Reagan-Supported Dictator Convicted of Genocide; Is Current President of Guatemala Next?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Efrain Rios Montt (photo: Moises Castilo, AP)

Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, has been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in a Guatemalan trial that also implicated the current president of the Central American country. It is the first genocide conviction of a former Latin American ruler in his native country.


Rios Montt ruled Guatemala for less than a year and a half after coming to power in a 1982 coup. But in that short period of time, he suspended the constitution, eliminated the legislature, established secret tribunals, and led a campaign of terror against political dissidents that involved kidnapping, torture, assassination, and sexual assaults.


The targets of Rios Montt’s terror campaign included union leaders, students, teachers and particularly indigenous populations, including more than 1,700 Ixil Maya who were massacred by Guatemalan security forces.


President Ronald Reagan stood by Rios Montt, calling him “a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” even as human rights groups published accounts of atrocities and abuses under the dictator. Such accounts were bolstered by the disclosure of a 1983 secret CIA cable that implicated Montt’s government in “hit squad executions.”


The U.S.’s support of the Guatemalan government had included Reagan’s approval of the sale of $3.2 million in military vehicles to the country, which entailed—on the day of the sale—removing them from a list of military equipment barred by the human rights embargo. In 1983, Reagan lifted the ban completely and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware to Montt’s regime.


The Historical Clarification Commission subsequently spent five years interviewing thousands of witnesses and determined that 93% of the Guatemalan atrocities had been committed by government forces, and that 81% of the more than 200,000 murders and disappearances occurred during Montt’s reign.


In the Guatemala trial, the 86-year-old Montt was charged with the death of 1,771 people and the displacement of 29,000 others. More than 100 witnesses and experts testified against him. At the trial’s conclusion, a three-judge panel sentenced Rios Montt to 50 years in prison for genocide and an additional 30 years for crimes against humanity.


On his way to a subsequent hearing on victim reparations, Montt—who suffers from prostate and spinal cord problems—passed out and was taken to a military hospital.


The case left Guatemala’s current leader, Otto Pérez Molina, on the defensive following testimony that indicated he participated in the 1982-83 war crimes as a regional commander under Rios Montt.


Pérez Molina acknowledged in a television interview that he did serve under the former dictator, but denied any wrongdoing and disagreed with the ruling that genocide occurred 30 years ago.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Efrain Rios Montt, Former Guatemalan Dictator and U.S. Ally, Convicted Of Genocide (by Gabriel Rodriguez, Policy Mic)

Guatemala Genocide Case Pressures Leader (by Nicholas Casey, Wall Street Journal)

Guatemala court gives 80-year term to ex-dictator Rios Montt (by Tim Johnson, McClatchy)

Ex-Dictator's Backers Rally At Guatemala Prison (Associated Press)

Reagan’s Hand in Guatemala’s Genocide (by Robert Parry, Consortium News)

Judge Orders Defense Dept. to Release Names of Instructors and Students at School of Americas (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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