GUATEMALA CITY — A man whose human rights record helped make Guatemala an international pariah a decade ago has emerged as the central figure in Sunday's congressional elections here.
Retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a Christian fundamentalist who grabbed power in a 1982 coup and is accused by human rights groups of ordering thousands of political killings, is expected to win a seat easily in the 80-member Congress.
The right-wing group founded by Rios Montt--the Guatemalan Republican Front, known as the FRG--is leading the polls, slightly ahead of the Partido de Avanzada Nacional, also on the right.
The elections were called to purge the legislature of its notoriously corrupt members after President Ramiro de Leon Carpio failed to muster enough political support to force an earlier congressional housecleaning last year.
The rise of Rios Montt has alarmed human rights groups, grass-roots organizations and intellectuals, who remember with terror the repression carried out during his 18-month rule.
In Guatemala City, union members and political dissidents were rounded up and summarily executed or "disappeared" during Rios Montt's regime, while in the countryside his security forces razed hundreds of Mayan villages as part of a "scorched-earth" campaign seeking to destroy the support base of leftist guerrillas.
Today, Rios Montt offers a more moderate image. His campaign jingles are an adapted version of American rock band Santana's "Oye Como Va" and a song by Panamanian rapper El General.
But this has not impressed opponents such as rights activist Nineth Montenegro, whose first husband, Fernando, was "disappeared."
"We think it is morally unacceptable that people who are so stained with blood should be able to run for public office," she said. "This is a step backward for the Guatemalan political system."
Montenegro said she plans to present a list of 15,000 named victims who were either killed or "disappeared" by the security forces during Rios Montt's regime.
But Rios Montt is also remembered for keeping the streets clean of common crime. His campaign, which emphasizes honesty and a tough stand on law and order, has struck a chord with many Guatemalans who feel besieged by criminal violence and are sickened by seemingly endemic institutional corruption.
"Every time somebody's car gets stolen, a girl gets raped or a bus gets held up, that's another vote for Rios Montt," said veteran Congressman Jorge Skinner Klee, who is running for reelection.
The fact that two mass graves are being exhumed with the remains of civilian victims of the security forces acting during Rios Montt's regime does not seem to have had any effect on the electorate.
The general's advisers admit that this is the beginning of a campaign for presidential elections in November, 1995. Rios Montt was barred from running for president in 1990 when the country's Constitutional Court disqualified him because he had served as a de facto head of state.
But if his party does extremely well, there will be pressure to cancel the earlier ban. "If the FRG wins a landslide, obviously it will strengthen his chances," said political analyst Gustavo Porras.
De Leon's government, which has already begun to lobby prospective deputies, is hoping that the new Congress will be more receptive than its predecessor to what is expected to be a heavy legislative load.
The government wants to sign a peace agreement with left-wing guerrillas to end a 33-year civil war by the end of this year. Any treaty will include numerous commitments on political and social reforms that will require congressional approval.
Although the new deputies will only serve until January, 1996, they will be responsible for improving the abysmal reputation for venality and personal advancement that their colleagues currently enjoy.
"This is a last chance," Skinner Klee said. "If we don't make this work, we'll have to shoot it out."