Rios Montt: Authoritarian Fundamentalist

by Velia Jaramillo

Proceso (liberal newsmagazine), Mexico City, Mexico, April 15, 2001

World Press Review July 2001


Efrain Rios Montt [Guatemala's former president] is known as "Guatemala's Pinochet," but until a few months ago, his fate seemed to be quite different from that of Chile's former dictator. While Pinochet was subjected to international prosecution, Rios Montt-17 years after a military coup that brought him to power for 16 months-became the president of the Guatemalan National Congress.

Rios Montt's position was not even jeopardized by the denunciation of Nobel Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu before Spain's High Court, in which she accused Rios Montt of genocide. Spain's court ruled against prosecution of Rios Montt outside his country.

In the few interviews [since then], the Guatemalan general said that allegations of the extermination of 440 Mayan villages known as the "scorched-earth" policy-which according to the country's Historical Clarification Committee brought death to tens of thousands of peasants-"was invented by the guerrillas" and that "there was no genocide" in Guatemala, "only a war." After temporarily overcoming that stormy weather, the specter of being prosecuted within his own country has begun to pursue Rios Montt-just as it did Pinochet. But not for war crimes, including extrajudicial executions, summary trials, and persecution of community and opposition leaders. Rather, for a crime that is much lower on the scale: illegally altering a law passed by the legislature.

Last August, opposition legislators went before the Supreme Court of Justice to charge Rios Montt and 24 other legislators from the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco-FRG) party with altering the Law on Alcoholic Beverages by publishing a tax lower than the one approved by Congress and altering legislative session records to cover up their action. Video and audio versions of the session in question disappeared.

On March 6, a Supreme Court ruling removed the 24 legislators' immunity from prosecution and ordered criminal proceedings against them to begin. With this resolution, the general should have had to step down from the congressional president's seat, but a few days before the ruling, legislators from his party changed the internal congressional regulations -an action provisionally repealed by the Constitutional Court on March 21. Two days after the latter ruling shots were fired at the home of the president of the Constitutional Court. [On April 24, a judge dismissed the charges against Rios Montt. Human-rights groups will appeal the ruling.-WPR]

Political scientist Edmundo Urrutia, a researcher at Rafael Landivar University, warns: "We can't say we're close to prosecuting Rios Montt for his past actions. At least in Guatemala, that is still a long way off." And, as for the lesser charge, Urrutia foresees "an endless process of appeals. If all the legal avenues are used, a definitive trial can be delayed for the four years [of his term as congressional president], and neither the civil society nor opposition parties have the capacity to change this situation." Urrutia adds that Rios Montt is in a completely different position than other Latin American dictators at the time of prosecution. He is at the height of power. "This is an extremely important issue, and I think the international community is very conscious of the precariousness of Guatemala's institutions and the need to strengthen them. Countries like Spain and the United States know what's at stake at this particular moment in Guatemala, and if they didn't go after Pinochet precisely to avoid affecting the status of institutions in Chile, it's even less likely they would do so to Rios Montt." The Guatemalan Conference of Catholic Bishops declared the following in May 1982 with regard to the massacres committed during Rios Montt's rule: "Not even the lives of the elderly, pregnant women, or innocent children were spared. We have never in our history seen such serious extremes."

In 1982, when Rios Montt headed the military junta that overthrew Gen. Romeo Lucas Garcia-and when Montt also became a pastor of the Word fundamentalist church-he "demonstrated a very complicated personality," writes Hector Rosada, a military analyst. "A combination of a disappointed presidential candidate [he won the 1974 presidential elections but they were not officially recognized], a Protestant pastor, and a military man determined to win the war against the guerrillas. This combination took on the form of a messianic personality."

Rios Montt is now the president of the National Congress, the permanent leader of the political party he created, and he wields powerful influence over political life. His daughter Zury Rios is the congressional vice president, and his second son, Enrique Rios Sosa, is head of finances for the army. As in days gone by, the general maintains ironclad control over legislators from his party in Congress and over legislative activities. He's revived the moralistic speeches common during his regime in the 1980s.

Nineth Montenegro, a founder of the Mutual Support Group organization that works to find those disappeared during the war and a local legislator for the leftist New Guatemala Democratic Front, describes the general's leadership as "extremely messianic, very individual, authoritarian, and totally lacking in democracy. Because of this, he's made a lot of errors. He doesn't discuss; he imposes. He thinks it's the same as when he headed a de facto government." One of the reforms under his leadership in Congress has been to "keep himself as congressional president for four years, since previous legislation established that a new president had to be named each year."

The unity of FRG legislators has begun to fall apart with the March 16 resignation of two of the 63 legislators from the official party that still maintains the majority in the Congress of 113 representatives. Juan Carlos Gutierrez, one of those who resigned, said the legislative bloc from the official party is characterized by a militaristic structure controlled by an intelligence apparatus and by legislators who are former military men. "He runs a theocratic government, but in this case God is called Rios Montt," Gutierrez added. Despite the possibility that Montt could lose his prestigious seat in Congress, there are rumors that he could become his party's candidate for the country's presidency in the next elections. And Urrutia believes his position will be further weakened, making this impossible. But Hector Rosada warns: "The last word on the general who's maintained his presence in the country's political life for 20 years has yet to be said: He has an incredible ability to be born again, and he's very good at operating from the trenches. He retreats, digs in, waits as long as it takes, and then emerges once again."

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