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Ríos Montt, José Efraín (1926–)

Ríos Montt, José Efraín (1926–)

José Efraín Ríos Montt (b. 16 June 1926), president of Guatemala (23 March 1982–9 August 1983). General Ríos Montt came to power in the 23 March 1982 coup that overthrew then president General Fernando Romeo Lucas García. The military-instigated coup named a three-man junta consisting of Ríos Montt, General Horatio Maldonado Schad, and Colonel Francisco Gordillo to head the government. In June 1982, Ríos Montt dismissed his fellow junta members and named himself president of the republic.

At the time Ríos Montt took office, significant portions of the western highlands, particularly in the department of El Quiché and the northern Transversal along the Mexican border, were controlled by or sympathetic to Guatemala's armed resistance, which had united in 1980 to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). Ríos Montt launched a massive counterinsurgency campaign, known as "rifles and beans," to drive the insurgents from the largely Indian highlands. This effort was a military success in that it greatly reduced rebel power; but thousands of civilian lives were lost, and the United Nations estimated that as many as 1 million Guatemalans were forced into exile during this period.

From 1 July 1982 until 23 March 1983, Ríos Montt declared a nationwide state of siege, banning all union and political activity, granting arresting powers to the armed forces, nullifying guarantees of privacy, eliminating writs of habeas corpus, and enforcing strict press censorship. Ríos Montt also established "special tribunals" in which suspected guerrillas and criminals were prosecuted without trial by jury.

Ríos Montt attracted a great deal of attention outside of Guatemala during his term of office, in part because he was an evangelical Protestant and publicly associated himself with his church, the Church of the Word (Verbo), which had its home office in California. Ríos Montt's strong reliance on advisers from his church displeased the Guatemalan military, which forced his ouster in 1983. Other reasons for the military's dissatisfaction with Ríos Montt included his failure to shore up the nation's faltering economy, and his reluctance to set a date for new national presidential elections.

On 9 August 1983, Ríos Montt was overthrown in a military coup led by his own minister of defense, Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores. After the military removed him, Ríos Montt returned to Guatemalan politics in 1989, when he founded the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). While the government banned him from running for the presidency, he served as a deputy in Guatemala's national legislature between 1990 and 2004. In 2003, he received permission to run for the presidency but obtained only 11 percent of the popular vote in that year's election.

See alsoGuatemala; Guatemala, Political Parties: National Guatemalan Revolutionary Unity (URNG); Mejía Victores, Oscar Humberto.


Joseph Anfuso and David Sczepanski, He Gives, He Takes Away: Efraín Ríos Montt, Servant or Dictator? (1983).

Peter Calvert, Guatemala: A Nation in Turmoil (1985).

Jean-Marie Simon, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (1987).

Additional Bibliography

Asturias Montenegro, G. Los 504 días de Ríos Montt. Guatemala: Gamma, 1995.

Soto Rosales, Carlos Rafael. El sueño encadenado: El proceso político guatemalteco, 1944–1999. Guatemala: Tipografía Nacional, 2002.

                              Virginia Garrard Burnett

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