Saturday, July 11, 2020

LATIN AMERICA | 02-04-2018 16:43

Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala's ex-dictator, dies at 91

In 1982, Ríos Montt seized power in a military coup and promptly suspended the Constitution, disbanded Congress and set in motion a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator who ruled Guatemala with an iron fist in the 1980s and presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's civil war in which soldiers waged a scorched-earth campaign to root out Marxist guerrillas, died on Sunday at the age of 91.

Convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court threw out the conviction because of a procedural error and ordered a new trial. Despite attempts by his defence team to dismiss the case against him, he was being retried in absentia.

Lawyer Jaime Hernández said the family told him the 91-year-old died of a heart attack. Another of his attorneys, Luis Rosales, said he "died in peace, surrounded by his family." Echoing Ríos Montt's longstanding, angry denials, Rosales said, "Here [in Guatemala] there was no genocide,” a comment which will infuriate many of his countrymen and the international human rights community.

Hector Reyes, a lawyer who represented the families of some of the victims of government massacres, disputed that. Ríos Montt "didn't die innocent," Reyes said. "He had been convicted, even though his sentence was overturned.

"His house was his prison," the lawyer added, referring to the house arrest Ríos Montt had long been under.

Guatemala's Congress said in a statement that because of the political offices he held, Ríos Montt was entitled to lie in state at the Legislative Palace. But the family decided to hold a quick, private burial ceremony Sunday at a local cemetery.

Relatives and supporters defended him vehemently at the event, saying the man accused of razing indigenous villages had in fact committed no crime.

Protesting relatives of people who died under his rule, however, splashed red paint on the sidewalk outside a former government palace in Guatemala City and on a national flag in a symbol of the blood they said he had shed. They complained that he was never punished.

An ex-general known for inspiring fear and giving speeches at a near-shout, Ríos Montt was later a longtime member of Congress and one of the most influential figures in Guatemalan politics for more than three decades.

During his 18-month rule, ruthless even by the standards of Latin American dictators, Rios Montt engaged in a "scorched earth" policy against dissidents, wiping out entire rural towns where leftists were suspected of living or having support. 


A UN truth commission determined that some 245,000 people were killed or disappeared during Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war, with the vast majority of the killings attributed to the Army or pro-government paramilitary groups. Tens of thousands of those deaths came during Ríos Montt's 17-month rule.

The dictator was accused of orchestrating an extermination policy against the indigenous population, which was perceived to be collaborating with left-wing guerrillas waging war against government forces.

He denied the charges in his original trial.

"I never authorised, never signed, never ordered an attack against a race, an ethnicity or a religion. I never did it!" he said at the time.

Ríos Montt was however convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity for the massacre of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayans by security forces under his command in 1982-83, which came at the height of the brutal 36-year civil war. 

Judge Yasmín Barrios sentenced him to 80 years in prison, saying she was “completely convinced” of his guilt.

It was the first time a Latin American ex-dictator had been convicted of genocide. 

But the ruling was swiftly set aside by Guatemala's Constitutional Court because of what it called a procedural error and a new trial ordered, dismaying human rights activists and victims who long sought to see him punished for atrocities.

The latter trial of Ríos Montt and his spy chief, Jose Rodríguez, was halted in 2016 after an appeals court ruled each man should be tried separately.

Last October, his trial on genocide charges resumed behind closed doors after being suspended for more than a year while his lawyers argued that he was too senile to participate, with no memory and unable to make decisions.

Military veteran

Short in stature and vigorous until recent years,  the former dictator had a humble beginning, with little to suggest a rise to national power. 

Born June 16, 1926, in the city of Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala's highlands, Ríos Montt grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family.

He entered the Army in 1946 as a cadet and, over a long career, held nearly every military post there was: troop assistant, platoon commander, instructor, defence secretary. He attended the US School of the Americas in the 1950s, where Latin American officers learned harsh tactics used in crack downs on dissidents, and became a brigadier general in 1972.

Politically, Rios Montt came to the forefront in 1974 when, as a brigadier general, he was put forward as a coalition presidential candidate. 

Historians say he won an overwhelming victory, but electoral fraud prevented him from taking office. Another general, Kjell Eugenio Laugerud, took power instead. 

As a consolation prize, Rios Montt was sent to Guatemala’s Embassy in Spain as the military attaché.

Upon returning home three years later, he turned away from Catholicism, his religion of birth, and became a fervent evangelical Christian.

On March 23, 1982, he seized power in a bloodless military coup and promptly suspended the Constitution, disbanded Congress and set in motion a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in thousands of deaths.

According to the UN, nearly a quarter of a million people died or were made to disappear during the Guatemala's war, which ended in 1996.

Nonetheless he continued to receive the support of the United States, where then-US president Ronald Reagan called him "a man of great personal integrity and commitment."

Summary trials

Ríos Montt's government was known for summary trials of suspected subversives, and for moralistic Sunday night TV messages from the strongman who had become a born-again evangelical Christian.

"A man who has two women is a pig; a woman who has two men is a hen," he said in one, using slang that translates roughly as a woman of loose morals.

He claimed in one such sermon that a "good Christian" lived their life "with a bible and a machine gun." 

In power, Ríos Montt alienated a broad spectrum of society. Much of the military was upset by his shake-ups of the hierarchy, businesspeople were irked by his economic policies and many Catholics disliked his fervent Protestantism. That led to his ouster by another putsch in August 1983 headed by his own defence minister.

However he remained popular among many for his social welfare initiatives and for the relative peace his "iron fist" approach brought to some regions. In 1985, a clause was added to the Constitution barring him and his progeny from seeking the presidency.

But Ríos Montt remained in politics, founding a new conservative party in 1990 and entering Congress a decade later when political ally Alfonso Portillo was elected president.

In 2003, Ríos Montt was finally able to make another run for president after the Constitutional Court allowed his candidacy. He came in a distant third – in part due to scandals under the government of Portillo, who would later plead guilty in the US to laundering millions of ill-gotten dollars through US banks.


For years Ríos Montt enjoyed immunity from prosecution as an elected member of Congress. The ex-general served as a legislator between 1990 and 2003, including a stint as head of the chamber. 

His status changed when he lost re-election in 2011 and was ordered into house arrest.

After more than 100 legal appeals were exhausted, his 2013 trial was seen as a historic opportunity to hold a Latin American dictator responsible for abuses committed on his watch.

Dozens of witnesses testified about rapes, massacres, forced displacement and other crimes by soldiers that, prosecutors argued, Ríos Montt either ordered or must have known about.

Smartly dressed in a suit and shoes polished to a shine, the former general vehemently maintained his innocence: "It was never my intention or my goal to destroy a whole ethnic group ... I never ordered attacks on a specific race."

Ríos Montt was convicted and sentenced to 80 years. But practically before the ink on the ruling had time to dry, the ruling was tossed over trial irregularities and a new proceeding ordered.


With Ríos Montt by then in his late 80s and reportedly suffering from heart disease and spinal problems, human rights watchdogs feared the setback meant he would never be convicted.

At a hearing in January 2015, he was wheeled into court on a gurney ashen-faced, clad in pyjamas, covered with a blanket and wearing dark sunglasses. It was a far cry from the man Guatemalans knew: diminutive of stature but with a booming voice, commanding presence and penetrating gaze.

A three-justice panel ruled that one of the judges had to recuse herself, delaying the retrial yet again until it resumed, never to be concluded, in October.

Ríos Montt was married to Maria Teresa Sosa and had three children: Adolfo, who joined the army, participated in his father's coup and was killed in 1984 in a rebel downing of a military helicopter; Zury, who was elected to Guatemala's congress and in 2004 married then-US representative Jerry Weller (Republican-Illinois); and Enrique, who also went into the Army and served as defence minister.


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