Guatemala and Rios Montt

Before leaving for Guatemala, I watched “When the Mountains Tremble,” a documentary made in Guatemala in 1982, at the height of the country’s civil war. It has incredible footage of guerrillas, the pueblos that supported them, and soldiers committing mass killings that have now been legally classified as genocide.

I recently watched the follow-up film, “Granito de Arana,” made by the same director. It’s on how she captured such rare footage and how that footage is aiding in prosecuting those responsible for killing 200,000 people during the war. The most critical figure in this is Efrain Rios Montt.

I  recommend both films (at least the first of which is available online). Both share a focus on Montt, and since coming here, it’s become clear that the role Montt plays in many Guatemalans’ thinking about he country is greater than I’d understood. When he’s mentioned, rather than saying “may god bless his soul” as one might after uttering a saint or martyr’s name, the speaker often adds “may god strike him down as I speak.” While this is said with a laugh, it’s clearly no joke.

Montt commanded the military during the years of its worst massacres, continuing to hold political power on and off until 2012. During his time at the head of the state, he employed a number of policies that contributed to what was in effect a genocide for the predominately indigenous countryside population.

The first of these was a tierra arasada, or scorched earth, policy. As in US counter-insurgency campaigns (and perhaps not coincidentally since the US and Montt’s regime worked hand-in-hand), tierra arasada was justified with reference to a Mao quote, that “as water is to the fish, the people are to the guerrillas.” According to Montt’s second-in-command, this implied the need to decimate “the people,” as without people, the guerrillas cannot survive. Without debating why right-wingers were quoting Mao, it’s a policy worth highlighting considering the ongoing genocide trial against Montt and his lower-level commanders.

The second policy was the creation of P.A.C., patrullas de auto defensa civil. These patrols were mandatory, and acted as a rural forced conscription, with the difference being that once members joined, they patrolled their own pueblos. Should they come upon guerrillas, they were to engage in combat. This despite the fact that oftentimes said guerrillas were of the town, the brothers and sisters of those in the P.A.C. While the guerrillas had modern weaponry, Montt relegated his oldest arms to the P.A.C., creating an asymmetry in the time needed to attack, with the guerrillas invariably holding the advantage. Whether genocide was intended or not, this situation posed no contradiction for Montt’s military, as they sought the full decimation of these communities. Should guerrillas be forced to engage with P.A.C., the ensuing slaughter could only make the state’s narrative more convincing, as Montt continued to push the line that the guerrillas were massacring their own people in the countryside.*


The final policy, the obverse of these rural policies, were the feuros especiales. These were black-site special courts that processed and sentenced to death those who became (and remain) known as “the disappeared.” Totaling over 45,000 people, the disappeared were overwhelmingly urban activists: leftists, students, professors, and union members. As implied by the above photo of my friend’s drawing , the judges of these courts hid their faces with bandannas (with the drawing’s unintended evocation of the KKK not far off the mark). While Montt later explained this practice as coming from the judges’ fear of retribution from guerrillas should they be identified, it’s widely speculated that it was necessitated by the fact that these were not judges at all, but rather, military officers.

Whether what Montt’s military forces did was genocide against the indigenous or indiscriminate slaughter of all rural residents (a political and legal, rather than moral, distinction) remains subject to debate. However, it’s clear when talking with people here that the result, wiping out entire indigenous regions, speaks for itself. I came here thinking the focus on Montt’s conviction in a criminal court was somewhat misguided, but realized that not only is the conviction symbolically important, but it also paves the way to try other past military leaders, many of whom remain in power, including the current president, Otto Perez Molina.

Many Guatemalans have been trying to have Montt found culpable for war crimes for nearly two decades (and while he was recently found guilty, the ruling was thrown out soon after). Despite these efforts, he remains free. It’s unreal to hear Mayan people who lived through these massacres, K’iche’ and Mam alike, speak about Montt today. When discussing Montt with a friend a few days ago, I mentioned that the only way I could convey the role Montt plays here is by imagining how Hitler would we be spoken of in Germany had he remained alive. When discussing Montt with someone today, they made this reference themselves by simply calling Montt ‘Hitler’ throughout our entire conversation.

I’ll end with an anecdote, told to me by a K’iche’ ex-guerrilla whose main work during the war was with la Voz Popular, the guerrillas’ radio station that broadcast military and political developments to the Guatemalan public. He spent nine years with the unenviable job of biking supplies at night across the volcanic range in which Voz Popular‘s clandestine outposts were scattered. After the war, he continued to work on alternative communications structures, and in 2000, presented a proposal on the subject to Congress. With 2,000 supporters there to witness his organization’s presentation, he stepped up to the podium to help give the proposal to the then-president of Congress, none other than Rios Montt.

The look in his eyes when he spoke of standing two meters from Montt is, for want of a better word, unforgettable. “I’d thought of killing him for decades,” he said, “that dream had gotten me to sleep in the mountains each night.” In that moment, however, “I didn’t have my pistol, as I couldn’t have gotten it into the building.”

Having relayed this, he laughed the story off with another “may god strike him down as I speak,” and moved on to discuss his current work. As I talk with more people and Montt’s ongoing stalled trial continues to come up, it’s clear that in contexts like that of post-war Guatemala, a focus on the individual can broach the social silence of a country and open the floodgates to broader structural discussions.

*An international commission investigating the massacres after the war found that 93 percent of these massacres and violations were commuted by state forces, 3 percent by guerrillas, with the final 4 percent unable to be determined.

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