Notes From the Margins…

Twilight of the General

  • May 11, 2013
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Guatemala is not a country that has had much to celebrate in the last half a century.   In 1954, a US-backed coup overthrew the centre-left government of Jacobo Arbenz, and ushered in a thirty year period of civil war, counterinsurgency campaign and state terror in which some 200,000 people were killed, mostly by the army and security services.

So it’s a rare bright spot in the country’s history that the courts have been able to send Efrain Rios Montt down for 80 years for genocide and crimes against humanity.   I remember the general very well, from when I lived in New York during the early Reagan years.

It was a period in which the US finally ditched Carter’s tepid human rights policy and began providing financial and military assistance to military regimes across Central America in order to turn back the leftist revolutionary movements that were sweeping through the region.   The Guatemalan army was steeped in the counterinsurgency doctrines from the School of the Americas and other US military institutions from the Kennedy years, and it was so violent that the Carter administration took the unusual decision to restrict US military aid to the regime.

All that changed following Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.   Under Lucas Garcia and then Rios Montt, the military slaughtered tens of thousands of ‘subversives’ – mostly, but not exclusively Mayan Indians from the Guatemalan highlands.

In Guatemala, as in El Salvador,  a ‘subversive’ might be   a trade unionist, a teacher who worked with the poor, a peasant activist, or a human rights activist.     Or someone who happened to live in an area of guerrilla activity, like the 250 inhabitants of the village of Dos Erres, in Peten province, which was completely wiped out in 1982, on Rios Montt’s watch, by the Guatemalan army’s elite Kaibil unit, following a guerrilla ambush in the vicinity.

They included the teacher and all the children in the local school, some of whom were photographed here shortly before the massacre:


These children were among the 18,000 people who were recorded as killed or ‘disappeared’ in Guatemala that year at the hands of the army, secret services and paramilitary death squads.     Many of them were tortured before they died to enhance the level of psychological terror that was always implicit in these operations.

The army – and its American backers – described this savage campaign of state killing   ‘counter-terror’, and received political, military and logistical support from the United States, Israel, and South Africa, among others.  Even as this terror was unfolding General Rios Montt, an evangelical Christian, liked to appear on national tv, where he delivered little homilies to Guatemalans on their moral standards and the evils of divorce.

This vicious clown was the man who Ronald Reagan  praised for his ‘great personal integrity’ and his commitment to democracy.   Some years later I went to a service by Montt’s American-based church ‘El Verbo’ – The Word, in Guatemala, where I heard some moron preaching about the evils of lesbianism and homosexuality in Guatemala.

El Verbo, like many of the evangelical churches in Guatemala, worked closely with the army in the same areas where it had carried out some of the worst massacres, providing food and ‘spiritual guidance’ to the traumatized survivors.   It was chilling and disgusting to witness it.  I never met Montt.  The old bastard was still in politics but not in power then, but no one imagined that he or any other Guatemalan army officer would ever end up in court.

Even in the early 90s the army was a law unto itself,  and was still capable of killing anyone who tried to draw attention to what it had done in the past, such as the anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was murdered because of her investigations into army massacres in the Mayan highlands in the 1980.

But cracks in the edifice of impunity were beginning to appear, and Rios Montt is the most high-profile case to date.     It’s premature to herald a new dawn for Guatemala – the current president was one of Montt’s officers, who himself has been accused of involvement in the massacres of the 1980s.

Nevertheless, many Guatemalans have reason to celebrate, not least the survivors of Montt’s crimes, some of whom sang in court when the verdict was delivered.   Because sending an 86-year-old man to 80 years may be objectively meaningless as an individual punishment, but in Guatemala it is a massive achievement that, hopefully, opens up the possibility of better days to come.


Featured Image: Elena Hermosa. Wikimedia Commons


1 Comment

  1. Charlie Pottins

    15th May 2013 - 7:47 am

    Good informative piece. I’ve just thanked a friend who posted it on Facebook, and I am going to add a link fropm my own blog Random Pottins. Montt and his crimes have not had as much attention as they should in British media. ‘

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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