NEW YORK – The conviction of Guatemala’s former de facto president, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, is the most significant human rights event in the recent history of that country.
By many accounts, Rios Montt is responsible for the worst human rights abuses committed by the military in Latin America. His punishment will forever change the political panorama in Guatemala.
Rios Montt’s trial and conviction to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity was only possible now because, as a congressman, he had enjoyed immunity from prosecution for 12 years. He was the head of a military regime (1982-1983) that carried out the worst atrocities of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that ended with a peace treaty in 1996. It is estimated that at least 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the conflict.
I became aware of the Guatemalan military’s human rights abuses in the early 1980s, when I interviewed Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu in New York. During our conversation she told me about the terrible things happening in her country. Although some people tried to discredit her testimony saying that it was fabricated, it proved to be correct in its essential details.
Her testimony of the military’s genocidal policies was later amply confirmed by two important Truth Commissions, the REMHI report (“Proyecto Interdiocesano de Recuperacion de la Memoria Historica”) sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church in Guatemala and the CEH report (Historical Clarification Commission) conducted by the United Nations.
Both reports extensively deal with how the military conducted its operations in the countryside, particularly the “scorched earth” policy that caused the indiscriminate death of thousands of civilians, among them a substantial proportion of women and children. That campaign was to a large extent directed against the nation’s Mayan population, whom the military had associated with the insurgency.
At the most critical time during Rios Montt’s rule there were more than 3,000 killings and disappearances per month. Based on the number of people killed or made to disappear, Rios Montt was the most brutal dictator in Latin America’s recent history, surpassing even Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Hugo Banzer in Bolivia or Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina.
What made Rios Montt’s policies particularly ludicrous was that they were justified on religious beliefs.
Rios Montt was a Pentecostal priest who said a true Christian had the Bible in one hand and a machine gun on the other. Although not all military leaders who followed him claimed the same beliefs as basis for their actions, they were all equally brutal in the characteristics of the repression of popular dissent.
That Rios Montt was supported by the United States at the time of the repression in Guatemala in no way diminishes the extent of his responsibility. While paying a visit to Guatemala City in December 1982, Ronald Reagan said: “President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. … I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice.”
In March 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized for U.S. support of the Rios Montt regime, declaring, “For the United States, it is important I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”
Although guerrilla popular forces confronting the military were also responsible for some human rights violations, an investigation by the Historical Clarification Commission found that Guatemalan state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93 percent of the documented violations, including 92 percent of the arbitrary executions and 91 percent of forced disappearances.
Years later after our first encounter, I met Rigoberta Menchu again by chance near the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan. She was standing in front of an ATM next to the U.N., surrounded by several women.
I greeted her and asked how she was doing. She replied that she had been doing well until she tried to get money from the cash machine. Her frustration was evident as she kept trying to do it but was unable to.
Trying to make light of the situation I said to her: “You know, Rigoberta, that machine was probably made by a witch doctor.” Without missing a beat, she retorted: “No, Cesar, this machine was made by the white man.”
The conviction of Gen. Rios Montt is perhaps a way of fate making the white man pay for his barbaric behavior against Guatemala’s Indians.
Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.