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Efrain Rios Montt

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Efrain Rios Montt

Efraín Ríos Montt
26th President of Guatemala
In office
March 23, 1982 – August 8, 1983
Preceded by Fernando Romeo Lucas García
Succeeded by Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores
Personal details
Born José Efraín Ríos Montt
(1926-06-16) June 16, 1926 (age 88)
Huehuetenango, Guatemala
Political party Guatemalan Republican Front
Spouse(s) María Teresa Sosa Ávila
Religion Pentecostal

José Efraín Ríos Montt (Spanish pronunciation: [efɾaˈin ˈri.os ˈmont]; born June 16, 1926) is a former de facto President of Guatemala, dictator, army general and former president of Congress.

A General in the Guatemalan Army, Ríos Montt came to public office through a coup d'état on March 23, 1982. In turn, he was overthrown by his Defense Minister, Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, in another coup d'état on August 8, 1983. In the 2003 presidential elections, he unsuccessfully ran as the candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). In 2007 Ríos Montt returned to public office as a member of Congress, gaining prosecutorial immunity, including from a pair of long-running lawsuits alleging war crimes against him and a number of his former ministers and counselors during their term in the presidential palace in 1982-83.[1][2] His immunity ended on January 14, 2012, when his term in office ran out. On January 26, 2012 Ríos Montt appeared in court in Guatemala and was formally indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity.[3]

Huehuetenango-born Ríos Montt remains one of the most controversial figures in Guatemala. Two Truth Commissions, the REMHI report, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, and the CEH report, conducted by the United Nations 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 massacres, rape, torture, and acts of genocide against the indigenous population. Supporters maintain that there was no genocide, just a bloody civil war.[4] Ríos Montt, at times, had close ties to the United States, receiving direct and indirect support from certain of its agencies, including the CIA.[5]

Ríos Montt is best known outside Guatemala for being tried for heading a military regime (1982–1983) that was partly responsible for having defeated the guerrillas through the "guns and beans" campaign, maintaining "If you are with us, we’ll feed you, if not, we’ll kill you".[6] Guatemala's 36-year civil war ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 1996. The civil war pitted Marxist rebels against the Guatemalan state, including the army, with huge numbers of civilians, both indigenous Mayas and mestizo Ladinos, caught in the crossfire. Up to 200,000 Guatemalans were killed and missing during the conflict, making it one of Latin America's most violent wars in modern history.

Indigenous Mayas suffered disproportionately during Ríos Montt's rule, and it is documented that his government deliberately targeted thousands of indigenous people since many were suspected of harboring sympathies for, supporting, or participating in the guerrilla movement. Under the Cold War-era strategy of containment the Guatemalan state sought to eliminate the spread of communism inside its borders. The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission found that the resulting counterinsurgency campaign, significantly designed and advanced during Ríos Montt's presidency, included deliberate "acts of genocide" against the indigenous population.[7][8]

On 28 January 2013, judge Miguel Angel Galves opened a pre-trial hearing against Rios Montt and retired General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity.[9] On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment.[10] On 20 May 2013, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction.[11][12]


Montt enrolled in the Military Academy of Guatemala in 1946. He attended the School of the Americas in 1951.[13] 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 army ranks, becoming deputy chief of staff in 1968. In 1970, under the military regime of President General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio, he was promoted to brigadier general and chief of staff of Guatemalan Army.[14]

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 retiring in 1977.[15]

In 1978, he left the Roman Catholic Church and became a minister in the California-based evangelical/pentecostal Church of the Word;[16] since then Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have been personal friends. Ríos Montt's brother Mario Enrique Ríos 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 military and his brother.

Military regime

1982 coup

On March 7, 1982, General Ángel Aníbal Guevara, the official party candidate, won the presidential election, universally denounced as fraudulent by opposition parties. On March 23, with the support of fellow soldiers, General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, Ríos Montt deposed General Romeo Lucas García in a coup d'état and seized power, an act which the United States was neither complicit with nor had even foreseen.[17] 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 extrajudicial assassinations. The coup was described as being of the Oficiales jóvenes ("young officers"),[18] and prevented Guevara from being installed as president on July 1.

Because of repeated vote-rigging and the blatant corruption of the military establishment, the coup was initially welcomed. Initially, there was some expectation that the extremely poor human rights and security situation might improve under the new regime.[19] 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."

'Frijoles y Fusiles'

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, was stopped with the defeat of the guerrilla through a campaign known as frijoles y fusiles (beans and guns). This was an attempt by Ríos Montt to win over the large insurgent groups 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 1999 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 criminals and 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 in the following month that limited the activities of political parties and labor unions under the threat of death by firing squad.[20]

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 villagers 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. At the height of the bloodshed under Ríos Montt, reports put the number of killings and disappearances at more than 3,000 per month.[21]

US 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.[22] 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."[23][24]

President Ronald Reagan claimed Guatemala's human rights conditions were improving and used this to justify several major shipments of military hardware to Rios Montt; $4 million in helicopter spare parts and $6.3 million in additional military supplies in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The decision was taken in spite of records concerning human rights violations, by-passing the approval from Congress.[25][26][27][28][29] Meanwhile, a then-secret 1983 CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence" and an increasing number of bodies "appearing in ditches and gullies."[30] In turn, Guatemala was eager to resurrect the Central American Defense Council, defunct since 1969, to join forces with the right-wing governments of El Salvador and Honduras in retaliations against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Like Guatemala's other suppliers of arms, Israel (which had been supplying arms to Guatemala since 1974) continued its aid provisions. The cooperation did not just involve material support, but also included providing intelligence and operational training, carried out both in Israel and in Guatemala. In 1982, Ríos Montt told ABC News that his success was due to the fact that "our soldiers were trained by Israelis." There was not much outcry in Israel at the time about its involvement in Guatemala, though the support for Ríos Montt was no secret. The Israeli link was not lost on the average Guatemalan: At a cemetery in Chichicastenango, relatives of a man killed by the military told Perera, "In church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor; but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns."[31]

Coup removing Rios Montt 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, his own Minister of Defense General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores overthrew the regime in a near-bloodless coup (seven people were killed).[32] 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. Many citizens in the middle class were 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.[33][34] It has been documented that as many as one and a half million Maya peasants were uprooted from their homes,[35] 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. Ríos Montt along with several other men who served high positions in the military governments of the early 1980s are defendants in several lawsuits alleging genocide and crimes against humanity; one of these cases was filed in 1999 by Nobel Peace Prize-winning K'iche'-Maya activist, Rigoberta Menchú.[36] In early 2008 the presiding judge, Santiago Pedraz, took testimony from a number of indigenous survivors.[37] The genocide cases have seen little progress due to a climate of ongoing and entrenched impunity in Guatemala.[38]


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. He tried to run again in 1995, and was also barred from the race. Alfonso Portillo was named to replace him as the FRG candidate, and narrowly lost. However, he won in 1999.

Guatemalan campaigners on behalf of Maya survivors of the civil war, such as Nobel laureate and Mayan human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchú, were amazed, in March 1999, when U.S. President Bill Clinton apologised 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."[39]

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 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, overruled the lower courts and allowed Ríos Montt to run for president. Over the years, he'd claimed the ban on former dictators making a bid for the presidency 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 the presidency. 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. Indeed, a picture of a prominent FRG congressman adjusting his mask to talk on his cell phone was seen around the world. 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).[40] 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.

Legal proceedings charging Ríos Montt with crimes against humanity

In Spain

In 1999, Guatemalan 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. The Center for Justice and Accountability and Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España are co-counsel in the trial.

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,[year needed] 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.[41]

In Guatemala

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 again be immune from prosecution unless a court suspended him from office.[42] He won his seat in the election, which was held on September 9, and led the FRG's 15-member congressional delegation in the new legislature.[43]

His immunity ended on January 14, 2012, when his term in office ran out. On January 26, 2012, Ríos Montt appeared in court in Guatemala City and was formally indicted by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz for genocide and crimes against humanity,[3] along with three other former generals. During the court hearing he refused to comment. The court released him on bail, but placed him under house arrest pending commencement of his trial.[44][45] On March 1, 2012, a judge declined to grant Ríos Montt amnesty from genocide charges, paving the way for a trial.[46] This marked the first time a former head of state was tried for genocide in his home country.[47] On 19 March 2013, his trial for the genocide of at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixils began.[48] But the trial was suspended by Judge Carol Patricia Flores following a directive from the Supreme Court on 19 April 2013. This order was issued at the behest of current Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, after he was implicated, through testimony at Montt's trial, as a participant and leader in the systematic genocide of indigenous Guatemalans during the Montt dictatorship.[49] The judge ordered the legal process to be set back to November 2011, before the retired general was charged with war crimes.[50] A judge[which?] annulled the genocide trial in April 2013, a ruling that might have forced prosecutors to begin the case all over again.[51]

On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.[52] He was sentenced to 80 years in prison (50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity).[10] Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to be convicted of genocide by a court in his own country.[10] Announcing the ruling, Judge Yasmin Barrios declared that "[t]he defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide".[53] She continued: "We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide...[Ríos Montt] had knowledge of what was happening and did nothing to stop it."[54] The Court found that "[t]he Ixils were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race... The violent acts against the Ixils were not spontaneous. They were planned beforehand."[10] Judge Barrios referred to evidence that 5.5% of the Ixil people has been wiped out by the army.[55]

Ríos Montt's lawyers have said that he will appeal.[56] On May 20, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction, voiding all proceedings back to April 19 and ordering that the trial be "reset" to that point, pending a dispute over the recusal of judges.[11][12] Washington Office on Latin America Program Director Geoff Thale, an international observer of the trial, writes that Ríos Montt's defense team engaged in litigio malicioso, or unethical legal tactics, to derail the legal proceedings. While this tactic is not without precedent in Guatemala, Thale explains, its acceptance by the judicial system is "symptomatic of grave underlying problems in Guatemala's rule of law."[57]

See also


Further reading

  • Carmack, Robert M. (ed.). Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) ISBN 0-8061-2132-7
  • 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 0-8047-3310-4
  • Dosal, Paul J. Return of Guatemala's Refugees: Reweaving the Torn (Temple University Press, 1998) ISBN 1-56639-621-2
  • Falla, Ricardo (trans. by Julia Howland). Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975–1982 (Westview Press, Boulder, 1994) ISBN 0-8133-8668-3
  • Fried, Jonathan L., et al. Guatemala in Rebellion : Unfinished History (Grove Press, NY, 1983). ISBN 0-394-53240-6
  • Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954 (Princeton University Press, 1991) ISBN 0-691-07817-3
  • Goldston, James A. Shattered Hope: Guatemalan Workers and the Promise of Democracy (Westview Press, Boulder, 1989). ISBN 0-8133-7767-6
  • LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. (W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1993). ISBN 0-393-01787-7
  • Perera, Victor. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (University of California Press, 1993). ISBN 0-520-07965-5
  • Sanford, Victoria . Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala (Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2003) ISBN 1-4039-6023-2
  • Schlesinger, Stephen. Bitter Fruit : The Untold story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1982). ISBN 0-385-14861-5
  • 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 0-88449-110-2
  • Shillington, John Wesley. Grappling with Atrocity: Guatemalan Theater in the 1990s (Associated University Presses, London, 2002). ISBN 0-8386-3930-5
  • Stoll, David. Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (Columbia University Press, NY, 1993). ISBN 0-231-08182-0
  • Streeter, S.M. Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961 (Ohio Univ. Cent. Int. Stud., 2000) ISBN 0-89680-215-9

External links

  • Biography by CIDOB (Spanish)
  • Efrain RIOS MONTT, Legal Procedure in Spain, Trial Watch, TRIAL
  • Efrain RIOS MONTT, Legal Procedure in Guatemala, Trial Watch, TRIAL
  • Guatemala Human Rights Commission
  • The Spy Who Told On Me
  • Indicted for Genocide: Guatemala's Efraín Ríos Montt: U.S. and Guatemalan Documents Trace Dictator's Rise to Power, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing. Book No. 419. Posted - March 19, 2013. Edited by Kate Doyle
  • Site monitoring trial against Rios Montt in Guatemala
Political offices
Preceded by
Fernando Romeo Lucas García
President of Guatemala
Succeeded by
Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores

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