Killer Candidate - Efrain
Ex-general threatens Guatemalan
by Victor Blue
In These Times magazine,
The second peacetime elections in Guatemala
since the 1996 Peace Accords could retum one of the country's
most brutal dictators to power.
Efrain Rios Montt-who seized power in
1982 and whose scorched-earth policy of the following 18 months
resulted in more than 19,000 deaths-became an official candidate
in late July. He is a former general in the Guatemalan army, the
former head of the Guatemalan evangelical church, and current
president of the National Congress.
The Guatemalan constitution prohibits
anyone who has taken power by force from running for president.
For months, Rios Montt and supporters in his Frente Republicano
Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front or FRG) appealed to
the country's confusing and overlapping juris~ dictional court
system to allow his candi' dacy, arguing that the constitutional
clause is not retroactive and therefore does not apply to coup
leaders who took power before it was enacted. Each appeal was
turned down until it reached the Constitutional Court, the country's
highest. As head of the legislative branch and de facto leader
of the executive, Rios Montt influenced judicial appointments.
Four of the seven judges are his supporters.
On July 24, just before his appearance
before the Constitutional Court, Rios Montt called for a demonstration
in support of his candidacy. About 5,000 masked rioters armed
with machetes and clubs descended on the capital, where they shut
down the U.S. Embassy, harassed workers at several human rights
organizations and held a portion of the city hostage. A Guatemalan
joumalist died of a heart attack while being chased through the
streets, and a Reuters photographer was beaten along the same
route. Neither the national police nor the army helped quell the
violence, despite claims by President Alfonso Portillo that he
Rios Montt called off the demonstrations
the next day and a week later the Constitutional Court allowed
his candidacy. Subsequently, the Guatemalan press has reported
that govemment resources were used in the demonstrations, and
numerous FRG functionaries and members of Congress were implicated
in helping to organize the demonstrations, including Montt's niece,
an FRG deputy in Congress.
Karen Ohm Heskja, a human rights worker
in Guatemala, called the demonstrations a coup. "He brought
in his own army and intimidated everyone into giving him what
he wanted," she said.
The violence and uncertainty that has
characterized Guatemalan life for years has worsened during the
campaign: 21 candidates or political functionaries have disappeared
since the race began in December; not a single one is afffiliated
with the FRG.
Twelve candidates remain. According to
recent polls, right-wing pro-business candidate Oscar Berger has
a 44 percent lead, but these polls don't take into account rural
communities that form Rios Montt's base of support. Alvaro Colom
of the left-leaning UNE party is running second. URNG candidate
Rodrigo Asturias, former guerilla commander and son of Nobel prize-winning
author Miguel Angel Asturias, is polling behind Rios Montt.
International reaction to Rios Montt's
candidacy has been consistently negative. The U.S. State Department
said it would be difficult for the United States to maintain normal
relations with Guatemala if Rios Montt were to gain power, and
the European Union, the Organization of American States and the
United Nations all have called for observers to ensure a fair
A congressional delegation led by U.S.
Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) recently visited the capital and
threatened to exclude Guatemala from the proposed Central American
Free Trade Agreement if Rios Montt assumes power by fraudulent
means. Fraud is a chief concern because frequent press reports
indicate that Rios Montt and the FRG have repeatedly violated
the electoral pact signed by all the parties at the beginning
of the race that pledged no use of intimidation, violence or state
Most Guatemalans are watching and waiting.
Many believe that Rios Montt and the FRG will do whatever it takes
to win the election. As for the return of "the General,"
as his campaign calls him, a child of ex-guerrillas who grew up
in exile had this to say: "It was because of him that we
were in Mexico before. If he wants war again, we will give him
Victor Blue is a freelance photographer
based in San Francisco.