It’s difficult to imagine a presidential candidate with more negatives than retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.
Human rights groups accuse the former dictator of committing genocide during Guatemala’s brutal civil war. The nation’s Supreme Court has twice barred him from running for office. Opponents say corrupt government officials have stolen more than $450 million during the years he and his party controlled Congress.
Even the U.S. State Department, usually reluctant to get involved in another country’s domestic affairs, has attacked, saying it would be “difficult” to have normal diplomatic relations with Guatemala if he is elected.
The deep-seated anger that many voters feel toward him was all too evident Saturday, when a mob of mostly Maya Indians, many of whom lost loved ones in massacres that occurred during Rios Montt’s dictatorship, rioted and hurled stones at the former general when he arrived to meet with supporters in the highland town of Rabinal. Rios Montt was not seriously injured but had to be whisked away from the scene by his bodyguards.
“What happened today is moral revenge for us, the victims of the war”’ Jesus Tecu, a protester, told Associated Press. Tecu said both his parents were killed in Rabinal in the early 1980s by civilian patrols allied with the army. Neither Rios Montt nor his advisors could be reached for comment.
Still, many analysts believe that despite his low standing in polls, legal hurdles and his political party’s tarnished reputation, Rios Montt could again become the leader of his troubled country in November’s elections.
“The General,” as he is universally referred to here, is a legendary figure, one of the last of the caudillos, or strongmen, who dominated the Latin American political scene for most of the 20th century.
In a rare interview in his office in Guatemala’s dilapidated Congress a week before Saturday’s incident, Rios Montt perched on the edge of his seat. He delivered answers rapid-fire -- mixing blunt language with the careful hedging of a practiced politician. He seemed filled with a restless energy, his eyes alert, his back straight. There was a battle ahead, and he was eager to take the field.
“I am not afraid, not at all,” Rios Montt, who will turn 77 on June 16, said of the obstacles ahead. “If the people want a president, they will have to live and coexist with certain limitations and certain problems.”
Perhaps only in Guatemala, still haunted by the past, could someone like Rios Montt hope to win the presidency.
His first foray into politics in 1974 was a disaster. Picked by a coalition of left-leaning parties to run against the military’s favorite candidate, he lost in an election widely believed to be tainted by fraud.
Sent into de facto exile in Spain as a military attache, Rios Montt returned in 1977 to join an evangelical church, the Church of the Word, which was tied to the Eureka, Calif.-based Gospel Outreach Church.
The born-again Christian was working as a religion teacher when he was called into politics a second time in March 1982 by a group of young military officers who had overthrown the repressive regime of Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. Rios Montt was himself overthrown 16 months later in another coup.
Rios Montt portrayed his brief dictatorship as the beginning of the end of military repression. The guerrillas were brought under control. Security returned to the countryside. He delivered weekly morality sermons.
Hundreds of thousands of rural poor and indigenous Mayas were conscripted to join Civil Self-Defense Patrols, paramilitary groups that later became the base of Rios Montt’s political support.
“When I arrived in the government, we began a change in the state,” he said. “We realized that it shouldn’t be the state of a single boss, the state of a regent, the state of a king, but a state that guarantees the rule of law, a state that serves.”
That vision contrasts markedly with reports by human rights groups, the Catholic Church and the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission, formed after peace accords were finally signed in 1996.
They depict Rios Montt’s time in office as part of the bloodiest period of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war. Half of the nearly 700 massacres that took place during the conflict happened during the regimes of Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt. The patrols that Rios Montt created were accused of committing some of the worst atrocities.
Rios Montt said he was ignorant of any genocide, adding that he can neither confirm nor deny that the army or the civil patrols ever committed massacres. And he is emphatic in insisting that he never ordered any such actions.
At the same time, he admits that the U.S. Embassy at the time informed him of “some incidents” that were going on, and that he passed on orders to his then-defense minister to make sure no excesses had been committed.
“I can’t deny anything, nor can I corroborate or prove anything. I’m at an impasse,” he said. “If there is proof that shows that I am responsible, then I’m going to wind up a prisoner, because I do not want by any means to evade my responsibility.”
Rios Montt’s legacy has created a furor in the international community, which fears that a messianic genocidal autocrat could become president. His campaign slogan -- “I am Guatemala” -- has reminded some of a famous remark of the French King Louis XIV: “I am the state.”
“Will he respect the democratic system -- I don’t know,” said one high-ranking diplomat who closely follows Guatemala. “Maybe God controls him, but nobody else. The parliament has no influence on him. The Constitution has no influence on him. He will go beyond the limits if there is pressure on him -- that’s what happened when he was president.”
Said one senior U.S. diplomat: “It would be an impossible situation.”
In Guatemala, however, it makes sense to some.
“This is a natural in Latin America. When people see chaos in the government, they demand an iron fist. And Rios Montt represents that iron fist,” said Maria Eugenia Morales, the assistant attorney general for human rights.
After his ouster, Rios Montt regrouped and formed his own political party, the Guatemalan Republican Front, a conservative, Christian party with strong roots in poor, rural areas. Rios Montt tried twice to run for president, but was turned down both times by the Supreme Court, which based its rulings on a clause in the 1985 Constitution that forbids anyone who has participated in a coup from being president.
The national elections board turned him down again this year, but Rios Montt has appealed. He vows to pursue the case on the grounds that the ban is being retroactively applied.
He has spent much of the past decade consolidating his power as president of Congress, which his party has controlled continuously since the 1999 elections.
His critics say he has used the time to build up to this final run for the presidency. They accuse him of stacking the Supreme Court with political allies in order to try to overturn the previous decisions.
And this year, his party pushed a plan through Congress to pay about 250,000 former patrol members for their services -- what opponents called a politically astute measure to buy votes.
Despite these moves, Rios Montt’s candidacy still faces enormous problems. The latest polls show Rios Montt getting just under 4% of the vote, compared with 39% for the leading candidate, Oscar Berger, a former Guatemala City mayor.
Although diplomats and human rights groups fret most about Rios Montt’s background, Guatemalans have been most outraged by the rampant corruption under President Alfonso Portillo, Rios Montt’s handpicked candidate. Portillo and several Cabinet members are or were under investigation for the alleged diversion of millions of dollars in funds. The most recent scandal involves about $52.5 million taken from the social security fund.
Rios Montt does not deny that some in his party are guilty of corruption. Instead, he casts the charges in light of a bigger battle: his party’s fight for the rural poor against the urban rich that have long controlled life in Guatemala.
Guatemala’s governments have long been corrupt, he said. It’s just that corruption in recent years has been made public, exposed by a press controlled by rich businessmen angry at having been shut out of power the past few years.
It’s yet another reason he should be president, he says: to root out troubles in his own party, and continue his fight.
“I’ve been struggling for 30 years in this, each day bringing myself up to date,” he said, laughing. “Once I was a communist, another time I was an anti-communist, and now, I’m a Guatemalan -- these are the things they have called me.”
Then he added: “I’ve always been a stone in the shoe of the system.”