Óscar Mejía Victores, a Guatemalan brigadier general who presided over some of the bloodiest years of his country’s civil war before seizing power in a 1983 coup and ultimately returning the country to democratic rule, died Feb. 1. He was 85.
His death was announced by Moises Galindo, a lawyer for several former military officials accused of human rights abuses during the Guatemalan civil war. Further details were not released.
Shortly before leaving office in 1986, Gen. Mejía Victores issued a decree granting amnesty to all those accused of political crimes — and, effectively, human rights violations — committed during his and his predecessor’s rule. The law was repealed a decade later at the close of the civil war.
In 2011, Gen. Mejía Victores was prosecuted in Guatemala on charges of crimes against humanity for the killings of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans by soldiers under his command. He was ruled unfit to stand trial because of a stroke.
The general was one in a long line of Guatemalan military dictators. A 1954 coup, funded and organized partly by the United States, plunged the country into turmoil. From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 civilians were killed during a civil war between government forces and leftist guerillas, according to a human rights report sponsored by the United Nations. More than 80 percent of the victims were Mayan Indians, who make up about half of Guatemala’s population.
Almost all of the war’s human rights violations were committed by the Guatemalan government, according to the U.N.-sponsored report, and nearly half occurred in 1982, when Brig. Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt seized power and installed Gen. Mejía Victores as his defense minister.
Seventeen months later, Gen. Mejía Victores came to power on his own. In what was “more a palace revolt than a government upheaval,” as one anonymous Western diplomat told the New York Times, Gen. Mejía Victores ousted Ríos Montt amid discontent in the military over the president’s assertive leadership style and outspoken brand of evangelical Christianity.
The new regime, Gen. Mejía Victores said, would return Guatemala to democratic rule and end abuses by “religious fanatics.” (The country is predominantly Catholic.)
When it was revealed that Gen. Mejía Victores had met with officials of the U.S. military’s Southern Command the day before the coup, speculation swirled that the United States had sponsored the coup in some way. The State Department denied any involvement or advance notice.
The Reagan administration, which thought Ríos Montt a “well-intentioned but eccentric leader,” according to a Times dispatch, was optimistic that Gen. Mejía Victores would follow through on his promises as well as eliminate the secret tribunals that had executed and “disappeared” the regime’s political opponents.
In that regard, the portly general was little different from his predecessor, who was known to critics as the “born-again butcher” for the remorseless killing of civilians and political targets. Under Gen. Mejía Victores, political killings continued at a rate of 90 to 100 per month, according to a Times account in 1984.
The government, under pressure from the United States and other nations, moved to reform the political system, in large part to reopen the spigot of foreign aid that had been reduced to a trickle by Congress because of human rights concerns. The money began pouring in after Gen. Mejía Victores announced elections for the framing of a new constitution and for the presidency.
The 1984 election of a constituent assembly was said to be the country’s first fraud-free vote since 1950. The new constitution, which remains in place, was drafted a year later. Vinicio Cerezo, a civilian promising reform, was elected president that fall.
Despite high expectations, the five years that Cerezo spent in office were largely viewed as a failure. They were marked by an uptick in human rights abuses after two unsuccessful coup attempts and by continued economic recession.
Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores was born in Guatemala City on Dec. 9, 1930. He joined the army as a cadet in 1948 and trained in parachuting. He graduated from the University of San Carlos of Guatemala with a degree in economics.
Working his way through the ranks, Gen. Mejía Victores became deputy chief of the army’s general staff in 1977 and commander of army general headquarters two years later. He served as deputy defense minister under President Fernando Romeo Lucas García, whom Ríos Montt deposed in 1982.
Gen. Mejía Victores was married to the former Aura Rosario Rosal Lopez. They had two daughters.