Early in the morning of April 1, news broke that former Guatemalan dictator General José Efraín Ríos Montt had died at the age of ninety-one, reportedly of a heart attack. He leaves a dark legacy of war crimes behind him.
Ríos Montt passes away as the country’s courts have reopened charges of genocide against the former dictator, for his campaign against the Ixil Mayan communities, as well as for his part in overseeing the massacre of the community of Dos Erres in December 1982.
“For the victims, and for us, the story is written,” Miguel de Leon Ceto, a member of the Ixil Ancestral Authority in Nebaj, Quiche, tells The Progressive. “The courts have already decided he committed genocide. [Ríos Montt’s] death will not change the story or the crime he committed.”
“His legacy remains as a genocidaire against indigenous people,” adds Pamela Yates, co-founder of Skylight, a nonprofit that creates documentary films to highlight human rights and justice issues.
Yates’s 1983 film, When the Mountains Tremble, which tells the story of Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú, provided key pieces of evidence to bring an indictment against Ríos Montt in 2012. In 2013, she covered his trial in Guatemala City.
Ríos Montt was born in Huehuetenango on June 16, 1926. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Guatemalan military and quickly rose through the ranks. He received training from the United States at the School of the Americas in 1950, and in counterinsurgency at Fort Bragg in 1961. In the Guatemalan military he earned the rank of general, and mounted a failed presidential bid. In March 1982, he assumed the presidency following a military coup.
Ríos Montt, a born-again Christian who would hold a weekly Sunday sermon on the radio, found favor in the international community, especially in the United States, as he pledged to return Guatemala to democracy following decades of military rule. Ronald Reagan praised Ríos Montt as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.”
But his administration was marked by intense human rights violations and violence, making it one of the bloodiest periods of the Guatemalan thirty-six-year-long civil war, which killed more than 200,000 people, disappeared more than forty thousand, and displaced more than one million people.
During Ríos Montt’s rule, from 1982 to 1983, the Guatemalan military carried out a scorched-earth campaign against civilian populations. The U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification, which operated under a two-year mandate following the 1996 peace accords, concluded that the Guatemalan military carried out 424 massacres across Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. Nearly one half of these occurred during the administration of Ríos Montt. The vast majority of the victims were indigenous Maya.
Ríos Montt’s counter-insurgency strategy was based on the idea of “Taking the water from the fish” used in Vietnam and elsewhere. But he infused it with his own religious fervor. He was quoted as saying, “A true Christian packs the Bible in one hand, a gun in the other.”
In a January 1993 interview with journalist Mary Jo McConahay in The Progressive, Rigoberta Menchú cited a “watchword” of Rios Montt used by army and security forces: “Well, since we don’t know if this bunch of fifty people are Indians or guerrillas, we need to kill all fifty.”
According a February 1982 declassified cable from the Central Intelligence Agency, Guatemalan military commanders were “instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating” with guerrilla forces. The cable said this has “created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
The campaign of genocide was not limited to the Ixil communities of the highlands. In December 1982, the Guatemalan military massacred more than 130 people, including men, women, and children, accused of assisting the guerrilla forces in village of Dos Erres in the northernmost department of Petén.
Following the peace accords, Ríos Montt entered politics. He served as president of the country’s congress during the administration of Alfonso Portillo from 2000-2004. He oversaw the passing of a controversial law allowed the Guatemalan military to carry out operations in support of the civil police.
The genocide trial against Ríos Montt for the massacre of 1,771 members of the Ixil Maya began in 2012.
“I’ll never forget watching his face as one witness after another testified right in front of him about the horrendous rapes, the slaughter of family members and other crimes that they suffered on his watch,” Mary Jo McConahay, who reported from the historic trial, tells The Progressive.
On May 10, 2013, after a year of hearings, the court found Ríos Montt guilty of overseeing the genocide of the Ixil Maya populations. He was sentenced to eighty years in prison. In the sentencing, presiding Judge Yassmin Barrios declared that General Ríos Montt “had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it.”
Again, McConahay reflects on the importance of this moment; “I cannot say it was perfect justice, but I was glad to have been in the courtroom the day the judge ordered him handcuffed and taken away. Even though the decision was vacated on a technicality within days, when you visited the mountains months later the indigenous I queried about the case still talked about the public hearing their testimonies received and said, ‘We won! We won!’”
The court’s decision marked the first time that a former head of state was found guilty of genocide by a national court. Yet it was a short-lived victory. Days later, on May 20, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the case on a technicality.
Efforts to retry Ríos Montt were thwarted by his lawyers, who argued that he was mentally unfit to stand trial. A psychological analysis disputed this, and Rios Montt’s trial was restarted in October 2017. Ixil authorities maintain hope that the court will once again find Ríos Montt guilty of genocide, even now that he is dead.
“This one man wanted to disappear the Ixil people,” says Ana Laynez, an Ixil spiritual guide and member of the Ancestral Authorities of Nebaj. “[Ríos Montt] wanted to escape justice. But the sentence was already given.”
Pamela Yates agrees.
“The testimony against him at trial changed the historical record of Guatemala,” she says. “I believe that the quest for justice is justice, and in the case of Rios Montt he was found guilty and sentenced to eighty years in prison. His verdict was vacated . . . on procedural grounds, not on the evidence presented at trial, which is why the Mayas in the highlands say to this day, ‘El veredicto está vigente,’ the verdict stands.”
Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based in Guatemala. His work has appeared in Truthout, In These Times, and North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on Twitter @palabrasdeabajo. Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.