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Efraín Ríos Montt

Efraín Ríos Montt (born 1926) is a former President of Guatemala. He is currently president of the Guatemalan National Congress. In 2003, as the candidate of the ruling right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front party, he made a failed attempt to be re-elected president.

Ríos Montt is best known for heading a military regime (19821983) and presiding over some of the worst atrocities of Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended with a peace treaty in 1996. The civil war pitted Marxist rebel groups against the army, but with huge numbers of mostly non-partisan Maya campesinos caught in the crossfire. 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the conflict, making it Latin America's most violent in modern history. Human rights groups say Ríos Montt, a staunch anti-communist who has had ties to the United States for over five decades (the Pentagon's School of the Americas, the CIA, presidential administrations, and the religious right), was among the bloodiest dictators in Latin American history.

Efraín Ríos Montt on the campaign trail in 2003

Ríos Montt, popularly known as "the general," remains one of the most controversial figures in Guatemalan history. Regarded by many as a genocidal neo-fascist, his supporters regard the former military dictator as a strong leader capable of restoring order to this turbulent nation. Now that Guatemala's highest court has approved his candidacy, ostensibly ignoring a constitutional ban against former dictators running for president, his prospects of reclaiming the presidency are good, as his paternalistic, rightwing populist rhetoric appeals to many in this impoverished country.


The general's ties with the United States military go back fifty years when he received training by The Pentagon. In 1950 Ríos Montt graduated as a cadet at the School of the Americas in Panama, notorious for educating cadets, loyal to Washington, in coup-making, political repression, torture, assassination, and hysterical anticommunist propaganda.

In 1954, the young officer aided the CIA in engineering the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, whose nationalistic policies had annoyed the United Fruit Company, in which then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who played a major role in the coup, was personally invested. From then on, Ríos Montt's rise was steady and almost unimpeded. In 1970, he became a general and chief of staff for the Guatemalan army, which ruthlessly crushed peasant uprisings and served as armed guards for the big landed oligarchs. But career suffered a minor setback in 1974, when his apparent victory in the presidential election was invalidated.

In 1974, he was nominated as the Christian Democrat candidate and perhaps won the presidential vote, but his election was never recognized. Ríos Montt apparently blamed his defeat on the Guatemala's Catholic priests, whom he saw as leftist agents (since some questioned the mistreatment of Catholic Mayans). In 1978, he left the Catholic Church and became a minister in the California-based evangelical Church of the Word; since then Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been personal friends. Now a born-again Christian, he is a Protestant in a predominately Roman Catholic country.


In March 1982, Ríos Montt seized power in a coup d'état that was quietly backed by the CIA and the Reagan administration. Presidential elections had been held earlier in Guatemala on March 7, 1982, by Gen. Angel Aníbal Guevara, the candidate chosen by the outgoing regime. On March 23, the coup dissolved the junta and declared Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt the sole leader and head of the armed forces on June 9.

He and his fellow generals, Maldonando Schadd and Luis Gordillo, deposed Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia and set up a military tribunal with Montt at its head. The junta immediately suspended the constitution, set up secret tribunals and began a brutal crackdown on political dissidents that featured kidnapping, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations.

Initial hopes that the human rights and security situation might improved under the new president were short-lived and soon shattered. Violence escalated in the countryside, and only a temporary calm was experienced in urban areas. The June 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, and the campaign known as frijoles y fusiles ("beans and guns"), initiated by the president in an attempt to "win over" the large indigenous population to the rule of the arm, resulted in a nightmare of chaos and violence, unleashing a scorched earth attack on the nation's Mayan population that, according to a UN commission, resulted in the annihilation of nearly 600 villages. The administration established special military courts that had the power to impose death penalties against suspected uprising peasants. The number of killings in the countryside escalated, and the frijoles y fusiles campaign resulted in widespread fear. Thousands of Guatemalan Mayans fled over the border into Southern Mexico.

In 1982 an Amnesty International report estimated that over 2,600 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were slaughtered in a "scorched earth" campaign in the March-July period.

The Reagan administration meanwhile continued to embrace the general and his regime, paying a visit to Guatemala City in 1982, hailing Ríos Montt as a man dedicated to democracy. 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. And in return, Guatemala was eager to resurrect the Central American Defense Council, defunct since 1969, in order to join forces with other rightwing regimes El Salvador and Honduras in retaliations against the revolutionary government of Nicaragua.

According to more recent estimates, within 18 months, perhaps tens of thousands were slaughtered by Ríos Montt's death squads. 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. There were charges that many were forced to live in "re-education" camps enclosed with barbed wire and armed guards and forced to work in the fields of Guatemalan land barons. All in all, by the end of the civil war by 1996, more than 200,000 people had died in Guatemala's civil war, perhaps with more than 90 percent of the dead killed by government forces. Of those, the vast majority were Mayans.

By the end of 1982, Ríos Montt was claiming that the war against the leftist guerillas had been won and said that the government's work could be one of "techo, trabajo, y tortillas" ("roofs, work, and tortillas"). However, three coups had been attempted since he came to power.

On August 8, 1983 Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejía overthrew the regime and declared himself chief of state in the second military coup in Guatemala within 18 months. The unpopularity of General Ríos Montt was widespread. Disliked by many Roman Catholicism for his evangelical Protestantism and for 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 new administration under Mejía Victores, whose political stance was considered to be to the right of his predecessor, did not bode well for stability.


Ríos Montt now serves as president of the Guatemalan National Congress, the country's legislature, and has run for president two other times since the toppling of his dictatorship. He tried to run for president in 1990 and in 1995, but both times was prohibited by the constitutional court due to a constitutional provision banning people who had participated in military coups from becoming president. In 1999, he was elected head of the single-house legislature and helped his friend Alfonso Portillo win the presidency. The Republican Front nominated the former dictator in May 2003, but his candidacy was rejected by the electoral registry and by two lower courts once again. But this time most analysts had speculated that his bid would be successful since the nation's highest court, the Constitutional Court, would decide in favor of the 77-year-old Ríos Montt because it is now stacked with the ex-general's and sitting President Portillo's allies. And they were right. The constitutional court did overturn the lower court decisions and pave the way for the candidacy of the ex-dictator.

The legal reasoning behind the 4-3 decision by the Constitutional Court was not immediately made public. 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.

The decision shocked and angered some Guatemalans.

Attempts to indict "the general" on charges of genocide have failed. Nobel laureate and Mayan human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchú sought to have Ríos Montt tried in Spanish courts in 1999 for crimes committed against Spanish citizens. But these attempts have faltered.

Now that US interests are far more secure in the region, American enthusiasm for the brutal Guatemalan dictator has subsided. In June the State Department publicly announced that it would prefer to deal with a less tarnished figure, perhaps uneasy with accepting its own role in Guatemala's civil war, but maintained that bilateral relations would remain strong under Ríos Montt's rule.

At the end of July, followers of Rios Montt, stirred into action by the rightwing Republican Front Party (FRG) which he controls, have charged into the streets of Guatemala City armed with machetes, clubs and guns. Led by FRG militants, the crowds, including many members of the Guatemalan army, have marched on the nation's courts, opposition parties and newspapers, torching buildings, shooting out windows and bullying the opposition.

The riots were organized after the Guatemalan Supreme Court suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed to hear a complaint brought by two right-center parties that the general is constitutionally barred from running for president of the country.

Rios Montt denounced the ruling as "judicial manipulation" and, in a radio address, encouraged his followers to take to the streets to protest the decision. Within an hour of his speech, thousands of the general's backers had flooded Guatemala City, blocking traffic, chanting threatening slogans and waving machetes. Hooded men ransacked buildings, fired machine guns, smashed windows, and set fire to cars and tires. The situation became so chaotic over the weekend of July 26 that both the UN mission and the US embassy were closed.

However, during tense but peaceful presidential elections held on 9 November, Ríos Montt received just 11% of the votes, putting him a distant third behind businessman Óscar Berger, head of the conservative National Grand Alliance, and Alvaro Colom of the National Unity of Hope.

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