Tramp the dirt down on Efraín Ríos Montt

April 10, 2018

Arturo Rivera looks back in anger at the murderous legacy of the CIA's favored despot in Guatemala--and argues that the his bloody legacy lives on today.

WE DO not forget, we do not forgive, we do not reconcile.

Efraín Ríos Montt is dead. In one way, that is great thing--one less bloody dictator in the world. In another way, he died in impunity, and that is terrible for his victims and for all those who care about democracy and justice.

It is a temptation to let the dictator vanish from human memory, but that is a temptation we cannot afford. We need to remember him and remember all the crimes that happened during his dictatorship in Guatemala, so that we ensure that these terrible experiences do not repeat again in Central America and in the rest of the world.

Ríos Montt was a junior military officer who cheered on the 1954 CIA-backed coup that overthrew President Jacobo Árbenz and plunged Guatemala into decades of violence and state repression.

Ríos Montt and his junta staged their own coup in March 1982. They themselves were deposed by other officers 17 months later, but not before they presided over a bloody reign of terror. As the New York Times wrote in his obituary:

Efraín Ríos Montt speaks shortly after the 1982 coup
Efraín Ríos Montt speaks shortly after the 1982 coup

General Ríos Montt intensified the scorched-earth campaign that had been waged by his predecessor, Gen. Romeo Lucas García. In his first five months in power, according to Amnesty International, soldiers killed more than 10,000 peasants. Thousands more disappeared. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes, many seeking refuge across the border in Mexico. Nearly all victims were indigenous people of Mayan extraction.

BY 1982, the Guatemalan civil war had reached its peak. Guerrilla movements were well implanted, especially in the western mountain ranges, where they had established a level of tense collaboration with local Indigenous communities.

The different guerrilla organizations needed the help from Indigenous communities in order to get food, shelter and channels of communication with the cities--particularly with the urban underground revolutionary movement.

In this context, the Guatemalan army started its infamous counterinsurgency strategy--a genocidal campaign against the Indigenous communities that were accused of collaboration with the guerrillas.

In her famous memoir, Rigoberta Menchú narrates the assassination of one of her teenage brothers in the hands of the army during the Scorched Earth operations:

My brother was tortured for more than 16 days. They cut his nails, they cut his fingers, they cut his skin, they partially burned him. Most of his injuries were swelling and infected. But he was still alive... With him there were twenty men and a woman, she had been raped and tortured.

A captain from the kaibiles [an elite army team trained by the U.S. military] said, "This is what we have done with the subversives. If this does not teach you anything you will suffer the same. The Indigenous are ignorant, they let themselves be manipulated by the communist."

Then the army threw gasoline onto them and set them on fire. They asked for help. Some still scream, but no voice came out of their bodies. [my translation]

These are the type of crimes that Ríos Montt ordered and oversaw. In 1999, a United Nations commission calculated that 200,000 people died during the Guatemalan civil war, and that 93 percent of them were assassinated by military. It was by far the worst episode of state repression against the mass upheaval of struggle that occurred in Latin America during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

This genocide was committed against Indigenous communities, adding to the long chain of oppression, exploitation and death that goes all the way back to Spanish colonialism.

However, while it would be also tempting to single out Efraín Ríos Montt as a pure incarnation of evil and think about these terrible experiences as only something from the past, this is also a temptation we can't afford.


THE DICTATORSHIP in Guatemala was not an isolated or irregular episode in the history of Latin America. During the second half of the 20th century, military dictatorships existed in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Most of these regimes came into power as a political strategy of the local ruling classes and the U.S. government to contain mass movements from below demanding democracy and socio-economic justice. Of course, the official narrative framed them as efforts to contain the threat of communism.

The role of Washington was absolutely decisive, and the U.S. government was the warlord instructor in regime change, torture and political assassination. International collaborations like Operation Condor in the Southern Cone--supervised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger–-became mechanisms to orchestrate the repression of the political demands of the Latin American people.

In Central America, Ronald Reagan enthusiastically supported and cooperated with all dictatorships through military training and war resources. There was even a school in Panamá--the School of the Americas, later relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia--to train elite units like the kaibiles.

The consequences of all this state repression inflicted on the Central American people still pierces the life of these societies. The ongoing atrocious economic inequality and lack of real democracy--evidenced again recently in the protests over election results in Honduras--forces Central American people to migrate in search of a better life.

Due to this inescapable logic inscribed into the fabric of our reality, flows of people escaping poverty and violence will follow the tide of capital to where it is hoarded. Now Donald Trump vows to extend the already existing border and send the National Guard to stop them. The past is never really the past, but the present.

Efraín Ríos Montt is dead, and even though we know that hell does not exist, we should wish it for him. But that isn't enough. In his final years, he was tried and convicted for some of his many crimes. But that isn't enough.

We need to change the circumstances that spawned Ríos Montt if we really want to see a future liberated from the evils he caused as a human being.

When the military dictatorship was ended in Argentina, rock singer Charly García released "Los dinosaurios."

Here, I leave you a rough translation from a section of the song:

Friends of the neighborhood can disappear
Radio singers can disappear
Those in the newspapers can disappear
The person you love can disappear
Those that are in the air can disappear in the air
Those who are on the street can disappear in the street
Friends of the neighborhood can disappear
But the dinosaurs are going to disappear

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