9 – Jose Efrain Rios Montt (Guatemala 1982 – 1983)
The Guatemalan squeezed a lot of murder, rape, and torture into his 16-month reign as the nation’s president. His terrible crimes are remembered as the worst aspect of a brutal civil war that claimed the lives of up to 200,000 people in 36 years. Rios Montt was a general in the Guatemalan Army and became president after a coup on March 23, 1982. With the aid of a military junta, Rios Montt suspended the nation’s constitution and began a campaign against dissidents. Tragically, the people of Guatemala welcomed him at first in the mistaken belief that the nation’s human rights and safety would improve.
They couldn’t have been more wrong as Rios Montt ruthlessly targeted the poorest areas of the country in his hunt for Communists. His rationale was that people in these impoverished areas were easier to manipulate and he claimed the opposition would try to use the peasants to further their cause. Therefore, Rios Montt ordered cleaning raids to ensure Marxist ideas would not reach the countryside and other remote areas of Guatemala.
By the end of 1982, an estimated 10,000 farmers and indigenous Guatemalans died, and at least 100,000 more had to leave their homes. A United Nations truth commission report showed that during Rios Montt’s brief tenure, at least 600 villages were annihilated.
In August 1983, he was overthrown by Oscar Humberto Mejia, his defense minister, but Rios Montt survived and thrived in the political arena. In 1989, he founded the Guatemalan Republic Front and ran for president the following year. However, his ambition was thwarted when he was banned from entering the race due to a law in the constitution of 1985 which prevented individuals who had been involved in military coups from becoming president.
In 2007, Rios Montt won a seat in Congress which meant he was immune from prosecution. It seemed as if he would escape justice, like the Latin American dictators before him. However, when his immunity ended in January 2012 upon the conclusion of his term in office, Rios Montt was fair game, and within two days, the octogenarian was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Predictably, he declared his innocence but was convicted on May 10. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the verdict in 2013. Two of the people who voted to convict Rios Montt supposedly had an unresolved conflict.
The trial had to be ‘reset’ back to the proceedings of April 19, 2013, and it restarted in January 2015. The new trial revisited the allegations that Rios Montt ordered the death of 1,771 people during his brief dictatorship. In 2017, he was declared mentally incompetent for the retrial, and at the time of writing, no verdict has been forthcoming. He will soon be 92 years old, and there is a danger that he will die before justice has been served.