Former Guatemala army general and legislator Efraín Ríos Montt is dead, but the one-time dictator left behind a blueprint for how to undermine democracy and create powerful, lasting criminal networks.
When I first went to Guatemala in 1991, I traveled to the embattled department of Quiché, in the northwestern highlands. There, in Santa Cruz del Quiché’s central plaza in front of the town’s shorn-white Catholic church, a flag supporting the political party of the former General Efraín Ríos Montt fluttered in the wind.
The flag — which had a blue hand with its two forefingers and a thumb raised — baffled me. I could not fathom why anyone would support a general who after overthrowing the government had piloted a scorched earth campaign in this, the epicenter of the northwestern highlands. The campaign was as short as Ríos Montt’s time in office — 15 months — but it left thousands dead, disappeared and displaced, and forever divided this country.
In the years since, I have obsessed over that military campaign and that lasting support for the general and his political progeny. Was it fear? Was it ideology? Was it corruption? Was it his leadership ability? Was it is his religious fervor?
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Banned from running for president due to his complicity in a coup, Ríos Montt eventually became a popular legislator and the president of the congress in 2000. His party won the presidency, and his brand became synonymous with power of some sort. Depending on who you ask, he operated military, political, judicial or criminal networks, or a combination of the four.
He died on Easter Sunday at age 91, and predictably, the eulogies ranged from vindication to vilification: war criminal or hero; brave general or corrupt congressman; pious Christian or devil in sheep’s clothing. Take your pick.
Many forget that before he and a cadre of military officers abruptly took control of the government in March 1982, displacing another military regime, he was a more sympathetic figure, a victim of electoral fraud when he ran for president in 1974, with broad support from a coalition of centrist and leftist political forces.
Fewer still talk of his conversion from Catholicism to the Church of the Word, a California-based neo-Pentecostal church that appeared in the Guatemalan mountains after a devastating 1977 earthquake and espoused the apocalypse and the second-coming of Jesus Christ, followed by 1,000 years of peace.
“The way he thought. His faith and his loyalty to duty was something I always admired in him,” Ríos Montt’s one-time assistant, the ex-army officer and former Congressman Juan Luis González, told me about his boss and mentor. “He loved and he feared God.”
Ríos Montt’s military training, his premillennialist religious vision and bitter electoral experience provided his recipe for the state. During his short time in office, he gave more Sunday-like sermons than political speeches in which he mixed counterinsurgency and God-fearing rhetoric with a dose of realpolitik. In the end, he was a dictator: there was one voice, one interpretation of the law, and a special kind of hell awaiting anyone who defied him.
“Whoever does not follow Guatemalan law will be judged by Guatemalan law,” he famously said. “Whoever does not give in, I will execute.”
But monolithic views of power rarely translate into reality so simply, even if they do make for terrific and long-lasting mythic narratives. He preached from the Bible while his military government burned, pillaged and killed its way through the highlands in Quiché and the surrounding departments. In his scathing editorial, Martín Rodríguez at Nómada says there were 19 massacres per month during Ríos Montt’s first eight months in office.
Ríos Montt’s political party — the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco – FRG) — embraced the three-pronged platform of security, well-being and justice that those three fingers on his political banner signified, but it also carried a social, populist bent that led him and his party cohorts into epic battles against the country’s most conservative, intransigent business elites over taxes and tariffs.
Former Congressman González told me the former general reveled in that fight.
“The only thing that I can tell you is that a lot of people talk about the general, for good and for bad,” he said. “And what strikes me is that none of these people were close to him. I was his assistant, and I can tell you that everything they say about him, they say because they are just repeating the litany they’ve already heard from his critics.”
But the same forces that made up his team were also part of a deeply corrupt and institutionalized ex-military criminal nexus created by the general and his most intimate circle. Alfonso Portillo, Ríos Montt’s handpicked candidate for the FRG who won the presidency in 2000, was eventually convicted of money laundering in the United States. Portillo, his finance and his defense ministers were also tried for embezzling $15 million from Ríos Montt’s lifeblood, the defense ministry. And Ríos Montt’s own son, who was also in the military, was charged in a separate embezzlement case from the ministry.
“He’s used as the example of a politician who had a clear vision, but what they don’t say is that during the Portillo administration is when illicit, political-economic networks were ‘institutionalized,’” Helen Mack, the indefatigable Guatemalan human rights defender, told me.
The table was set, Mack argues, for what we see in Guatemala today: scandals involving every institution from customs to social security to public works; three former presidents either convicted, charged or under investigation; and a current president under a cloud that has led him to fortify his already strong contacts with ex-military networks that established the illicit networks in the first place.
Ríos Montt, however, always excused himself from those excesses and notably was never tried for corruption.
“He told me his political career was marred by traitors, and they would never accept him because he was against the system,” Mack explained. “But he’s also responsible because when he had the chance to surround himself with other people, he didn’t.”
More than change the regime as former aides like González would argue, Ríos Montt forces overturned some entrenched systems, then simply replaced one type of criminal for another. Most notably, the FRG and its skilled operative, Ríos Montt’s then son-in-law, Roberto López Villatoro, aka “The Tennis Shoe King,” upended the way the government selected its attorney generals, as well as its high court judges and magistrates.
Initially through his control of the Bar Association of Guatemala (Colegio de Abogados y Notarios de Guatemala – CANG), and later by masterfully intersecting his and others’ mutual interests around what are called “quotas of power” in Guatemala (state contracts, jobs, political campaign contributions, etc.), López Villatoro built the FRG into a formidable judicial network that could ensure any of its beneficiaries and allies impunity. The network showed its teeth in 2011, when Portillo and his ministers were exonerated in the embezzlement case. (López Villatoro, however, was arrested earlier this year for influence peddling; his case is pending.)
“Ríos Montt was unique in that, in many ways, he embodied two different eras of Guatemala’s history,” said Michael Deibert, an author and Visiting Scholar at Franklin & Marshall College. “Both the fanatical anti-communism of the 1980s, that saw no great loss in sacrificing innocents en masse to stamp out a fairly meager insurgency, and the pervasive corruption and dishonesty that has typified the political class since the civil war ended in 1996. It is a rather ignoble distinction.”
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Impunity, of course, may be Ríos Montt’s most lasting legacy. When the former general finally faced trial for genocide for those tumultuous 15 months in office, his case turned not on his personal actions but those of a flawed state that, in the narrative of defense lawyers, needed scorched earth to keep the communist wolves at bay.
In the process, the case managed to re-unify his network with those same traditional elites he’d once fought with during his time as head of congress. Other former military officers followed suit, even if they loathed the general. If Ríos Montt fell, they were all vulnerable. In the end, his historic conviction lasted just a few days, before the Constitutional Court overturned it.
An appeal was filed, and his enemies will forever think of him as guilty.
“Ríos Montt will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators…who ultimately died on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity,” said Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who was an international observer to the Ríos Montt genocide trials for Open Society Justice Initiative.*
But it was Ríos Montt who got the last laugh, avoiding a retrial by arguing he was too ill to go to court. Mack said the groups who backed him continue to hide behind his huge shadow.
“Those who celebrate and continue to celebrate the myth of Ríos Montt are the same groups and people who benefit from corruption and impunity,” Mack said.
In the end, Guatemala may never be able to work out its relationship to Ríos Montt — heroic general, military dictator, victim of voter fraud, perpetrator of genocide, populist president of congress, apocalyptic predicator, father of corrupt networks — and I will never fully understand why he was popular in Quiché, the epicenter of some of his cruelest military policies and the ultimate manifestation of his political-religious machismo. But I can guarantee that his flag, or one like it, still flutters in Santa Cruz del Quiché’s central plaza.
*The Open Society Justice Initiative is part of the the Open Society Foundations, an InSight Crime funder.