Rios Montt, Running Despite
by Velia Jaramillo
Proceso, Mexico City, July
(World Press Review, October
In July, Guatemala's Constitutional Court
cleared the way for former dictator Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt
to stand as a presidential candidate in November elections. Guatemalans
have reacted angrily to the court's ruling.
Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who took
power in 1982 through a coup and during whose administration the
greatest number of killings in Guatemala were committed, has obtained
his registration as a candidate for the presidency
Since the signing of the peace accords
in 1996 and the release in the 1990s of reports that held him
responsible for killings during the civil war, the general has
drawn more than 14 verdicts that disqualified him as a presidential
But on July 14, a majority of the Constitutional
Court (CC) ruled that Article 186-which since 1986 has disqualified
former de-facto rulers [those who came to power through extralegal
means such as a coup] from being president-could not be applied
retroactively. It was a triumph in his struggle to be president
The resolution provoked a storm in which
visions of catastrophe and calls to civil resistance flourished.
Civic organizations, business groups, and political parties accused
the CC of violating the constitutional order, and Rios Montt-current
president of the Guatemalan Congress-of orchestrating a "technical
coup. "They compared the situation of the country with the
Fujimorazo [Alberto Fujimori's so-called "autocoup"
to impose quasi-authoritarian rule in the early 1990s in Peru-WPR]
and called on the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) not to obey
the order to register the general.
In previous weeks, the TSE and the Supreme
Court of Justice (CSJ) had rejected appeals by the Party of the
Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) to enroll Rios Montt as its
After the ruling, the general did not
hide his glee. Smiling on July 15, he faced questions from the
press, including those that made reference to the accusations
of genocide that weigh against him. He affirmed that "due
process was followed" in the decision of the CC. And he downplayed
the reactions to his eventual registration: "Those who lose
in a verdict always criticize the decisions." He described
his adversaries as "groups who wish to destabilize the country"
and asserted, "They should wait until Nov. 9 (the day of
the elections) and then let them tell me what they have to say."
Rios Montt issued calls for a rapprochement
with his former opponents and the Guatemalan business leadership.
And he reassured his adversaries: "No one is saying that
I am going to win; I am just one more option."
From the first hours following the CC's
verdict, the FRG launched a massive radio and television campaign
defending the legitimacy of the resolution. It asserted that the
verdict "protects democracy and heeds the clamor of a people
who had been denied the right to elect whom they chose."
The resolution of the CC exposed the broad
antipathy that Rios Montt inspires among diverse sectors. Groups
that typically oppose each other such as human-rights groups and
the old Guatemalan business oligarchy-closed ranks against the
general's candidacy. In front of the Constitutional Court building,
groups of demonstrators- standing out among them, Nobel Peace
Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu- put up piñatas that symbolized
the four judges who voted for the registration of Rios Montt.
At the same time, they set up coffins, candles, crosses, and black
capes to represent the death of the CC. In addition, they hurled
tomatoes at the building. Old photos of the general in military
uniform during the counterinsurgency era, placed on posters bearing
the legend, "Wanted for genocide," were dusted off by
pro-human rights organizations.
The Group of Mutual Support, one of the
organizations that assist victims of the civil war, asserted that
the CC ruling "is a setback for Guatemala and an offense
to thousands of victims of human-rights violations. "The
group indicated that the "most genocidal and terrorist general
in Latin America" permitted, during the 16 months of his
de-facto government in 1982 and 1983, "more than 400 massacres
in which 12,000 persons lost their lives, and which resulted in
the forced disappearances of at least 3,000 individuals."
The most radical critiques equated Guatemala's
situation with recent crises in Argentina and Peru. In an editorial
titled "Fujimorazo, Guatemalan-style," the daily El
Periodico warned, "If the Constitutional Court decides to
protect Gen. Rios Montt and to order the enrollment of his presidential
candidacy, in open contravention of what the constitution mandates,
the state of law would cease to rule in Guatemala."
In the same tone, the daily Prensa Libre
warned in an editorial on July 10 that the justices of the CC
could suffer the same fate as the justices of the Supreme Court
of Justice of Argentina who unconditionally supported former President
Carlos Menem, and who, with a new realignment of political forces,
were obliged to resign and face the possibility of criminal prosecution.
Opinions were divided in the political
parties and civilian sectors. Some called for citizen resistance
and for pressure on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to "disobey"
the order to enroll Rios Montt. Others appealed to preserve institutional
stability and respect the disputed verdict.
The Guatemalan Forum, a group with political
influence that encompasses various social and political organizations,
described the resolution as "an attack against the constitutional
order." It maintained that "the four justices [who voted
for Rios Montt's qualification] responded to political commitments
to the government and the Guatemalan Republican Front." It
decried that in the country, "The rule of law is being subjected
to impunity and political manipulation."
The Myrna Mack Foundation, one of the
most prestigious groups in the field of justice, described the
ruling as "a clear message that there are political and legal
groups in the country with sufficient capacity to manipulate institutions
in favor of their fixed interests."
Both the Mack Foundation and the Guatemalan
Forum appealed for moderation in citizen protests to avoid a greater
In a communiqué released on Wednesday,
July 16, more than 40 organizations announced that they are weighing
a possible appeal to the Organization of American States (OAS),
invoking that organization's Democratic Charter, which permits
it to intervene in nations whose constitutional order has been
At the core of the questions with respect
to the CC are the open ties between several of the justices and
[Rios Montt's party] the FRG. Mario Ruiz Wong was FRG interior
minister; Francisco Palomo was defense attorney for Rios Montt
and an FRG deputy in the Central American Parliament; and Manuel
de Jesus Flores was director of the Office for Property Registration
in the FRG government. Their votes, along with that of Cipriano
Soto, representative of the University of San Carlos, opened the
door for the registration of Rios Montt: four votes against three,
the latter cast by the representatives of the Supreme Court and
the Association of Attorneys.
Flores had just been designated as a judicial
substitute on June 17. He and Palomo, another judicial substitute,
were chosen to join the CC in a selection process conducted behind
the backs of some magistrates.
With the ruling in its favor, the FRG
will continue its electoral campaign. In the first weeks on the
stump, the meetings headed by Rios Montt have not been free of
scandals that recall past events from his period as a counterinsurgency
military officer. On June l 4, in one of his first electoral events
in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, one of the districts that suffered most
from the counterinsurgency assault, the general and his followers
were stoned by relatives of victims of the war who were participating
in funeral rites to bury the bones of 85 persons whose remains
were recently exhumed.
On June 22, in Nebaj in the district of
Quiche, FRG sympathizers were met with more stones on the outskirts
of a field where the general was leading a meeting.
Returning to his old political ways, the
general has again taken to delivering evangelical harangues and
has challenged the media opposed to his campaign. He has maintained
that those who wished to prevent him from standing as a candidate
"are injuring the civil and political rights of Guatemalans."
On the other hand, the political and civil
opponents of Rios Montt have begun to warn of the risk of electoral
fraud. Already, indications are emerging as to how the state apparatus
is supporting the FRG campaign: from letters in which party leaders
exhort public employees to join the campaign, to compensatory
payments awarded to thousands of civilian members of the squads
who helped in the counterinsurgency campaign in the 1 980s.
Now, one of the looming battles for the
general will be to legitimize his candidacy before the international
community. On May 27, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher declared that his government is seeking normal and friendly
relations with the next president of Guatemala, "but realistically,
in light of the past actions of Mr. Rios Montt, it would be difficult
to achieve the type of relationship that we would prefer."
Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, John Hamilton, described
himself as bewildered by the ruling of the CC and stated that
the negative position of his government regarding Rios Montt's
candidacy remains unchanged.
The latest poll released by the dailies
Prensa Libre and El Periodico on June 1 put Rios Montt in fourth
place by order of preferences at 7.4 percent, far behind the candidate
of the Grand National Alliance, Oscar Berger, with 37.8 percent.