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Efrain Rios Montt's Bid for Guatemalan Presidency

Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere

Memorandum to the Press 03.45
17 July 2003

COHA Research Memorandum:

Efrain Rios Montt Makes Fifth Bid for the Guatemalan Presidency;

Opponents of the Former Dictator Hang Black Ribbons on their Doors

  • One of the cruelest dictators in Guatemalan history wins court assent to run for reelection in spite of constitutional provision banning him from doing so.
  • Humanitarian groups fear that a Rios Montt presidency could end any chance of prosecuting the caudillo and his followers for crimes committed during the 1980s in the nation’s stacked courts.
  • The Guatemalan Pinochet

    On Tuesday, July 14, one of the worst dictators in recent Guatemalan history, General Efrain Rios Montt, was granted a long-awaited bid for permission to run for the Guatemalan presidency by the nation’s highest court. Rios Montt, who came to power in March of 1982 through a coup d’etat and was deposed by a counter coup 18 months later, has been accused by humanitarian groups, national investigative committees, and United Nations agencies alike of waging genocide against tens of thousands of Mayan civilians during his brief reign. Article 186 of Guatemala’s 1996 Peace Accords bans former leaders who came to power by extra-constitutional means from running for the office of president. Critics charge that Montt’s favorable decision Tuesday was the result of court packing and personal connections, and not due to high legal standards of justice. U.S. State Department officials and EU spokesmen have expressed their dismay at the court’s decision, arguing that if Rios Montt prevails in Guatemala’s November elections, relations with Guatemala could be much strained.

    Since Guatemala gained its independence from Spain on September 15, 1821, the Central American nation has been juggled by a series of foreign rulers, plebiscitary populists, and pathological despots. Yet no leader in recent Guatemalan history is more infamous than Efrain Rios Montt, the Brigadier General and pastor of the evangelical “Church of the Word.” Known as “the General” to his followers, Rios Montt is one of the most notorious caudillos, or strongmen, to have wreaked havoc in the country’s modern era. In March of 1982, Rios Montt led junior army officers and their troops in toppling former Defense Minister General Anibal Guevara’s would-be ascent to the Guatemalan presidency. Guevara’s electoral victory had been mired in fraud, a problem that sounded a chord for Montt, as his initial 1974 foray into obtaining the presidency allegedly failed because of similar conduct on the part of his military-backed opponent. In any event, the 1982 coup leaders demanded that Montt be permitted to negotiate the incumbent president, General Lucas Garcia’s, departure from office. Once in power, Montt promptly annulled the 1965 constitution, disbanded Congress, instituted secret courts to try accused ‘subversives,’ and pronounced himself president of the Guatemalan Republic.

    Educated in counter-communist tactics at the infamous U.S.-funded “School of the Americas,” one of Montt’s first acts as Guatemalan president was to declare a state of siege in response to the escalation of counter-government violence on the part of leftist, predominately highland Mayan guerillas, who represented one contesting faction of Guatemala’s seemingly endless civil war. Montt announced his intention to combat the leftist insurgency with “rifles and beans,” a combination of military force and economic reforms. As history would have it, Montt placed a much heavier emphasis on the ‘rifles’ part of the equation. He has been accused of having ordered the massacre of some 440 Mayan villages as part of a “scorched earth” campaign to suppress indigenous communities on the grounds that their members were of the same ethnicity as many of the insurgents. An estimated 19,000 individuals reportedly ‘disappeared’ or died during these massacres, although humanitarian groups such as the Center for Human Rights Law Action place the true number closer to 60,000. Today, Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification labels atrocities committed under Montt’s regime as ‘genocide,’ although the organization does not specifically identify Montt’s role in the military and paramilitary actions. Impartial observers argue that Montt was responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, including a rash of tortures, massacres, and illegal detentions of human rights advocates and indigenous leaders. Guatemalan citizens living under Montt’s regime began to speak of “Guatemala’s Pinochet” as the agent responsible for the wave of abuses committed by the notorious Guatemalan Presidential Security Guard (EMP), supposedly an intelligence unit.

    Rios Montt’s Fall from Grace

    Nearly half of the 700 massacres that took place during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war occurred during the reigns of Rios Montt and his predecessor, Lucas Garcia. Montt’s short-lived reign of terror came to an end in August 1983, when leaders of a counter-coup installed General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores as president. By 1985, Mejia’s regime had drafted a new constitution containing a provision known as Article 186, which banned all former coup leaders from presidential candidacy, a statute expressly designed to keep Rios Montt from making another power bid.

    Rios Montt’s supporters contend that he was a “God-fearing” leader who was able to restore order to a chaotic, violent, and crime-ridden country. Montt himself insists that during his presidency he aimed not to escalate violence, but to terminate the “scorched earth” policies of the military junta that preceded him. Any massacres that were committed during Montt’s reign were, according to official statements, attributable to discretionary military and paramilitary actions, and not carried out at Montt’s orders. These claims are met with skepticism by most, obviously including Nobel Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchu, who, during Montt’s April 2000 trial before the Spanish National Court, openly accused ‘the General’ of genocide. However, Spain’s court refused to convict Rios Montt, citing lack of jurisdiction. The highest crime with which Montt has ever been charged is illegally altering a law passed by the national legislature.

    The Despot Who Wouldn’t Quit

    Guatemala’s 36-year civil war was formally ended with the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords. This agreement created the United Nations Verification Mission to Guatemala (MINUGUA) and called for the reintegration of the formerly suppressed "Communities of Populations in Resistance," thereby affirming the status of these indigenous Mayans who opposed Montt's policies as Guatemalan citizens entitled to full constitutional rights. The Accords also provided for the establishment of a three-person panel to investigate the most rank human rights abuses committed during the repression, although the panel was proscribed from identifying those individuals believed to be responsible for the abuses.

    Unfortunately, the positive attitude of reconciliation and moving forward embodied in the Accords did not last for long. The right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, established by Rios Montt as part of an effort to rehabilitate his standing on the national political scene, gained control of the Guatemalan presidency in 1999 with the victory of Alfonso Portillo Cabrera over Oscar Berger of the National Advancement Party (PAN). The FRG quickly established itself as a conservative Christian party with a strong backing in impoverished rural areas. Portillo promised populist economic reforms and anti-corruption efforts during his campaign, and was rewarded at the polls, where a majority of the mere 53% of voters who bothered to cast their ballots elected him. The FRG also enjoys a majority in Guatemala’s Congress, where Rios Montt is – extraordinarily enough - the head of the unicameral legislature.

    Rios Montt’s Muñeco

    Portillo’s administration has overseen a resurgence of violence and human rights abuses during his 4-year term. Tom Koenigs, MINUGUA director, explains that Guatemala is “currently experiencing a grave crisis of public security. Assassinations, lynching, kidnappings, theft, drug trafficking, and prison uprisings, among other acts of violence, affect the entire population and made 2002 one of the most violent years of the country’s post-war period.” In that year alone, 31 murders of trade union activists, religious leaders, and war crimes investigators occurred under Portillo’s rule. As the Guatemalan economy continues to stagnate, and a tainted judiciary proves incapable of trying those accused of political murder, the FRG, with its autocratic credo, continues to ignore the nation’s need for transformative reform.

    The Long Road Back to the Presidency

    Since his deposal in 1983, Rios Montt has already twice attempted to run for the Guatemalan presidency, one in 1990 and one in 1995. Each time, he has been blocked by the Guatemalan Constitutional Court on the grounds that Article 186 of the 1985 Constitution forbids his candidacy. This May, the FRG once again nominated Rios Montt as its presidential candidate. Montt professes that he is entering the presidential race reluctantly, and that he wants nothing more than to become a “simple servant” of the Guatemalan people. His many critics argue to the contrary that he is building a dynasty – his wife and daughter have both been legislators, while his personal military cronies have been awarded key seats on the Constitutional Court.

    Despite occupying a lower rung on the national political ladder in recent years than he once did, Rios Montt remains entirely capable of exploiting his extensive connections with Guatemala’s most conservative oligarchs to achieve his political goals. Last year, Guatemalan investigative journalists uncovered evidence that President Portillo and Vice-president Francisco Reyes may have laundered millions in absconded funds in Panamanian bank accounts. A Guatemalan Congressional Commission has been established to investigate the claims. Curiously, the commission is led jointly by Ríos Montt’s daughter and niece. Opponents claim that Rios Montt and his supporters allegedly have stolen more than $450 million from public coffers since the FRG came to office.

    The Verdict

    Montt’s May election bid was rejected by the electoral registry and by two lower elections courts, as well as by the second highest court in the nation. Yet Montt and his supporters hoped that, given the influence of the FRG over the nation’s Constitutional Court, and given that Portillo packed the court with pro-Montt enthusiasts, an appeal there was bound to succeed despite the two previous failures. The president of the Constitutional Court is the former interior minister of the current FRG administration, while another justice served as Rios Montt’s personal lawyer.

    Those in favor of Rios Montt’s candidacy argued that the 1985 ban on nominations of former coup-leaders could not be applied retroactively. They claim that since Article 186 was enacted in 1985, Rios Montt cannot be punished for actions occurring in 1982 and 1983. Though some argue that the Article 186 ban is not ex post facto, insofar as it does not punish Montt for perpetrating the coup but simply holds him accountable for future electoral actions, Montt has an even more fundamental argument to support his case: Failure to permit Montt to run would be anti-democratic because it would prevent the Guatemalan public from choosing among a full range of possible candidates.

    In a 4-3 decision in Montt’s favor, the Constitutional Court announced July 14 that Rios Montt may run in the November 9 presidential elections. Although the Constitutional Court has yet to publicize the reasons behind its decision, a number of legal analysts assert that the court decision flies in the face of judicial precedent, and fear it will only weaken the rule of law in an already generally notorious court system. Three of the four judges who voted in favor of Rios Montt have current or previous links to the Portillo administration. Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu has referred to the court’s decision as a judicial “coup d’etat.” Montt gloated over the decision this week, claiming that the only reason previous courts blocked his candidacy was that they knew that if he was permitted to run, he would win.

    (Tomorrow, COHA will be issuing some additional material on Montt’s role in contemporary Guatemalan politics, particularly stressing its impact on U.S. relations with that country).

    This analysis was prepared by Maureen E. Maas, research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 17 July 2003.

    The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at www.coha.org; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email coha@coha.org.

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