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If you are with us, we will feed you. If not, we will kill you.
~ Efraín Ríos Montt

José Efraín Ríos Montt (June 16, 1926 – April 1, 2018) was a Guatemalan general and politician who served as President of Guatemala. Born in Huehuetenango, he was a dictator who took power as a result of a coup d'état on March 23, 1982. He was overthrown by his defense minister, Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, in another coup d'état on August 8, 1983.

In the 2003 presidential elections, Ríos Montt unsuccessfully ran as the candidate of the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). In 2007 he returned to public office as a member of Congress, thereby gaining prosecutorial immunity. He was protected from a pair of long-running lawsuits alleging war crimes against him and a number of his former ministers and counselors during their term in the presidential palace in 1982–83. His immunity ended on January 14, 2012, with the end of his term in legislative office. On January 26, 2012, he appeared in court in Guatemala and was formally indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Ríos Montt died in Guatemala City on April 1, 2018, of a heart attack at the age of 91.

Biography

On March 23, 1982, Ríos Montt deposed General Romeo Lucas García in a coup d'état and seized power, an act which the United States had not foreseen. He became the head of a military junta, which immediately declared martial law and suspended the constitution, shut down the legislature, set up secret tribunals, and began a campaign against political dissidents that included kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial assassinations.

Ríos Montt's changes sparked a number of guerilla factions which then created a guerilla group known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity organization (URNG). Ríos Montt's military junta then began to intensify their efforts and on April 20, 1982 launched an operation known as Victoria 82. Victoria 82 sought first to destroy guerilla bases and forces through counter-insurgency efforts which were "scorched earth" tactics. The plan was most known for its solution to reduce the numbers of the indigenous Mayan people in Guatemala, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango, that, according to the 1999 United Nations truth commission, resulted in the annihilation of nearly 600 villages. One example was the Plan de Sánchez massacre in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz, in July 1982, which saw over 250 people killed.

The administration established special military courts that had the power to impose death penalties against criminals and suspected guerrillas. Tens of thousands of peasant farmers fled over the border into southern Mexico. Meanwhile, urban areas saw a period of relative calm. The June 1982 amnesty for political prisoners was replaced by a state of siege in the following month that limited the activities of political parties and labor unions under the threat of death by firing squad.

In 1982, an Amnesty International report estimated that over 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and peasant farmers were killed from March to July of that year, and that 100,000 rural villagers were forced to flee their homes. According to more recent estimates, tens of thousands of non-combatants were killed by the regime's Mano Blanca death squad in the subsequent eighteen months. At the height of the bloodshed under Ríos Montt, reports put the number of disappearances and killings at more than 3,000 per month.

On August 8, 1983, Montt's own Minister of Defense, General Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores, overthrew the regime in a coup (during which seven people were killed). The unpopularity of Ríos Montt was widespread, exacerbated by his refusal to grant clemency to six guerrillas during the visit of Pope John Paul II. The military was offended by his promotion of young officers in defiance of the Army's traditional hierarchy. Many citizens in the middle class were alienated by his decision on August 1 to introduce the value-added tax, never before levied in Guatemala.

The killings continued even after Ríos Montt was eased from office in 1983. It has been documented that as many as one and a half million Maya peasants were uprooted from their homes, and that many were forced to live in re-education concentration camps and to work in the fields of Guatemalan land barons. The Maya Indian and campesino population suffered greatly under Ríos Montt's government. Ríos Montt along with several other men who served high positions in the military governments of the early 1980s were defendants in several lawsuits alleging genocide and crimes against humanity; one of these cases was filed in 1999 by Nobel Peace Prize-winning K'iche'-Maya activist, Rigoberta Menchú. In early 2008 the presiding judge, Santiago Pedraz, took testimony from a number of indigenous survivors. The genocide cases saw little progress due to a climate of ongoing and entrenched impunity in Guatemala.

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