Ríos Montt, Efraín

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Ríos Montt, Efraín

[JUNE 16, 1926–]

Former dictator of Guatemala

On March 23, 1982 a coup of the Guatemalan Army set the stage for the massacre of over 75,000 people between 1982 and 1983. General José Efraín Ríos Montt was president of the military junta established by the coup, and in 2004 he and five other commanding officers remain charged with crimes against humanity and crimes of war.

Ríos Montt began his career in 1946, quickly rising through the military ranks to oversee the counterinsurgency campaign of the late 1960s and peasant insurgency in the eastern provinces, in which an estimated 10,000 people were killed by the army. After serving as Army Chief of Staff (1970–1974), he ran for office as the presidential candidate of the Christian Democratic Party in 1974. On March 23, 1982, a movement led by young officers within the military asked Ríos Montt to rid the country of corruption, this while he was being paid by the extreme right to prepare a revolt and head a military junta to fight a prolonged war against the guerrillas. With a new National Plan of Security and Development, referred to as "a process of national reconstruction," a state of siege was declared, all constitutional rights suspended, special secret tribunals established to try a variety of crimes, congress and all political parties banned. The massacre, to last some eighteen months, commenced in April 1982.

The 1999 UN-directed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) Report found that the Guatemalan state and its agents (i.e., the army high command) was institutionally responsible for "acts of genocide." It distinguishes between a policy of genocide intended to exterminate a group in whole or in part and acts of genocide when "the goal is political, economic, military or whatever other such type, and the method that is utilized to achieve the end goal is the extermination of a group in whole or in part" (Vol. 2, p. 315). This distinction is based on two facts: in the epoch of greatest repression, 1) 13 percent of those killed in the violence were non-Mayan (ladino), and 2) it was believed the Maya served as a social base for the guerrilla in certain areas; hence, those killed suffered not for their membership in an ethnic group but for being stigmatized as guerrillas.

This finding for institutional responsibility is highly significant as it focuses on the structures and apparatuses of repression and not just on the offenses of individual officers, as occurred in the eventual prosecutions in Argentina, among other countries.

Moreover, on August 9, 2000, President Alfonso Portillo acknowledged the institutional responsibility of the Guatemalan state arising from a "breach of the obligation imposed by Article 1 of the American Convention to respect and ensure the rights enshrined in the Convention" in ten cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This acknowledgment prompted the commission to take up a petition submitted by the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala and the International Human Rights Law Group that held the Guatemalan state responsible for not respecting and ensuring basic human rights.

Criminal cases brought before the Guatemalan Supreme Court have charged Ríos Montt and his high command (1982–1983), as well as Lucas Garcia and his high command (1978–1981), with genocidal acts on behalf of survivors and families of massacre victims. These cases are based on witness testimonies as well as numerous documents, including the 1997 Guatemalan Archdiocese REMHI Report as well as the CEH Report.

Not only has Rios Montt violated massive human rights, but he has also debilitated the structures that seek to uphold them. For example, the Guatemalan constitution clearly states that no one involved in a coup d'etat may run for president; however, in August 1990 Ríos Montt attempted to do just that, asserting that the law did not apply to him. On March 4, 1991, Ríos Montt filed a complaint against the Guatemalan government with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, alleging that in declaring his candidacy for the presidency unconstitutional, judicial, legislative, and executive officials had in their resolutions and actions violated the American Convention on Human Rights. Ríos Montt further argued that a provision in one of the early Guatemalan peace agreements of Esquipulas in 1987 states that all who had participated in the conflict would be declared free of political crimes.

The Guatemalan Supreme Court again ruled against Ríos Montt's candidacy in 1995. In 2003, as President of the National Congress, he was permitted to register as a presidential candidate by the Constitutional Court, packed with his political supporters. When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional ban, mobs of the general's Guatemalan Republican Front Party rampaged through the center of Guatemala City, attacking judges and journalists who had opposed Ríos Montt's candidacy. The Constitutional Court overturned the Supreme Court decision a week after the riots—further debilitating Guatemala's democratic institutions.

By only placing third in the November 2003 presidential elections, Ríos Montt lost his parliamentary immunity and became the centerpiece of the campaign against impunity, headed by families of the victims of the massacre. The Popular Social Movement, which comprises dozens of organizations in Guatemala, asked the two remaining presidential candidates in the 2003 elections to pledge to bring the former general to trial for genocide, and not grant him immunity in exchange for votes, which they agreed to do.

SEE ALSO Argentina; Guatemala


Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) website. Available from http://www.caldh.org.

Menchu, Rigoberta (1984). I, Rigoberta Menchu. Ed. Elizabeth Burgos Debray. London: Verso Press.

Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala (ODHAG) (1997). REMHI Project for the Recuperation of Historic memory Guatemala. Guatemala: ODHAG.

Schirmer, Jennifer (1998). The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy, 1st edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

United Nations (1999). Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio, 1st ed. Historical Clarification Commission Report. New York: United Nations. Also available from http://www.hrdata.aaas.org/ceh/report/english/toc.html.

Jennifer Schirmer