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Efrain Rios Montt


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'We do not have a policy of scorched earth. We have a policy of scorched Communists.'

Efrain Rios Montt

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about General Efrain Rios Montt is his brother. In May 1998 Bishop Mario Rios Montt succeeded the assassinated Bishop Juan Gerardi as head of the Catholic Church’s human-rights office in Guatemala. His task is to continue Gerardi’s work, uncovering the truth behind the massacre or disappearance of upwards of 200,000 people during the prolonged and continuing ‘civil war’ – more accurately described as attempted genocide – against the indigenous Mayan majority of the Guatemalan population. The person who, in the early 1980s, presided over the most vicious single episode in this genocide was none other than the Bishop’s brother, the General. Efrain is also an ordained minister of the authoritarian, right-wing Gospel Outreach/Verbo evangelical church, based in California and one of several such churches that have been expanding fast in the region, at the expense of the Catholic Church.

General Rios Montt’s evangelical zeal is linked to the military ‘education’ he received – like many of his peers in Latin America – from the School of the Americas, run by the US military in Panama. From the 1950s onwards this notorious ‘Coup School’ taught its students how to contribute to US interests and the anti-Communist effort by usurping political power in Latin America by any available means, including assassination, torture and ‘disappearance’. After a US-orchestrated military coup in 1954, Guatemala became a key component of US ‘counter-insurgency’ activity throughout Central America.

In just four months there were more than 2,000 fully documented extrajudicial killings by the Guatemalan army. US President Ronald Reagan hailed Rios Montt as ‘totally dedicated to democracy’. So when Rios Montt grew to maturity and duly seized power in 1982 he set out to show what a good student he had been. He launched a ‘Guns and Beans’ offensive against Guatemala’s persistent insurgents. A subsequent report commissioned by the UN found that at least 448 mostly Indian villages had been simply wiped off the map. The targeting of the Mayan peoples forced hundreds of thousands to flee to the mountains or to neighbouring Mexico. Many of those who remained were corralled into ‘hamlets’ to produce cash crops for export.

According to Amnesty International, in just four months there were more than 2,000 fully documented extrajudicial killings by the Guatemalan army: ‘People of all ages were not only shot, they were burned alive, hacked to death, disembowelled, drowned, beheaded. Small children were smashed against rocks or bayoneted to death.’ The Catholic bishops said: ‘Never in our national history has it come to such extremes.’ US President Ronald Reagan, visiting Guatemala on a swing through Latin America, hailed Rios Montt as ‘totally dedicated to democracy’.

So excessive was Rios Montt’s dedication to democracy, however, that he threatened to become an international embarrassment and after only 18 months was replaced as President by another general. This did not remove him from power. The political party he founded, the ultra-right-wing Guatemalan Republican Alliance (FRG), expanded rapidly and now controls a majority in Congress, and Rios Montt himself has been elected as its President. The current President of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo – a former guerrilla – is Rios Montt’s protégé.

The General, now well into his seventies, is thought to be aiming to change the Constitution, which prohibits former dictators from running for president. His final ‘vindication’ would then be on the cards. It could even happen – given that three-quarters of the Guatemalan people routinely do not vote in elections – that there are now more guns than people in the country; that the abuse of human rights is on the increase again, despite UN-sponsored Peace Accords. The new Bush administration in the US can also be expected to support any ally in Central America who is able to identify a suitable enemy.

Counting against the General is a recent scandal in which he is deeply implicated – legislation to increase taxes on alcohol and beverages was mysteriously, and illegally, modified at the behest of the alcohol industry after it had passed through Congress. And, since the arrest of General Pinochet – and now Slobodan Milosevic – a growing number of cases against Rios Montt are being taken out in courts around the world by those Guatemalans who do not yet aspire to amnesia. Among them is Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú. Meanwhile, as the ‘civil war’ continues, the Guatemalan people pay the price of impunity with the ruination of their lives.

Sources: Amnesty International; Central America/Mexico Report; Envío, Central America University, Managua, Nicaragua, September 1999; Associated Press; Cerigua Weekly Briefs, No 45, 1994; Reuters; BBC; Inter-Hemispheric Resource Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tom Burghardt, Counterinsurgency, State Terror and the School of the Americas.

sense of humour

'I have nothing to hide.'

Immediately after usurping power in 1982, Rios Montt had every key official sign a pledge that read: 'I will not steal; I will not lie; I will not abuse.'
animal cunning

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New Internationalist issue 338 magazine cover This article is from the September 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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