Guatemala: Berger Wins Presidency,
Rios Montt Loses Immunity

by Dale Sorenson

MITF Report, Spring 2004

Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas


Oscar Berger won Guatemala's 2003 elections and will serve as President for the next four years. This news was secondary to many Guatemalans who cared more about the fate of a candidate who suffered early defeat than about the eventual victor.

On November 9, over half the registered voters turned out for Guatemala's general elections and voted down the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) presidential candidate, former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Despite the attempts to guarantee Rios Montt's victory through bribery, vote buying, intimidation, and misleading populist discourse, the Guatemalan people soundly rejected him at the polls.

Rios Montt's electoral demise was in one sense no surprise: he was trailing by a large margin in the polls, and he had been attacked and stoned at campaign rallies, run out of town, and booed while voting. Nevertheless, the General's defeat was by no means a foregone conclusion Indications of pre electoral fraud, manipulation, and threats of violence had led many to question whether the elections would be fair and transparent.

Therefore, human rights defenders and war survivors breathed a collective sigh of relief as the notorious ex-dictator went down in the polls. His defeat and resultant loss of immunity will facilitate citizens' efforts to prosecute him for the atrocities that took place under his leadership twenty years ago.

Nevertheless, the presidential defeat did not completely strip Rios Montt or his backers of power. His party maintained significant representation in Congress, and the military will continue to wield influence in the new government.

Oscar Berger, who hails from Guatemala's traditional elite, supports neoliberal free trade agreements and perks for big business. He is a partner in a number of national businesses and sits on numerous company boards as well as economic councils of Central America.

Berger's campaign on the Grand National Alliance party ticket (GANA) used simple slogans, vague promises, and an avalanche of political propaganda He won by a large margin in Guatemala City, where he served as mayor from 19961999, a position considered the second most political office in the country.

Meredith Kruse, MlTF's current accompanier in Guatemala wrote, "... all of the witnesses in the genocide case supported Oscar Berger and were elated, yet cautious, when news came that he had won. Given that only two parties active}y campaigned ... (FRG party of Rios Montt and GANA of Berger) one can understand why people had chosen the lesser of two evils. Witnesses explained their support for Berger in pragmatic terms - as a way to secure monetary support in the form of solar panels and payments for their years of obligatory service in the Army's civil patrols. (Yes, witnesses and ex pacs are sometimes one in the same.) So while witnesses had organized and voted for Berger with great personal risk, they also held no illusions that the government would make drastic changes to improve their lives in the future. Witnesses were definitely relieved when Rios Montt was defeated but, like Berger's victory, this event seemed to reinvigorate, rather than lessen, their participation in organizations like CALDH (Center for Human Rights Legal Action) as a means to pressure and hold accountable a government structure still deeply disturbed."

Guatemala also elected 158 congressional representatives and 331 municipal officials ...

The election of President Berger has successfully replaced the military-based party of Rios Montt with its strong ties to organized crime that has been at odds with the private sector for the past four years. Now, with his loss of immunity Montt can be tried for genocide.


Sources: NISGUA's Report on Guatemala, Winter 2003; Z Magazine, February 2004 (www.zmagorg!; Friends and Family letter from Meridith Kruse, January 30, 2004

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