General Rios Montt of Guatemala: Return of the evangelical tormentor?

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The nightmare that was Guatemala in the 1980s is returning. Twenty years after hundreds of massacres were conducted against Maya communities; many of the same people who ordered and committed the violence last week took over Guatemala City. General Efrain Rios Montt is back, wanting the presidency after 20 years. A wave of fear swept over Guatemala that has not been felt in over a decade.

Just before the time of the 1980s massacres, the Maya highlands teemed with thousands of relatively harmonious agricultural villages. In the relative peace of the mid-1970s, hopeful improvements were occurring in village cooperatives where Indian farmers could be guaranteed better prices and access to credit. However, a residual non-Indian guerrilla movement was moving into the Mayan mountains, and the Guatemalan Army of the day declared a brutal, pre-emptive war on Indian people.

The rationale of the Guatemalan Army generals was to terrorize the Indian population into submission, and to massacre it at the slightest contact with the revolutionary (Marxist-led) guerrillas. As the guerrilla movement trailed through indigenous Maya mountain villages, the Army swept behind, conducting the most horrific of massacres against tens of thousands of men and women, elders and children. A holocaust-in-progress emerged, a state-operated genocidal war against Maya villagers of such terroristic proportions that the trauma of that time still hangs over the country like a veil of shame and pain.

Not so the thought of shame, however, for General Efrain Rios Montt, the main living author and perpetrator of the policy that terrorized and eradicated over 600 Maya communities. Of those years of massacre, which actually mark from 1978 (Panzos municipal massacre, Kekchi country), to the late 1980s and even beyond, the worst and most brutal season of killing came during the 1982-83 military dictatorship of the evangelical General Efrain Rios Montt.

Once denied a presidency gained legitimately at the polls (1974), General Rios Montt conducted a military coup on the Guatemalan presidency in March 1982. The U.S.-trained general, born-again with the Church of the Verb, a California-based evangelical denomination, unleashed the worst wave of killings in the country's history. Some 20,000 died at the hands of his death squads and the policy of scorched earth against Maya people, which would ultimately claim 200,000 lives, was perpetrated with brutal exactitude.

As a former coup-de-etat conspirator, Rios Montt had been barred by the Guatemalan Constitution from seeking the presidency, that is, until July 14, when a Guatemalan Supreme Court decision overturned the 1985 constitutional ban. Rios Montt's goal is now to run for the presidency in November. The current president, Alfonso Portillo, is a cohort and former prot?g? of Rios Montt's, while his own son, is a senior army general. The moment is ripe for a Rios Montt return to power and, as a warning that terrified the country, last week the general unleashed his forces on the city. Death squads and well-ordered militias scoured the city, beating political opponents and journalists, causing serious social and political chaos.

In 1983, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan praised Rios Montt highly for his great work on behalf of democracy. This is part of the history, forgotten here, remembered there, of how the U.S. in years past has propped up bloody dictators. The Guatemalan army received substantial U.S. military aid throughout those years. Not only Rios Montt, but also most of the top echelon of generals in the Guatemalan military under Rios Montt were trained at the U.S. School of the Americas, then concentrated in Panama.

It is most unfortunate that it was this group precisely who coordinated the military horror sweeps in the Indian countryside. Horrendous and directed terror characterized the campaign - beheadings, live-burnings of large groups of people tied together, the forced killing of relative against relative, much rape - and evidenced a deeply inhuman psychological mandate. Even seasoned human rights observers had great difficulty sustaining intense scrutiny, as the brutality against women and children was so repugnant.

The Maya village population was not only subjected to broad sweeps by armies backed by helicopter gunships, which targeted whole villages as "enemy encampments" and marked them for annihilation. These direct attacks were reinforced by a broad network of local army-organized militias empowered to kill at random over long periods of time. Many of these militias were purposely recruited from the ranks of evangelical members, who were prone to target and brutalize traditional spiritual leaders and Catholic workers. Recently residents of just 12 Mayan villages which were massacred by Rios Montt's troops in 1982 - over 1,200 people were killed - have filed a complaint against Rios Montt in Guatemala. The general claims immunity but the eyewitness testimony in the case is heart wrenching.

Deposed by a broader military junta after nearly two years in power, Rios Montt in the ensuing 20 years has built a sizable political base among the country's radical and military right wing. The general has developed his own political party, the ultra-right National Republican Front, of which he is chairman for life. He is now the president of the Guatemalan National Congress and often speaks throughout Guatemala, part evangelical minister, part nationalistic prophet, and very much the aging caudillo hungry for his lifetime crowning shot at political power. The evangelism resonates in a country beseeched for centuries by every religious tendency in the world, from Mormon missions to Jehovah's Witnesses and on to dozens of other increasingly bizarre sects. Church of the Verb - old hippies turned military boosters via a "brother" general - actually helped justify years of horrible injustice. "God gives power to whomever he wants," Rios Montt once raved. "And he gave it to me."

This push from the extreme right wing in Guatemala is partly fueled by the international climate set by the war on terrorism. It is not lost on Rios Montt and the Guatemalan generals that the Bush Administration rewards police power and military action. Important Bush Administration insiders such as UN ambassador John Negroponte, John Poindexter, Eliot Abrams and Otto Reich, all tainted in the Contra war and other foreign policy adventures and misadventures, have favored good relations with General Rios Montt.

For those who wonder "why they hate us," Rios Montt, his training and his backers during the years of massacre, provide ample answer that the history of this great American nation is checkered; there is a past to critique and understand; there is much to improve upon, as there are many avenues to a more encompassing, people-supporting foreign policy.

Certainly for the tens of thousand of families who lost relatives to that horrible U.S.-sanctioned state violence of only 20 years ago, like a re-occurring nightmare the resurgence of Rios Montt is shocking. Even as the Guatemalan people last week appeared to substantially reject Rios Montt's muscle-flexing, the shadowy memory of horrendous terror that swept the capital city reminded everyone that "those years" are perhaps not yet quite over; that the evil was never quite vanquished; that the killers remain in dark corners, ready to pounce.