Efraín Ríos Montt

José Efraín Ríos Montt (Spanish: [efɾaˈin ˈrios ˈmont]; 16 June 1926 – 1 April 2018) was a Guatemalan military officer and politician who served as de facto President of Guatemala in 1982-83. His brief tenure as chief executive was one of the bloodiest periods in the long-running Guatemalan Civil War. Ríos Montt's counter-insurgency strategies significantly weakened the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla, while also leading to accusations of war crimes and genocide perpetrated by the Guatemalan Army under his leadership.[1]


Efraín Ríos Montt
Rios Montt.png
26th President of Guatemala
In office
March 23, 1982 – August 8, 1983
Preceded byRomeo Lucas García
Succeeded byÓscar Humberto Mejía Víctores
President of the Congress of Guatemala
In office
January 14, 2000 – January 14, 2004
Preceded byLeonel Eliseo López Rodas
Succeeded byFrancisco Rolando Morales Chávez
In office
January 14, 1995 – January 14, 1996
Preceded byArabella Castro Quiñones de Comparini
Succeeded byCarlos Alberto García Regás
Personal details
José Efraín Ríos Montt

(1926-06-16)16 June 1926
Huehuetenango, Guatemala
Died1 April 2018(2018-04-01) (aged 91)
Guatemala City, Guatemala
Resting placeCemetery of La Villa de Guadalupe, Guatemala City, Guatemala
Political partyGuatemalan Republican Front
(m. after 1953)
Children3 (including Zury Ríos Montt)
ProfessionMilitary officer, educator
Military service
Allegiance Guatemala
Branch/serviceGuatemalan Army
Years of service1951–1983
RankBrigadier general

Ríos Montt was a career army officer. He was director of the Guatemalan military academy and rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was briefly chief of staff of the Guatemalan armed forces in 1973, but was soon forced out of the position over differences with the army high command. He ran for President in the 1974 general election, losing to the right-wing candidate General Kjell Laugerud in an electoral process widely regarded as fraudulent. In 1978, Ríos Montt controversially abandoned the Catholic Church and joined an Evangelical Christian group affiliated with the Gospel Outreach Church. In 1982, discontent with the rule of General Romeo Lucas García, the worsening security situation in Guatemala, and accusations of electoral fraud led to a coup d'état by a group of junior military officers who installed Ríos Montt as head of a new government junta. Ríos Montt ruled as military dictator for less than seventeen months before he was overthrown in another coup led by his defense minister, General Óscar Mejía Victores.

In 1989, Ríos Montt returned to the Guatemalan political scene as leader of a new political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). He was elected many times to the Congress of Guatemala, serving as president of the Congress in 1995-96 and 2000-04. A constitutional provision prevented him from registering as a presidential candidate due to his involvement in the military coup of 1982, but the FRG obtained both the presidency and a congressional majority in the 1999 general election. Authorized by the Constitutional Court to run in the 2003 presidential elections, Ríos Montt came in third and withdrew from politics. He returned to public life in 2007 as a member of Congress, thereby gaining prosecutorial immunity from long-running lawsuits alleging war crimes committed by him and some of his ministers and counselors during their term in the presidential palace in 1982-83.[2][3] His immunity ended on January 14, 2012, when his legislative term of office expired. In 2013 a court sentenced Ríos Montt to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity, but that sentence was quashed by the Constitutional Court and his retrial was never completed.


Efraín Ríos Montt was born in 1926 in Huehuetenango, into a large family of the rural middle class. His father was a shopkeeper and his mother a seamstress, and the family also owned a small farm.[4] His younger brother Mario Enrique Ríos Montt became a Catholic priest and would serve as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Guatemala.

Efraín enrolled in the Polytechnic School (the national military academy of Guatemala) in 1946 and graduated in 1950 at the top of his class.[4] He taught at the Polytechnic School and received further specialized training, first at the U.S.-run officer training institute that would later be known as the School of the Americas, and later at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the Italian War College.[5] From the start of his career, Ríos Montt acquired a reputation as a devoutly religious man and as a stern disciplinarian.[4]

Ríos Montt did not play any significant role in the successful CIA-sponsored coup of 1954 against President Jacobo Arbenz.[4] He rose through the ranks of the Guatemalan army, and in 1970-72 served as director of the Polytechnic School.[6] In 1972, in the presidential administration of General Carlos Arana Osorio, Ríos Montt was promoted to brigadier general and in 1973 he became the Army's Chief of Staff. However, he was removed from that post after only a few months and, much to his chagrin, dispatched to the Inter-American Defense College, in Washington, D.C.[4] According to anthropologist David Stoll, writing in 1990, Ríos Montt was "at odds with the army's command structure since being sidelined by military president Gen. Carlos Arana Osorio in 1974."[7]

Early political involvementEdit

While in the US, Ríos Montt was approached by the leaders of the Guatemalan Christian Democracy with an invitation to run for president at the head of a coalition of parties opposed to the incumbent regime. Ríos Montt participated in the March 1974 presidential elections as the presidential candidate of the National Opposition Front (FNO). His running mate was Alberto Fuentes Mohr, a respected economist and social democrat. At the time, Ríos Montt was generally regarded as an honest and competent military man who could combat the rampant corruption in the Guatemalan government and armed forces.[8] Officially, Ríos Montt lost by 70,000 votes to General Kjell Laugerud, the right-wing candidate backed by the incumbent government. This result was widely seen as fraudulent, with the government halting the vote count on election night and manipulating the results to make it appear that Laugerud had won by a narrow plurality.[6] Since Laugerud did not obtain an outright majority, the election was decided by the government-controlled National Congress, which chose Laugerud.

According to independent journalist Carlos Rafael Soto Rosales, Ríos Montt and the FNO leadership accepted the fraudulent outcome of the 1974 elections only because they feared that a popular uprising "would result in disorder that would provoke worse government repression and that a challenge would lead to a confrontation between military leaders."[9] General Ríos Montt then left the country to take up an appointment as military attaché at the Guatemalan embassy in Madrid, where he remained until 1977.[6] It was rumored that the military high command paid Ríos Montt several hundred thousand dollars in exchange for his departure from public life and that during his exile in Spain his unhappiness led him to excessive drinking.[8]

Religious conversionEdit

Ríos Montt returned to Guatemala in 1977 without any military assignment. A spiritual crisis caused him to leave the Roman Catholic Church in 1978 and to join the Iglesia El Verbo ("Church of the Word"), an evangelical Protestant church affiliated with the Gospel Outreach Church based in Eureka, California.[10][11][12] Ríos Montt became very active in his new church and taught religion in a school affiliated with it. He also later befriended prominent evangelists in the US, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. In 1998 his brother Mario Enrique Ríos Montt would succeed assassinated Catholic bishop Juan Gerardi as head of the commission tasked with documenting human-rights abuses during the Guatemalan Civil War.[citation needed]

De facto presidencyEdit

1982 military coupEdit

The security situation in Guatemala had deteriorated under the government of General Romeo Lucas García, and by early 1982 the Marxist insurgency organized under the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) had made significant advances towards the capital of Guatemala City.[8] On March 7, 1982, General Ángel Aníbal Guevara, the official party's candidate, won the presidential election, a result denounced as fraudulent by all opposition parties. This situation triggered a military coup by a group described as oficiales jóvenes ("young officers"), which overthrew Lucas and prevented Guevara from succeeding him as president.[6] On March 23, the coup culminated with the installation of a three-man military junta, presided by Efraín Ríos Montt and composed also of General Horacio Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Luis Gordillo Martínez. Ríos Montt had not been involved in the planning of coup and was chosen by the oficiales jóvenes because of the respect that he had acquired as director of the military academy.[4] The events of March 1982 took the U.S. authorities by surprise.[13]


Because of repeated vote-rigging and the blatant corruption of the military establishment, the 1982 coup was initially welcomed by many Guatemalans. Ríos Montt's reputation for honesty, his leadership of the opposition in the 1974 election, and his vision of "education, nationalism, an end to want and hunger, and a sense of civic pride" were widely appealing.[12] In April 1982, U.S. Ambassador Frederic L. Chapin declared that thanks to the coup of Ríos Montt, "the Guatemalan government has come out of the darkness and into the light",[14] though Chapin soon afterwards reported that Ríos Montt was "naïve and not concerned with practical realities".[15] Drawing on his Pentecostal beliefs, Ríos Montt compared the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the four modern evils of hunger, misery, ignorance, and subversion. He also pledged to fight corruption and what he described as the depredations of the rich.

The government junta immediately declared martial law and suspended the constitution, shut down the legislature, and set up special tribunals (tribunales de fuero especial) to prosecute both common criminals and political dissidents. On April 10, the junta launched the National Growth and Security Plan whose stated goals were to end indiscriminate violence and teach the populace about Guatemalan nationalism. The junta also announced that it sought to integrate peasants and indigenous peoples into the Guatemalan state, declaring that because of their illiteracy and "immaturity" they were particularly vulnerable to the seductions of "international communism."[citation needed] The government intensified its military efforts against the URNG guerrillas and, on April 20, 1982, launched a new counter-insurgency operation known as Victoria 82.[16]

On June 9, the other two members of the junta were forced to resign. This left General Ríos Montt as sole head of state, commander of the armed forces, and minister of defense. On 17 August 1982, Ríos Montt established a new Consejo de Estado ("Council of State") as an advisory body whose members were appointed either by the executive or by various civil associations.[17] This Council of State incorporated, for the first time in the history of the central Guatemalan government, several representatives of Guatemala's indigenous population.[18][19]

Under the motto No robo, no miento, no abuso ("I don't steal, I don't lie, I don't abuse"), Ríos Montt launched a campaign ostensibly aimed at rooting out corruption in the government and reforming Guatemalan society. He also began to broadcast regular TV speeches on Sunday afternoons, known as discursos de domingo. According to historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett,

It was in his Sunday sermons that Ríos Montt explicated the moral roots of Guatemala's many problems and limned the outlines of his political and moral imaginaire. Although ridiculed both at home and abroad for their preachy and even naive tone (earning the General the derisive nickname "Dios Montt"), the discursos nonetheless bore an internally cohesive message that clearly laid out Ríos Montt's diagnosis of the crisis and his idiosyncratic vision for national redemption. In the General's view, Guatemala suffered from three fundamental problems: a national lack of responsibility and respect for authority, an absolute lack of morality, and an inchoate sense of national identity. All other issues, from the economic crisis to what Ríos Montt called the "subversion," were merely symptoms of these three fundamental ills.[20]

Ríos Montt's moralizing message continued to resonate with a significant part of Guatemalan society after he departed from power in 1983. In 1990, anthropologist David Stoll quoted a development organizer who told him that she liked Ríos Montt "because he used to get on television, point his finger at every Guatemalan, and say: 'The problem is you!' That's the only way this country is ever going to change."[7]

Counter-insurgency: Frijoles y FusilesEdit

Violence escalated in the countryside under the Guatemalan military's plan Victoria 82, which included a rural pacification strategy known as frijoles y fusiles (literally "beans and rifles", often rendered into English as "beans and bullets" to preserve the alliteration of the original). The "bullets" referred to the organization of the Civilian Self-Defense Forces (CDF), composed primarily of indigenous villagers who patrolled in groups of twelve, either armed with a single M1 rifle or not armed at all.[21] The CDF initiative was intended both to provide a pro-government presence in isolated rural villages with a majority Mayan population, and to deter deter guerrilla activity in the area. The "beans" component of the counter-insurgency strategy referred to programs seeking to increase civilian-military contact and cooperation by improving the infrastructure and resources that the government provided to the Mayan villages. This was meant to create a link in the minds of the indigenous and peasant communities between better access to resources and their own cooperation with the Guatemalan government in its military struggle against the insurgents.[21]

Critics have argued that, in practice, Ríos Montt's strategy amounted to a scorched earth campaign directed against the Maya population, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango. According to the 1999 United Nations truth commission, this resulted in the annihilation of nearly 600 villages. One example was the Plan de Sánchez massacre in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, in July 1982, which saw over 250 people killed. Tens of thousands of peasant farmers fled over the border into southern Mexico. The Ríos Montt government offered an amnesty in June 1982 to all insurgents willing to lay down their arms, which was followed a month later by a state of siege that curtailed the activities of political parties and labor unions, under the threat of death by firing squad for subversion.[22]

In 1982, an Amnesty International report estimated that over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed from March to July of that year, and that 100,000 rural villagers were forced to flee their homes. According to more recent estimates presented by the 1999 United Nations truth commission, tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed during Ríos Montt's tenure as head of state. At the height of the bloodshed, reports put the number of disappearances and killings at more than 3,000 per month.[23]

On the other hand, the United Nations special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Guatemala, Lord Colville of Culross, wrote in 1984 that the lot of the rural population of Guatemala had improved under Ríos Montt, as the previous indiscriminate violence of the Guatemalan Army was replaced by a rational strategy of counter-insurgency. Colville also indicated that extrajudicial "killings and kidnappings virtually ceased under the Ríos Montt regime".[18][non-primary source needed] According to anthropologist David Stoll, "the crucial difference" between Ríos Montt and his predecessor Lucas García was that Ríos Montt replaced "chaotic terror with a more predictable set of rewards and punishments".[24] Even some of Ríos Montt's fiercest critics have noted that, in his later political career, he enjoyed particularly strong electoral support in the Quiché Department, which had seen the worst violence during the 1982-83 counter-insurgency campaign.[25][26] According to Stoll, "the most obvious reason Nebajeños like the former general is that he offered them the chance to surrender without being killed."[7]

Support from US and IsraelEdit

In 1977, the Carter administration had suspended aid by the United States to Guatemala over the poor human rights record of the Guatemalan government.[27] After the 1982 coup, the Reagan administration sought to improve relations between the US and the new Guatemalan regime, and President Ronald Reagan visited Guatemala City in December 1982.[28] During a meeting with Ríos Montt on December 4, Reagan declared: "President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment... I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice."[29][30]

President Reagan claimed Guatemala's human rights conditions were improving and used this to justify several major shipments of military hardware to Ríos Montt: $4 million in helicopter spare parts and $6.3 million in additional military supplies in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The decision was taken in spite of records concerning human rights violations, and also bypassed seeking approval from the U. S. Congress.[31][32][33][34][35] Meanwhile, a then-secret 1983 CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing violence" and an increasing number of bodies "appearing in ditches and gullies."[36] In turn, Guatemala was eager to resurrect the Central American Defense Council, defunct since 1969, to join forces with the right-wing governments of El Salvador and Honduras in retaliations against the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Like Guatemala's other suppliers of arms, Israel (which had been supplying arms to Guatemala since 1974) continued its aid provisions. The cooperation did not just involve material support, but also included providing intelligence and operational training, carried out both in Israel and in Guatemala. In 1982, Ríos Montt told ABC News that his success was due to the fact that "our soldiers were trained by Israelis." There was not much outcry in Israel at the time about its involvement in Guatemala, though the support for Ríos Montt was no secret. According to journalist Victor Perera, in 1985 at a cemetery in Chichicastenango, relatives of a man killed by the military told him that "in church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor; but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns."[37]

Removal from powerEdit

By the end of 1982, Ríos Montt, claiming that the war against the leftist guerrillas had been won, said the government's work was one of "techo, trabajo, y tortillas" ("roofs, work, and tortillas"). Having survived three attempted coups, on June 29, 1983, Ríos Montt declared a state of emergency and announced elections for July 1984. By then Ríos Montt had alienated many segments of Guatemalan society by his actions, including his refusal to grant clemency to six guerrillas during the visit of Pope John Paul II. His outspoken evangelicalism and the moralizing sermons of his regular Sunday television broadcasts (discursos de domingo) were increasingly regarded with embarrassment.[8] The military brass was offended by his promotion of young officers in defiance of the Army's traditional hierarchy. Many middle class citizens were unhappy with the decision, announced on August 1, 1983, to introduce the value-added tax for the first time in Guatemalan history. One week later, on August 8 1983, his own Minister of Defense, General Óscar Mejía Victores, overthrew the regime in a coup during which seven people were killed.[38]

The leaders of the 1983 coup alleged that Ríos Montt belonged to a "fanatical and aggressive religious group" that had threatened the "fundamental principle of the separation of Church and State".[39] However, historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett considered that the main underlying reason for his removal from power was that Ríos Montt "had severely stanched the flow of graft to military officers and government officials" and was not responsive to the powerful interest groups represented by the Army's high command.[40]

Political violence in Guatemala continued after Ríos Montt was removed from power in 1983.[41][42] It has been documented that as many as one and a half million Maya peasants were uprooted from their homes,[43] and that many were forced to live in re-education concentration camps and to work in the fields of Guatemalan land barons. American journalist Vincent Bevins writes that by corralling indigenous populations from suspect communities into state-established "model villages" (aldeas modelos) that were "little more than deadly concentration camps," Ríos Montt waged genocide in a different fashion than his predecessors, although massacres continued apace. This, Bevins argues, was part of Montt's new strategy for fighting communism: "The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea."[44]

Ríos Montt, along with several other men who served high positions in the military governments of the early 1980s, were defendants in several lawsuits alleging genocide and crimes against humanity. One of these cases was filed in 1999 by Nobel Peace Prize-winning K'iche'-Maya activist, Rigoberta Menchú.[45] In early 2008 the presiding judge, Santiago Pedraz, took testimony from a number of indigenous survivors.[46] The genocide cases saw little progress due to a climate of ongoing and entrenched impunity in Guatemala.[47]

Later political careerEdit

Ríos Montt founded the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) political party in 1989. In the run-up to the 1990 general election, polls indicated that Ríos Montt was the most popular candidate, leading his nearest rival by as many as twelve points.[7] He was ultimately prevented from appearing in the ballots by the courts because of a provision in the 1985 Constitution of Guatemala that banned people who had participated in a military coup from becoming president. Ríos Montt always claimed that the corresponding article had been written into the Constitution specifically to prevent him from returning to the Presidency and that it could not legitimately be applied retroactively.

In the 1990s Ríos Montt enjoyed significant popular support throughout Guatemala and especially among the native Maya population of the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango, where he was perceived as un militar recto (an honest military man),[7][8] even though those had been the populations most directly affected by the counter-insurgency that Ríos Montt had led in 1982-83.[4] According to anthropologist David Stoll

Ríos Montt's popularity was difficult to comprehend for most scholars and journalists because they have been so deeply influenced by human rights and solidarity work [...] The most influential literature on Guatemala has been written by activists, the majority of whom are also academics. Generally, this literature has been slow to admit the defeat of the guerrillas in 1982, their subsequent lack of popular support, and contradictions in the human rights movement.[48]

According to political scientist Regina Bateson, in this new phase of his career Ríos Montt embraced populism as his core political strategy.[4] He was an FRG congressman between 1990 and 2004. In 1994, he was elected president of the unicameral legislature. He tried to run again in the 1995–96 Guatemalan general election, but was barred from entering the race. Alfonso Portillo was chosen to replace Ríos Montt as the FRG's presidential candidate, and he narrowly lost to Álvaro Arzú of the conservative National Advancement Party.

The Guatemalan Civil War officially concluded in 1996 with the signing of the peace accords between the Guatemalan government and the insurgents of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), who thereafter organized as a legal political party. In March 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton declared that "for the United States, it is important I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression [in Guatemala] was wrong and the United States must not repeat that mistake."[49]

Ríos Montt's FRG party was successful in the 1999 Guatemalan general election. Its candidate, Alfonso Portillo, was elected president and the party also obtained a majority in the National Congress. Ríos Montt then served four consecutive one-year terms as president of Congress, from 2000 to 2004.

President Portillo admitted the involvement of the Guatemalan government in human rights abuses over the previous 20 years, including two massacres that took place during Ríos Montt's presidency. The first was in Plan de Sánchez, in Baja Verapaz, with 268 dead, and in Dos Erres in Petén, where 200 people were murdered.[citation needed]

2003 presidential candidateEdit

In May 2003 the FRG nominated Ríos Montt for the November presidential election, but his candidacy was rejected again by the electoral registry and by two lower courts. On 14 July 2003, the Constitutional Court, which had had several judges appointed by the FRG government, approved his candidacy for president on the grounds that the prohibition in the 1985 Constitution did not apply retroactively.

On 20 July the Supreme Court suspended Ríos Montt's campaign and agreed to hear a complaint brought by two right-of-centre parties that the general was constitutionally barred from running for president. Ríos Montt denounced the ruling as a judicial manipulation and, in a radio address, called on his followers to take to the streets to protest against it. On 24 July, in an event that came to be known as jueves negro ("Black Thursday"), thousands of masked FRG supporters invaded the streets of Guatemala City, armed with machetes, clubs, and guns. They had been bussed in from all over the country by the FRG, and it was alleged that public employees in FRG-controlled municipalities were threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not participate in the demonstrations. The protestors blocked traffic, chanted threatening slogans, and waved machetes as they marched on the courts, the opposition parties' headquarters, and newspapers. Incidents of torching of buildings, shooting out of windows, and burning of cars and tires in the streets were also reported. A television journalist, Héctor Fernando Ramírez, died of a heart attack while running away from a mob. After two days the rioters disbanded when an audio recording of Ríos Montt was played in loudspeakers calling them to return to their homes. The situation was so volatile over the weekend that both the UN mission and the US embassy were closed.

Following the rioting, the Constitutional Court overturned the Supreme Court decision, allowing Ríos Montt to run for president. However, the jueves negro chaos undermined Ríos Montt's popularity and his credibility as a law-and-order candidate. Support for Ríos Montt also suffered because of the perceived corruption and inefficiency of the incumbent FRG administration under President Portillo.[4] During tense but peaceful presidential elections on November 9, 2003, Ríos Montt received 19.3% of the vote, placing him third behind Óscar Berger, head of the conservative Grand National Alliance (GANA), and Álvaro Colom of the center-left National Unity of Hope (UNE). As he had been required to give up his seat in Congress to run for president, Ríos Montt's 14-year legislative tenure also came to an end.

In March 2004, a court order forbade Ríos Montt from leaving the country while it determined whether he should stand trial on charges related to jueves negro and the death of Ramírez. On November 20, 2004, Ríos Montt had to request permission to travel to his country home for the wedding of his daughter Zury Ríos, to U.S. Representative Jerry Weller, a Republican from Illinois.[50] On January 31, 2006, manslaughter charges against him for the death of Ramírez were dropped.

Charges of crimes against humanityEdit

Two Truth Commissions, the REMHI report, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, and the CEH report, conducted by the United Nations as part of the 1996 Accords of Firm and Durable Peace, documented widespread human rights abuses committed by Ríos Montt's military regime. These included widespread massacres, rapes, and torture against the indigenous population in what has been called a Guatemalan genocide. Ríos Montt said there was no government-ordered genocide, and that abuses were only the result of a long, violent civil war.[51] During his time as president, he had close ties to the United States, receiving direct and indirect support from several of its agencies, including the CIA.[52]

Ríos Montt's military regime was held accountable for constraining the guerrillas through what was known as the "guns and beans" campaign, telling the people "If you are with us, we'll feed you, if not, we'll kill you."[53] Guatemala's 36-year civil war only ended with the signing of a peace treaty in 1996. The civil war pitted Marxist rebels against the Guatemalan state, including the army. Huge numbers of civilians, both indigenous Mayas and mestizo Ladinos, were caught in the crossfire. Up to 200,000 Guatemalans were declared missing or killed during the conflict, making it one of Latin America's most violent wars.

Indigenous Mayas suffered disproportionately during Ríos Montt's rule. It is documented that his government deliberately targeted thousands of indigenous people since many were suspected of harboring sympathies for, supporting, or participating in the guerrilla movement. Under the Cold War-era strategy of containment the Guatemalan state sought to eliminate the spread of Communism inside its borders. The UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission found that the resulting counterinsurgency campaign, significantly designed and advanced during Ríos Montt's presidency, included deliberate "acts of genocide" against the indigenous population.[54][55][56]

On 28 January 2013, judge Miguel Angel Galves opened a pre-trial hearing against Ríos Montt and retired General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity, in particular the killings of 1,771 Maya Ixil Indians, including children.[57][58] On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment.[59] On 20 May 2013, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned his conviction.[60][61] His retrial began January 2015.[62] A Guatemalan court had ruled he could stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, but could not be sentenced due to his age and deteriorating health conditions.[63]

In SpainEdit

In 1999, Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú presented charges for torture, genocide, illegal detention and state-sponsored terrorism against Ríos Montt and four other retired Guatemalan generals, two of them ex-presidents. Three other civilians that were high government official between 1978 and 1982 were also indicted. The Center for Justice and Accountability and Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España are co-counsel in the trial.

In September 2005 Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that Spanish courts can try those accused of crimes against humanity even if the victims were not of Spanish origin. In June 2006, Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz traveled to Guatemala to interrogate Ríos Montt and the others named in the case. At least 15 appeals filed by the defense attorneys of the indicted prevented him from carrying out the inquiries.

On July 7, 2006, Pedraz issued an international arrest warrant against Efraín Ríos Montt[64] and former presidents Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores and Romeo Lucas García (the latter of whom had died in May 2006 in Venezuela). A warrant was also issued for the retired generals Benedicto Lucas García and Aníbal Guevara. Former minister of the interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, who remains at large, and ex-chiefs of police German Chupina Barahona and Pedro García Arredondo are also named on the international arrest warrants. For his part, Ríos Montt admitted in a July 2006 press conference that there were "excesses" committed by the army during his rule, but strenuously denied his culpability.[65]

In GuatemalaEdit

On January 17, 2007, Ríos Montt announced that he would run for a seat in Congress in the election to be held later in the year. As a member of Congress he would again be immune from prosecution unless a court suspended him from office.[66] He won his seat in the election, which was held on September 9, and led the FRG's 15-member congressional delegation in the new legislature.[67]

His immunity ended on January 14, 2012, when his term in office ran out. On January 26, 2012, Ríos Montt appeared in court in Guatemala City and was formally indicted by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz for genocide and crimes against humanity,[1] along with three other former generals.[who?] During the court hearing he refused to comment. The court released him on bail, but placed him under house arrest pending commencement of his trial.[68][69] On March 1, 2012, a judge declined to grant Ríos Montt amnesty from genocide charges, paving the way for a trial.[70] This marked the first time a former head of state was tried for genocide in his home country.[71] On 19 March 2013, his trial for the genocide of at least 1,771 members of the Maya Ixils began.[72] But the trial was suspended by Judge Carol Patricia Flores following a directive from the Supreme Court on 19 April 2013. The judge ordered the legal process to be set back to November 2011, before the retired general was charged with war crimes.[73]

Efraín Ríos Montt in court

On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.[74] He was sentenced to 80 years in prison (50 years for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity).[59] Ríos Montt is the first former head of state to have been convicted of genocide by a court in his own country.[59] Announcing the ruling, Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar declared that "[t]he defendant is responsible for masterminding the crime of genocide".[75] She continued: "We are convinced that the acts the Ixil suffered constitute the crime of genocide...[Ríos Montt] had knowledge of what was happening and did nothing to stop it."[76] The Court found that "[t]he Ixils were considered public enemies of the state and were also victims of racism, considered an inferior race... The violent acts against the Ixils were not spontaneous. They were planned beforehand."[59] Judge Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar referred to evidence that 5.5% of the Ixil people had been wiped out by the army.[77]

Ríos Montt's lawyers said he would appeal.[78] On May 20, 2013, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction, voiding all proceedings back to April 19 and ordering that the trial be "reset" to that point, pending a dispute over the recusal of judges.[60][61]

Ríos Montt's trial resumed in January 2015.[79] The court decided, due to his alleged senility, that a closed door trial would begin in January 2016 and that if he were to be found guilty, a jail sentence would be precluded, given his condition.[80]


Ríos Montt died in Guatemala City on April 1, 2018, of a heart attack at the age of 91.[81][82][83] The government of Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales lamented his passing.[84]

In media and popular cultureEdit

Pamela Yates directed When the Mountains Tremble (1983), a documentary film about the war between the Guatemalan Military and the Mayan Indigenous population of Guatemala. Footage from this film was used as forensic evidence in the Guatemalan court for crimes against humanity, in the genocide case against Efraín Ríos Montt.[85]

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011) by Pamela Yates, is a follow-up to When the Mountains Tremble.[86][87][88]

The University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation, funded by director Steven Spielberg, is undertaking an extensive analysis of the genocidal Guatemalan civil wars, documented by hundreds of filmed interviews with survivors.[89]

The 2019 Guatemalan horror film La Llorona features a character named Enrique Monteverde, based on Ríos Montt.

See alsoEdit


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  2. ^ "ICD - Search results". Asser Institute. Archived from the original on May 9, 2013.
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  7. ^ a b c d e Stoll, David (1990). "Why They Like Ríos Montt" (PDF). NACLA Report on the Americas. 24 (4): 4–7. doi:10.1080/10714839.1990.11723184. Retrieved 28 March 2021.
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  11. ^ [1], National Security Archive, The George Washington University, Accessed 29 March 2013
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Further readingEdit

  • Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional, From Silence to Memory: Revelations of the AHPN (Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Libraries, 2013). ISBN 978-0-985-82041-1
  • Carmack, Robert M. (ed.). Harvest of Violence: The Maya Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis (University of Oklahoma Press, 1988) ISBN 0-8061-2132-7
  • Cullather, Nick. (fwd. by Piero Gleijeses). Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of its Operations in Guatemala, 1952–1954 (Stanford University Press, 1999). ISBN 0-8047-3310-4
  • Dosal, Paul J. Return of Guatemala's Refugees: Reweaving the Torn (Temple University Press, 1998) ISBN 1-56639-621-2
  • Falla, Ricardo (trans. by Julia Howland). Massacres in the Jungle: Ixcán, Guatemala, 1975–1982 (Westview Press, Boulder, 1994) ISBN 0-8133-8668-3
  • Fried, Jonathan L., et al. Guatemala in Rebellion : Unfinished History (Grove Press, NY, 1983). ISBN 0-394-53240-6
  • Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954 (Princeton University Press, 1991) ISBN 0-691-07817-3
  • Goldston, James A. Shattered Hope: Guatemalan Workers and the Promise of Democracy (Westview Press, Boulder, 1989). ISBN 0-8133-7767-6
  • LaFeber, Walter. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America. (W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 1993). ISBN 0-393-01787-7
  • Perera, Victor. Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (University of California Press, 1993). ISBN 0-520-07965-5
  • Sanford, Victoria . Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala (Palgrave Macmillan, NY, 2003) ISBN 1-4039-6023-2
  • Schlesinger, Stephen. Bitter Fruit : The Untold story of the American Coup in Guatemala (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1982). ISBN 0-385-14861-5
  • Sczepanski David. Anfuso, Joseph. (fwd. by Pat Robertson). Efrain Rios Montt, Servant or Dictator? : The Real Story of Guatemala's Controversial Born-again President (Vision House, Ventura, CA, 1984) ISBN 0-88449-110-2
  • Shillington, John Wesley. Grappling with Atrocity: Guatemalan Theater in the 1990s (Associated University Presses, London, 2002). ISBN 0-8386-3930-5
  • Stoll, David. Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (Columbia University Press, NY, 1993). ISBN 0-231-08182-0
  • Streeter, S.M. Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961 (Ohio Univ. Cent. Int. Stud., 2000) ISBN 0-89680-215-9

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
Fernando Romeo Lucas García
President of Guatemala
Succeeded by
Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores