The retired general whisks into the room, waving his arms and apologizing for his tardiness as aides jump to their feet and click their heels.
Efrain Rios Montt revels in his new role as a very busy elected member of the Guatemalan Congress, even if it has meant spending more time than he’d like arguing legislation.
A born-again Christian and unrepentant former dictator who oversaw one of this country’s bloodiest chapters, Rios Montt immediately launches into a favorite line of discourse, preaching a brand of individual responsibility and narrow conservatism that has attracted a following in chaotic Guatemala.
“Either we are Communists or we are anti-Communists, and that is the tragedy of our countries,” he says at a nonstop clip. “Why? Because we have not learned to be free. And what is that? Freedom is to do what one must, not what one wants. We are not taught that. ‘Freedom, equality, fraternity,’ people say. Yes, but based on responsibility, dignity, sacrifice and self-government. If this responsibility does not exist, there are no rights. All of us look for rights without considering duties. That is our tragedy.”
To the alarm of human rights activists and his many other critics, Rios Montt, 68, was sworn in last month as president of Congress, a position widely seen as a springboard to the highest office in the land.
After a military coup in March, 1982, Rios Montt ruled Guatemala for 16 months, at the height of anti-insurgency campaigns that killed tens of thousands of Mayan peasants, only some of them guerrillas. His “scorched earth” program of wiping out entire rural villages--and forcibly relocating many others--helped make Guatemala an international pariah in the field of human rights.
Now, Rios Montt is making a return to power, capitalizing on the fears of a violence-weary population. His solution for common crime? Shoot the criminals. What about Guatemala’s ban on dictators becoming president? Rewrite the constitution.
Forceful, charismatic and, some say, dangerous, Rios Montt is sitting at the head of one of Guatemala’s best-organized and best-financed political parties, with a nationwide reach and an evangelical zeal that are sure to prove formidable in any election. He offers a simplistic law-and-order approach to public safety just as crime is becoming the No. 1 issue for many Guatemalans.
“People see him as iron-fisted, but at a time when being iron-fisted is necessary,” said political analyst Gabriel Aguilera. “Rios Montt has the capacity to generate charisma and leadership, in a country with a long history of authoritarianism. And his supporters can ignore his infractions of the law and justice.”
The re-emergence of Rios Montt raises questions about what democracy means in Guatemala and whether the country’s system cannot produce better leaders. And it illustrates the ease with which many Guatemalans choose to ignore their country’s terrible past.
Rios Montt won his seat in December’s congressional elections, but his critics point out that his “landslide” victory came amid the lowest voter turnout in national history. Fewer than 20% of Guatemala’s voters cast ballots.
Many Guatemalans are now hoping that the constitutional ban on dictators becoming presidents will prevent Rios Montt from running to succeed President Ramiro de Leon Carpio in November’s presidential election.
“What he had going for him was the high crime rate,” said Fernando Lopez, who until recently worked for the human rights office of the Roman Catholic archbishopric in Guatemala City. “You look at the newspaper every day and you find no fewer than three murders and 20 robberies. You want tranquillity. You accept the simplistic argument that only violence stops violence. It is an attractive argument that Rios Montt could sell. But he is dangerous. Our hope is that he’ll end up burning himself.”
In a previous bid for the presidency, Rios Montt challenged the ban on dictators in 1990 and lost in court. But now he calls that decision political, and he is confident that he can overcome the prohibition this time around. Indeed, some Guatemalan analysts say it may be difficult to deny a shot at the presidency to someone who is serving as head of the Congress.
In an interview in his offices at the legislature, Rios Montt steadfastly defended his record. He alternated between denying human rights violations and downplaying them, saying he did what was necessary to save his country from communism.
“I was honest with my country, indifferent to outside pressures,” he said. “I do not justify anything. I found a government that was destroyed, a state that was destroyed, a state that had been looted, a state without law. I put it in order.”
Pressed about the documented cases of civilian massacres, Rios Montt said: “I was not a police officer. I was a head of state, who in one way or another may be responsible. I am the one responsible, I recognize that, but I am not the guilty party.”
Still, he insisted, the massacres have been exaggerated by foreigners and by “the enemy.” Most of the dead were soldiers and leftist guerrillas, he argued, fighting in what is now Central America’s longest and possibly bloodiest civil war.
“I ran an ideological campaign that destroyed an ideological doctrine, communism. I destroyed it without reaching the excesses those who were defeated accuse me of. The enemy--forgive me for using that term--the person on the other side has to find a way to justify his defeat.”
Amnesty International, in a report issued in 1986, estimated that 100,000 people had been killed and another 38,000 “disappeared” during the previous 20 years of political violence. The majority were civilians, and the large-scale massacres occurred in the early 1980s under Rios Montt, the dictator that preceded him, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, or his successor, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores, who overthrew Rios Montt in a coup in August, 1983.
Among the massacres registered in the Rios Montt period beginning in March of 1982 was one in the remote central Guatemalan hamlet of Plan de Sanchez. More than 200 people, including women and children, were killed by soldiers who accused the villagers of supporting the guerrillas. The victims were exhumed last year, and survivors hope to force Guatemalan courts to investigate the massacre.
One of Rios Montt’s most controversial legacies is the Civilian Self-Defense Patrols--organized bands of peasants controlled by the military and blamed for numerous killings, attacks on rival villages and other acts of terrorism. The United Nations and human rights agencies have demanded that the patrols be dissolved, but the army so far has refused.
On assuming power in 1982, Rios Montt imposed a state of siege that outlawed political activity and public meetings and heavily censored the press. He set up secret military courts to try suspected subversives and other criminals. The courts, decried as illegal, were empowered to impose death sentences, and 15 people were executed by firing squads before they were shut down.
In one case that became a major international incident, Pope John Paul II, scheduled to visit Guatemala in March, 1983, asked for clemency for six men condemned by the secret courts. The request was ignored, and the men were shot to death days before the Pope’s visit. Rios Montt later said that he had never received the pontiff’s plea.
But thumbing his nose at the Roman Catholic hierarchy would not have been unusual for the man who in the 1980s became a highly visible symbol of a brand of fundamentalist Protestant evangelism that spread rapidly throughout Central America as an alternative to Catholicism, which rightists saw as a breeding ground for leftist politics.
Rios Montt’s Church of the Word was an offshoot of the Gospel Outreach Church of Eureka, Calif. The Guatemalan strongman converted to born-again Christianity in 1975, following an unsuccessful run for the presidency the year before. Most analysts believed he was beaten in the election by government-engineered fraud, and the Catholic Church refused his appeal to intercede.
It is not yet clear what Rios Montt’s return to power will mean for peace negotiations between the military and Indian guerrillas. The government and the guerrillas signed a breakthrough human rights agreement last year and made progress toward a peace treaty, but talks deadlocked in December.
Some Guatemalans doubt that Rios Montt would be as willing to sit down with “the enemy.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Title: President of Guatemalan Congress.
Personal: Married with three children and seven grandchildren. Elder in Church of the Word, Guatemalan branch of Gospel Outreach Church of Eureka, Calif.