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Ex-Dictator's Return Stirs Rage in Guatemala

June 15, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — It's difficult to imagine a presidential candidate with more negatives than retired Gen. Efrain Rios Montt.

Human rights groups accuse the former dictator of committing genocide during Guatemala's brutal civil war. The nation's Supreme Court has twice barred him from running for office. Opponents say corrupt government officials have stolen more than $450 million during the years he and his party controlled Congress.

Even the U.S. State Department, usually reluctant to get involved in another country's domestic affairs, has attacked, saying it would be "difficult" to have normal diplomatic relations with Guatemala if he is elected.

The deep-seated anger that many voters feel toward him was all too evident Saturday, when a mob of mostly Maya Indians, many of whom lost loved ones in massacres that occurred during Rios Montt's dictatorship, rioted and hurled stones at the former general when he arrived to meet with supporters in the highland town of Rabinal. Rios Montt was not seriously injured but had to be whisked away from the scene by his bodyguards.

"What happened today is moral revenge for us, the victims of the war"' Jesus Tecu, a protester, told Associated Press. Tecu said both his parents were killed in Rabinal in the early 1980s by civilian patrols allied with the army. Neither Rios Montt nor his advisors could be reached for comment.

Still, many analysts believe that despite his low standing in polls, legal hurdles and his political party's tarnished reputation, Rios Montt could again become the leader of his troubled country in November's elections.

"The General," as he is universally referred to here, is a legendary figure, one of the last of the caudillos, or strongmen, who dominated the Latin American political scene for most of the 20th century.

In a rare interview in his office in Guatemala's dilapidated Congress a week before Saturday's incident, Rios Montt perched on the edge of his seat. He delivered answers rapid-fire -- mixing blunt language with the careful hedging of a practiced politician. He seemed filled with a restless energy, his eyes alert, his back straight. There was a battle ahead, and he was eager to take the field.

"I am not afraid, not at all," Rios Montt, who will turn 77 on June 16, said of the obstacles ahead. "If the people want a president, they will have to live and coexist with certain limitations and certain problems."

Perhaps only in Guatemala, still haunted by the past, could someone like Rios Montt hope to win the presidency.

His first foray into politics in 1974 was a disaster. Picked by a coalition of left-leaning parties to run against the military's favorite candidate, he lost in an election widely believed to be tainted by fraud.

Sent into de facto exile in Spain as a military attache, Rios Montt returned in 1977 to join an evangelical church, the Church of the Word, which was tied to the Eureka, Calif.-based Gospel Outreach Church.

The born-again Christian was working as a religion teacher when he was called into politics a second time in March 1982 by a group of young military officers who had overthrown the repressive regime of Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. Rios Montt was himself overthrown 16 months later in another coup.

Rios Montt portrayed his brief dictatorship as the beginning of the end of military repression. The guerrillas were brought under control. Security returned to the countryside. He delivered weekly morality sermons.

Hundreds of thousands of rural poor and indigenous Mayas were conscripted to join Civil Self-Defense Patrols, paramilitary groups that later became the base of Rios Montt's political support.

"When I arrived in the government, we began a change in the state," he said. "We realized that it shouldn't be the state of a single boss, the state of a regent, the state of a king, but a state that guarantees the rule of law, a state that serves."

That vision contrasts markedly with reports by human rights groups, the Catholic Church and the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission, formed after peace accords were finally signed in 1996.

They depict Rios Montt's time in office as part of the bloodiest period of Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war. Half of the nearly 700 massacres that took place during the conflict happened during the regimes of Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt. The patrols that Rios Montt created were accused of committing some of the worst atrocities.

Rios Montt said he was ignorant of any genocide, adding that he can neither confirm nor deny that the army or the civil patrols ever committed massacres. And he is emphatic in insisting that he never ordered any such actions.

At the same time, he admits that the U.S. Embassy at the time informed him of "some incidents" that were going on, and that he passed on orders to his then-defense minister to make sure no excesses had been committed.

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