death Squads"] . April 1995. (Originally published in The Nation magazine. Accessed 9 July 2007.
*Perera, Victor. "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" (University of California Press, 1993). ISBN 0520079655
*Sanford, Victoria . "Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala" (Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2003) ISBN 1403960232
*Schlesinger, Stephen. "Bitter Fruit : The Untold story of the American Coup in Guatemala" (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1982). ISBN 0385148615
*Sczepanski David. Anfuso, Joseph. (fwd. by Pat Robertson). "Efrain Rios Montt, Servant or Dictator? : The Real Story of Guatemala's Controversial Born-again President" (Vision House, Ventura, CA, 1984) ISBN 0884491102
*Shillington, John Wesley. "Grappling with Atrocity: Guatemalan Theater in the 1990s" (Associated University Presses, London, 2002). ISBN 0838639305
*Stoll, David. "Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala" (Columbia University Press, NY, 1993). ISBN 0231081820
*Streeter, S.M. "Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954-1961" (Ohio Univ. Cent. Int. Stud., 2000) ISBN 0896802159


1. See Schirmer, Jennifer (1998) "The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy". Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 33.

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