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 ‘war’ – or rather a reign of 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 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 aid and military assistance to military regimes across Central America in order to turn back the revolutionary tide that was sweeping through the region. In Guatemala, the military was effectively given carte blanche to do whatever it wanted under Reagan, after a period in which the Carter administration had restricted military aid in an attempt to reign one of the most brutal regimes on the continent.
The Guatemalan army was steeped in the counterinsurgency doctrines emanating from the School of the Americas and other US military institutions from the Kennedy years onwards, and it was often so violent that it even appalled the Imperium’s diplomats from time to time.
Under Lucas Garcia and then Rios Montt, the military slaughtered people in their tens of thousands – mostly, but not exclusively Mayan Indians who the country’s Ladino elite regarded as subhuman primitives whenever they tried to assert their civil or labor rights.
In the army’s eyes, anyone who engaged in such activity was a ‘subversive’, and real or potential supporter of the various leftwing guerrilla organizations that had emerged since the Arbenz coup – and a subversive had to be killed.
In Guatemala, as in El Salvador, in those days, 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 savagely 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.
All this went into overdrive during the Reagan years, and while it was going on, Rios Montt, an evangelical Christian, liked to appear on national tv in which he delivered little homilies to Guatemalans on their moral standards and the evils of divorce.
This vicious clown was the man who Ronald Reagan once 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 out of power then, but no one imagined that he or any other Guatemalan army officer would ever end up in court.
That was in the early 90s, and even then, 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 is far too 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.