Gen. Rios Montt assumed power March 23, 1982, in a coup staged by junior officers. Guatemala was long familiar with rule by military strongmen and human rights abuses. But during Gen. Rios Montt’s 17-month reign, repression by state security forces reached new levels of brutality.
A United Nations-sponsored truth commission found that nearly half of all the human rights violations during the 36-year conflict occurred in 1982, a year when Gen. Rios Montt was de facto ruler of Guatemala for nine months. More than 200,000 Guatemalans perished during the civil war’s violence, according to the U.N. commission, and government forces were responsible for the vast majority of deaths.
An evangelical Christian and part-time lay preacher, Gen. Rios Montt befriended televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Robertson extolled the Guatemalan leader, the lone Protestant head of state in Latin America, as the only alternative to “the oppression of corrupt oligarchies and the tyranny of Russian-backed Communist totalitarianism.” To his fiercest critics, the general was known as “the born-again butcher.”
Initially, Gen. Rios Montt enjoyed broad support by promising to bring order to a nation where, as in much of Central America during the Cold War, Marxist guerrillas had risen up against military regimes. His draconian plan called for depopulating rebel strongholds to deny the guerrillas civilian support.
“The guerrilla is the fish. The people are the sea,” Gen. Rios Montt declared shortly after taking power. “If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.”
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Under Gen. Rios Montt’s command, the armed forces destroyed nearly 600 villages in the northern highlands and killed thousands of innocent civilians, according to the U.N. truth commission report published in 1999. Most of the victims were Mayan Indians who make up about half of Guatemala’s population.
Entire hamlets were uprooted and forced into “model villages,” many of which functioned as army-controlled reeducation camps. Thousands of families fled to Mexico. Fueling the upheaval was a program that conscripted young men into self-defense patrols that often committed their own atrocities.
Guatemala under Gen. Rios Montt, said former foreign minister Edgar Gutierrez, “was like Cambodia under Pol Pot.”
The general brushed off the bloodshed. “I was not a police officer. I was a head of state,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “I am the one responsible, I recognize that, but I am not the guilty party.”
He turned the tide in the war. The country’s four main guerrilla groups suffered massive losses and never recovered. They disarmed under a 1996 peace process that ended the war.
Although his brutality was condemned by many foreign governments, Gen. Rios Montt had Washington on his side.
Keen to help crush Cuban- and Soviet-backed insurgencies in Central America, President Ronald Reagan channeled military aid to Guatemala and praised Gen. Rios Montt for being “totally dedicated to democracy.”
Within Guatemala, doubts about the dictator were growing.
Gen. Rios Montt upset civilian leaders by banning political parties and becoming increasingly vague about leaving power. He also angered the military brass by ignoring hierarchy and promoting officers who belonged to a Guatemalan offshoot of the Gospel Outreach Church of Eureka, Calif., an evangelical Protestant sect that the general had joined.
Gen. Rios Montt was ousted in a coup led by his former defense minister on Aug. 8, 1983.
Years later, as the war wound down and the country returned to an elected government, Guatemalans complained of street crime and corruption by traditional politicians. Their frustration opened the door for Gen. Rios Montt, who had formed a populist party that stressed law and order and individual responsibility.
With support from many of the Mayan regions that had been ravaged by his troops, Gen. Rios Montt was elected to Congress in 1990 and eventually rose to become president of the legislature.
In fact, polls at the time indicated that he stood a strong chance of returning to the National Palace had it not been for a constitutional provision banning people who had participated in coups from running for president.
In a 1991 essay, David M. Stoll, a Middlebury College anthropologist, tried to explain the general’s enduring attraction. He wrote: “The authoritarianism which foreigners so hold against Rios Montt appeals to the many Guatemalans . . . who, shaking their heads at the latest outrage, are willing to say: ‘We need a strongman to control us.’ Here is, they say, a just military man, even as they fear and despise the army for all the killing it has done.”
Support for Gen. Rios Montt collapsed in the early 2000s when President Alfonso Portillo — who belonged to the general’s party and was widely considered his stand-in — was accused of corruption and money laundering.
By then, Gen. Rios Montt had also become the target of lawsuits accusing him of war crimes and genocide, including one filed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan Indian activist whose parents and brother were killed by Guatemalan security forces.
The legal cases languished, in part, because Gen. Rios Montt enjoyed immunity as a member of Congress. But on Jan. 27, 2012, shortly after the general’s retirement from Congress, a Guatemalan judge ruled that he bore chain-of-command responsibility for massive violations and must stand trial.
On May 10, 2013, he was found guilty of the slaughter of 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil indigenous group. It marked the first time that a former head of state had been convicted of genocide within his or her own country.
Addressing the packed courtroom, Judge Yasmin Barrios, who presided over the trial, said Gen. Rios Montt “had full knowledge of everything that was happening and did not stop it.”
However, 10 days later, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court threw out the conviction on a technicality. After much legal wrangling, a three-judge panel in 2015 ordered a retrial. By then, Gen. Rios Montt was reportedly suffering from dementia and, if convicted, was to forgo sentencing because of his health.
Jose Efrain Rios Montt was born in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, on June 16, 1926. He joined the army at 17, won rapid promotions and, by 1970, had been named general and chief of staff of the army.
Survivors include his wife, the former Maria Sosa Avila; two children; and several grandchildren, according to the AP. Their daughter Zury Rios Montt, who also served in Guatemala’s Congress, is married to former congressman Jerry Weller (R-Ill.).
Gen. Rios Montt first ran for president in 1974. Although he is widely believed to have won, he was denied victory by the government’s electoral council. He accepted a post as Guatemala’s military attache to Spain.
In 1978, Gen. Rios Montt joined the Church of the Word, whose missionaries had arrived two years earlier to help the survivors of a deadly earthquake that leveled parts of Guatemala City. His conversion was also interpreted as a rebuke to the Roman Catholic Church, which had ignored Gen. Rios Montt’s pleas to denounce the purported electoral fraud of 1974.
When he assumed power in the 1982 coup, Gen. Rios Montt announced that God had chosen him to save the country from communism. He delivered weekly morality sermons on television, even as his troops were rampaging through the countryside.
Three decades later, when the sweeping abuses of his dictatorship finally caught up with him in court, the defendant was defiant.
“I did not engage in genocide,” Gen. Rios Montt said during his 2013 trial. “I never authorized, never signed, never ordered an attack against a race, an ethnicity or a religion. I never did it!”