Born in 1926 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, Ríos Montt enrolled at the Military Academy of Guatemala in 1946. In 1951, he was sent to the United States to train at a new program the United States had developed to produce its desired Cold War outcomes in Latin America. The School of the Americas would train many Latin American dictators and military men in torture, counterinsurgency, and widespread human rights violations. Initially housed in Panama until that nation kicked it out in 1984, it then moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, where it became the site of annual protests against everything it stood for. In any case, Rios Montt would be the typical graduate of this program. In 1954, as a junior officer, he played a minor role in the CIA-assisted coup against Jacobo Arbenz after that democratically elected leader nationalized some of United Fruit’s land. The destruction of democracy and rise of a civil war in that country would be disastrous, but also continued to raise Ríos Montt’s profile.
In 1970, Guatemala was controlled by a dictator named Carlos Manuel Arana Osario, who ordered a “state of siege” in his nation and with U.S. support, began disappearing activists. During his administration, death squads and torture killed probably 20,000 people. Of course Ríos Montt was a favorite of Arana, who promoted the younger man to brigadier general and the army’s chief of staff. When Arana’s term was up in 1974, two right-wing candidates were the leaders to replace him, Ríos Montt and Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia. In the end, most of the military backed the latter and Ríos Montt suffered a narrow defeat. He blamed this on electoral fraud, which was certainly true but hypocritical since it’s not as if he wouldn’t have used that if he could. More tellingly for the future, he blamed it specifically on the Catholic Church and the Mayan people, a sign of the racism against the majority of his nation that would later make him infamous. Ríos Montt was subsequently sent into semi-exile in Spain, being named the military attaché to the Guatemalan embassy in Madrid.
Like many of his fascist friends, Ríos Montt believed that the liberation theology of the Catholic Church in the 1960s and 1970s was communism in disguise. That was especially true framed within the racial context of Guatemala, where the Ladino elite (considered mostly non-indigenous) looked down on the Mayan majority, often barely seeing them as human. Ladino landowners had traditionally ruled the Mayan peasants with brute force. Arbenz’s reforms and the broader democratization movement that included the communists all challenged this. With Ladinos routinely exploiting indigenous laborers on plantations with labor conditions that were horrific—rapes and beatings and murders of workers were common—the economic justice component of liberation theology was no different than Maoism for someone like Ríos Montt. In fact, he turned his back on Catholicism entirely in 1978, when he converted to evangelical Christianity. Now, despite a man like this, the impact of evangelicalism on Latin America has actually been quite complicated and has also had some genuinely positive benefits, such as reductions in alcoholism and domestic violence among its adherents. But for Ríos Montt, evangelicalism was about engaging with the most despicable creatures the movement could offer. He made friends with people such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Ríos Montt became an ordained minister in the Church of the Word, a large Latin American evangelical sect in the same world as Pentecostalism. For him, the Catholic Church was now a moral and spiritual enemy as well as a political one. And he would have his revenge.
In 1982, General Ángel Aníbal Guevara won the presidential election but no one believed it was anything close to free or fair. With Guevara unable to consolidate power, leading military officers filled the vacuum, leading a coup. A military junta was created that Ríos Montt led. They immediately announced martial law, set up extrajudicial tribunals, and started rounding up political dissidents. There was some early optimism about the junta because Ríos Montt talked about education and ending corruption. Of course, these hopes were dashed like the head of one of his victims against a rock by a member of his forces. He particularly wanted to modernize all the supposedly backwards indigenous peoples and educate them in nationalism to undermine the savages’ interest in communism. And this is where things would go very, very bad, even by the horrors of the twentieth century.
Ríos Montt soon forced out the other members of his junta and became Guatemala’s sole ruler. He committed his nation and army to full-fledged genocide in what was known as Plan Victory 82. There were many roots to this. U.S. destabilization and support for right-wing regimes during the Cold War was certainly a big part of it. But so was Guatemala’s own racial dynamics and property relationships. By the 1970s, this led to growing violence that began including open massacres by the military, police, and landowners against Mayan peasants. Seen as both backward and dangerous, to be Mayan meant disloyalty and communism to the Guatemalan elite. Under Ríos Montt, they were able to engage in their most murderous tendencies.
The massacres were horrible. Nearly 600 villages were wiped off the map by Ríos Montt’s forces, mostly in the departments of Quiché and his own native department of Huehuetenango. Perhaps the worst was at Plan de Sánchez, where over 250 Mayans were slaughtered. In the aftermath, the village was abandoned and the victims buried in mass graves. One of the victims of the Plan de Sanchez massacre said, “My sister went shopping in Rabinal but when she got to the hamlet of Plan de Sánchez the army was already there. There they grabbed her and raped her in a house. There were fifteen girls raped and then they were riddled with bullets. Afterward, they were buried by the people, in a clandestine cemetery.”
You know who loved our good dictator and didn’t care? The Reagan administration. After all, Ríos Montt was anti-communist and that’s all Ronnie cared about. They met in 1982. Reagan said, “I know that President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice. My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.” Evil monsters do attract.
Ríos Montt had another ally too: Israel. The Israelis not only supplied Ríos Montt’s regime with plenty of arms, but also worked closely with it to provide both intelligence and direct operational training. Guatemalan military members were brought to Israel for training and Israeli officers went to Guatemala to train the genocidal force. Ríos Montt actually told ABC News that the success of his army occurred because “our soldiers were trained by Israelis.”
All of this did make Ríos Montt unpopular with the population at large. And other generals wanted his power. He faced three coup attempts before finally being taken out. On July 29, 1983, he declared a state of emergency, with elections scheduled for July 1984. But on August 8, he was evicted from power by General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores. Ríos Montt was forced onto the sidelines for the remainder of the Guatemalan civil war, which displaced around 1 1/2 million Mayans, many forced to work as servants for Guatemalan landlords. The constitution that finally ended the war barred anyone who had participated in a military coup from becoming president, which halted Ríos Montt’s bid for run for president in 1990. He did enter Congress, where he would remain for 14 years, an insult to the millions of people he killed or displaced. His political party was powerful and in 2003, courts staffed by his allies as judges overruled this provision. When it looked like he would still not be able ot run his supporters were bussed from across the nation and a riot took place in Guatemala City. The U.S. at this point stated it would prefer someone less obviously evil, but of course was basically fine with someone just as evil who was less well-known. In the end, the Supreme Court threw out the provision, but Ríos Montt only received 11% of the vote.
Did the Republican establishment ever turn their back on Ríos Montt? Oh no, no, no. In fact, Ríos Montt’s daughter married into the Republican Party. Literally. In 2004, Zury Ríos married Jerry Weller, Illinois Republican congresscritter, at her father’s compound in Guatemala City. Weller was elected in the Gingrich wave of 1994 and remained in office until 2009, when he retired. Ríos now is a right-wing extremist politician in Guatemala, dedicated to holding up her father’s legacy and promoting free trade with the U.S., which is also Weller’s current job.
In his long and disgraceful retirement, there were efforts to hold this racist monster to justice. But hey, it’s Guatemala, where bullets and connections to right-wingers mean power. I mean, sure, he hated the Catholic church. But when Bishop Juan Geradi, the man in charge of the human rights commission investigating Ríos Montt’s crimes was assassinated, who replaced him? Bishop Mario Enrique Ríos Montt, the general’s brother! To be fair, the two brothers didn’t like each personally, but family comes first I guess.
Ríos Montt’s victims certainly did their best to alert their world about the horrors of this man. As Guatemala settled down a little bit in the early 90s, survivors of the Plan de Sánchez massacre for instance began speaking out about their experiences. A criminal investigation was launched in 1993 but of course went nowhere thanks to Guatemala’s corruption and active effort to protect the killers. They then issued a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1996. In 2004, its judicial arm, the Inter-Amercan Court established the state’s responsibility for the massacre and ordered a variety of compensation, including money.
A trial began in January 2013 for the deaths of 1,771 Maya Ixil people during the regime. In May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Of course, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the decision shortly after. He now can be tried for crimes against humanity but he cannot be sentenced because he is too old. Like Augusto Pinochet, in the end, he got to go scot free. He died without the love of his people, but with the love of his racist genocidal fascists. And what could have meant more to Efraín Ríos Montt than that?