By Virginia Garrard-Burnett
After the judge’s ruling Monday in Guatemala City, the crowd outside erupted into cheers and set off fireworks. The unthinkable had happened: Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez had cleared the way for retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, who between 1982 and 1983 had overseen the darkest years of that nation’s 36-year long armed conflict, would stand trial for genocide. In that conflict (1960-1996), more than 150,000 Guatemalans died, the majority at the hands of their own government, which used their lives to prosecute a ferocious counterinsurgency war against a group of Marxist guerrillas who had hoped to bring a Sandinista-style socialist regime to Guatemala. For many, General Ríos Montt represented the face of this war, because it was during his short terms as president between March 1982 and August 1983 (he both came to power and was expelled in military coup d’états), that the Guatemalan army undertook the most bloody operation of the war, a violent scorched-earth campaign that not only nearly eliminated the guerrillas military operation, but which also killed many thousands of civilians, the vast majority of them Maya “Indians.” Now, some thirty years later, Ríos Montt will be prosecuted along with his former chief of intelligence, Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez, for genocide and crimes against humanity. Specifically, he will be charged with ordering the killings of more than 1,700 Maya Ixil people in a series of massacres that the Army conducted in the northern part of the country in 1982.
The axiom “justice delayed is justice denied” notwithstanding, the prosecution of fatally misguided leaders and despots such as Serbia’s Radovan Karadžić or Hutu leader Beatrice Munyenyezi is not unusual in the early 21st century. Trials such as these are designed to serve the cause of justice, of course, but they are also instrumental in helping a traumatized society create a coherent narrative and build a collective historical memory around what happened in its recent past. What is unusual about the case against Ríos Montt is that almost no one foresaw the day when such a trial would ever take place in Guatemala. In large part, this stems from Guatemala’s long-standing culture of impunity, where few people, from common criminals all the way up to corrupt businessmen and military officers, are held accountable for their crimes; generally speaking, the rule of law there simply does not rule. Beyond that, Ríos Montt’s continued influence in the country—among other things, he established and headed a powerful political party, the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco in the 1989, and he run an unsuccessful campaign for president as recently as 2003—further mitigated against expectations for his prosecution. His daughter, Zury Ríos Montt (who is married to former US Congressman Jerry Weller) is a rising and powerful young politician; her support for her father is so absolute that she stormed out of the courtroom yesterday before the judge could finalize his pronouncement. But most of all, the prosecution of Ríos Montt seemed most unlikely because, in the strange paradox of power that sometimes comes with authoritarian regimes, there were, and still continue to be, some Guatemalans who continue to respect him, remembering his bloody rule as a time when one could walk the streets of the capital safely and when the “raging wolves” of communism were kept at bay.
Adding to the complexity of this case is that fact that, at the time he served as chief of state in the early 1980s, (although called “President,” he did not actually hold this title, having taken power in a coup), Ríos Montt was a newly born again Christian, a member of a neo-Pentecostal denomination called the Church of the Word (Verbo). Fresh from the rush of his conversion, Ríos Montt addressed the nation weekly during his term of office, offering what people called his “Sunday sermons,”—discourses in which he drifted freely from topics ranging from his desire to defeat the “subversion,” to advice on wholesome family living, to his particular vision of a “New Guatemala” where all peoples would live together as one (a jab at the unassimilated Maya), in compliant obedience to a benign government that served the general good. Ríos Montt’s dream of a New Guatemala was in many ways as elusive as quicksilver, and in his sermons, he made no mention of the carnage going on in the countryside. The sacrifice of the Maya people and other “subversives” was not at all too high a price to pay, in his estimation, for the New Guatemala.
But the elegance, even the peaceability of his language, along with his strong affiliation with the Church of the Word (his closes advisors were church leaders, not his fellow generals) in that moment made Ríos Montt the darling of the emergent leaders of the Christian Right in the United States who were coming of age during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. For them, as for the Reagan administration, Ríos Montt seemed to have emerged out of nowhere from the turmoil of the Central American crisis of the early 1980s as an anti-communist Christian soldier and ally. It seemed unthinkable to them that the same man who, with one hand, reached out to called for honesty and familial devotion from his people, would order the killing of his own people with his other. And so it seems to some Guatemalans even today. Yet the strong and irrefutable body of evidence that produced yesterday’s ruling tells a very different, and much more tragic story.
Virginia Garrard-Burnett is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Texas-Austin and the author of Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt 1982-1983.