A Guatemalan military officer, Efrain Rios Montt headed a military dictatorship from 1982-83 that was one of the most violent and brutal Latin America had ever seen.
His “hard-line” approach to the guerrilla movements and “communist activity” in Guatemala involved the disappearance, assassination and forced displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous Maya people and peasants.
Guatemala’s internal armed conflict lasted from 1960 to 1996. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin America, notable for the human rights violations against civilians and state-sponsored genocide of the Maya people.
The statistics speak for themselves. During the 36-year period, more than 200,000 men, women and children were murdered or disappeared. Between 1981 and 1983 alone, somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people were forcibly displaced.
At least 440 Maya communities were exterminated. Thousands of women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, principally by the army and paramilitary groups.
This is only a very brief summary of the violence and suffering to which Guatemala’s people were subjected. It is impossible to summarise the immense pain and suffering of the hundreds of thousands of victims.
One of the worst periods of the internal armed conflict was when Rios Montt was in power. His brutal counter-insurgency tactics were essentially scorched earth policies, annihilating all supposed collaborators, sympathisers and members of the insurgency.
He implemented a policy called “fusiles y frijoles” (guns and beans). It offered food and benefits to civilians who cooperated with the government and the army — and death to those who did not.
Rios Montt’s murderous policies were not created in a vacuum. They were shaped, influenced and supported by powerful allies, and were not too different from the overall Guatemalan state strategy towards the insurgency throughout the conflict.
School of the Americas
Rios Montt himself was a product of US military training. In 1951 he attended the School of the Americas (SOA), which was founded in 1946 by the United States Secretary of Defense.
The advocacy group SOA Watch states: “The SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers ... These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people.
“Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organisers, religious workers, student leaders and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, ‘disappeared,’ massacred and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.”
In 1954, Rios Montt also played a role in the CIA-orchestrated military coup against the democratically elected government of president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Arbenz had enacted pro-worker reforms, land reform and took actions against the United Fruit Company, a powerful US corporation. In short, his government was a significant threat to US profit and exploitation in Guatemala.
After the coup, Rios Montt continued as a career military officer. He served in the Guatemalan army throughout the majority of the armed conflict.
It is also interesting to note that in 1978, Rios Montt left the Catholic Church and joined the US-based right-wing fundamentalist evangelical/pentecostal Church of the Word. He even began friendships with right-wing Southern Christians like Jerry Falwell, the televangelist and conservative activist infamous for his racist, homophobic and anti-public education views.
In office, Rios Montt maintained a close relationship with US president Ronald Reagan, whose administration was marked by harsh anti-communist Cold War policies. Rios Montt made a perfect ally.
On December 4, 1982, after a meeting between Reagan and Rios Montt in Honduras, Reagan stated: “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. His country is confronting a brutal challenge from guerrillas armed and supported by others outside Guatemala.
“I have assured the President [Rios Montt] that the United States is committed to support his efforts to restore democracy and to address the root causes of this violent insurgency. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.
“My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
US military aid and support for the Guatemalan army did not begin or end in 1982. An expose published in 1999 in the Washington Post highlighted US complicity in the atrocities and war crimes committed by the Guatemalan army.
It states: “During the 1960s, the United States was intimately involved in equipping and training Guatemalan security forces that murdered thousands of civilians in the nation’s civil war, according to newly declassified US intelligence documents…
“The documents show, moreover, that the CIA retained close ties to the Guatemalan army in the 1980s, when the army and its paramilitary allies were massacring [Indigenous] villagers, and that US officials were aware of the killings at the time.”
Controlling Central America was one of the US government’s primary objectives during the Cold War. It was eager to squash any Marxist, humanist, Cuban or Soviet-inspired uprising that threatened US economic and strategic interests. This was carried out under the facade of defending “national security”.
As Reagan stated in 1983: “We’ve been slow to understand that the defence of the Caribbean and Central America against Marxist-Leninist takeover is vital to our national security in ways we’re not accustomed to thinking about.”
In 2013, Rios Montt finally went on trial for his war crimes. He had enjoyed several years of immunity while he served as a congressperson for the Guatemalan Republican Party. Hundreds of victims and survivors gave testimonies about massacres, forced displacement, rape and torture carried out by soldiers during Rios Montt’s rule.
Historic conviction overturned
On May 10, 2013, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison for being the intellectual author of the death of 1771 people, enforced displacement of 29,000, sexual abuse against 8 women and torture of at least 14.
The ruling was historic — for the first time after the era of bloody dictatorships in Latin America, one of the intellectual authors and war criminals was brought to justice.
However, this ruling was overturned just 10 days later by the Constitutional Court over irregularities and the trial was reset for 2015. In January 2015, the court decided he could not stand trial due to a diagnosis of senile dementia.
After his death, one of his lawyers, Luis Rosales, stated: “He died in his home, with the love of his family, with his conscience healthy, clean, surrounded by a lot of love, afflicted by the ailments that we know about.
“He died in peace, and everyone with the conviction that in this country there was never a genocide and that he was innocent of what they accused him of.”
He died before the hundreds of thousands of victims could have real justice, before he had to face the consequences of his campaign of death and terror. His crimes against humanity remain in impunity.
[Slightly abridged from The Dawn.]