Guatemala proclaims its independence in 1821, but real reform is not achieved until 1944 when a civilian is elected president. The following 10 years see the introduction of a land acquisition program designed to improve the livelihood of the landless Mayan peasantry, but at the cost of antagonising the powerful United Fruit Company. In June 1954 the reformist government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état.
An outbreak of protests against the now military-aligned government in March and April of 1962 marks the beginning a 34-year civil war between leftist guerrilla groups and the government for control of the country. The Mayan peasants are caught in the middle and suffer the brunt of the violence and killings. More background.
Born on 16 June 1926 in Huehuetenango, a city in the western highlands of Guatemala. He is one of a family of 11 children.
Ríos Montt receives his primary and secondary schooling in Huehuetenango. He begins his career in the Guatemalan Army straight after finishing school in 1943. In 1946 he enrols as a cadet at the Escuela Politecnica (Military Academy) in Guatemala City. His training includes a period at the notorious United States Army School of the Americas (SOA - since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone.
Dubbed the "school of assassins" and the "school of coups", the SOA provides instruction in counterinsurgency strategies, psychological warfare, torture and assassination. Ríos Montt takes a basic infantry course and a "special" course in mechanics, motors and heavy weapons at the school in 1950.
After graduating from the Military Academy in 1950, Ríos Montt sees active duty, works as an instructor at the Military Academy and spends time on the general staff, all the while rising steadily through the ranks.
In 1961 Ríos Montt takes a course in counterinsurgency at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. From 1961 to 1963 he attends general and command staff courses run by the Italian Army. In 1968 he is appointed army deputy chief-of-staff. In 1970 he becomes director of the Military Academy. In 1972 he is promoted to the rank of brigadier-general and appointed as army chief-of-staff.
Ríos Montt is a "born-again" evangelical Protestant. He joins the Church of the Complete Word (an offshoot of the Gospel Outreach Church of Eureka, California) in the late 1970s.
One of Ríos Montt's brothers, Mario Enrique Ríos Montt, becomes a Roman Catholic Bishop and head the church's Human Rights Commission in Guatemala.
Ríos Montt marries Maria Teresa Sosa Avila, the daughter of a prominent and influential military family. The couple have two sons and one daughter.
1962 - A welter of guerrilla groups emerge following a government crackdown on dissent. The Guatemalan civil war goes into full swing when the groups begin to engage in armed conflict with the security forces.
The army doubles its troop numbers, establishes control over the police, and develops an intelligence network to gather information on the guerrilla groups and their supporters.
1965 - The first massacre of civilians by the army is reported in the eastern region of the country.
1966 - The army launches a major campaign against guerrillas operating in the countryside, forcing them to retreat to Guatemala City. The guerrillas reorganise and consolidate then begin a campaign of high-profile kidnappings and assassinations. US ambassador John Gordon Mein is assassinated in 1968. German ambassador Karl von Spreti is kidnapped and murdered in 1970.
The guerrillas are pursued by the police. Unofficial "death squads" are also formed. The squads use civilian informers and lists prepared by military intelligence to target alleged "subversives" for elimination. They are tolerated by the government and receive clandestine military support.
In December 1974 the government sets up the Commando School (Escuela de Comandos) to train an elite counterinsurgency force. The school is renamed the Kaibil Centre for Training and Special Operations (Centro de Adiestramiento y Operaciones Especiales Kaibil) in March 1975. The centre's graduates, known as the Kaibiles, will be implicated in numerous human rights abuses over the coming years. Their motto is "the Kaibil is a killing machine".
Civilians suffer the most in the fight between the guerrillas and the state. Between 1966 and 1970 about 10,000 civilians are killed in army campaigns. At least 50,000 more are killed during the 1970s.
Many guerrillas flee the country, some to Cuba to receive military training and support from Fidel Castro's communist regime.
1974 - Ríos Montt stands as a presidential candidate for a coalition that includes the Christian Democratic Party. He wins the majority of votes but the results are not officially recognised. The military's preferred candidate takes the presidency in an election widely believed to be fraudulent. During the election campaign one of Ríos Montt's brothers, Julio, is murdered, presumably at the hands of the political opposition.
Following the election, Ríos Montt is sent into de facto exile in Spain as a military attaché to the Guatemalan Embassy.
1977 - Ríos Montt returns to Guatemala. He retires from active military service and begins to work as a religion teacher and evangelical minister for the Church of the Complete Word.
The US suspends military aid to Guatemala following an upsurge in death squad activity against the guerrillas and Mayan peasants.
1978 - Military strongman General Fernando Romeo Lucas García becomes president on 7 July. His period in office is marked by an escalation of the civil war violence, especially between the months of October 1981 and March 1982.
1981 - The guerrillas widen their campaign. They occupy municipal capitals, attack installations, block roads and conduct executions. Police stations in the capital are attacked. Sabotage becomes widespread.
The army sets up and sponsors civilian vigilante groups, the Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil (Civil Self-defence Patrols), throughout the country to keep so-called "subversives" in check. Between 600,000 and one million mostly Mayan peasants are conscripted into the patrols. At the same time, the military high command establishes Iximché, a special army unit that carries out various mass killings between October 1981 and 23 March 1982, the day Ríos Montt comes to power.
The military and civilian patrols kill about 11,000 people in response to the growing antigovernment activity by the guerrillas.
The US begins to resupply the Guatemalan Army, claiming it is the leftist groups who are perpetuating the violence, aided and abetted by Cuba.
1982 - Romeo Lucas García is deposed as president in a military coup on 23 March. A three-member junta is formed, with Ríos Montt as its head. The junta annuls the constitution, dissolves parliament, suspends political parties and cancels the election law.
On 8 June Ríos Montt disbands the junta and assumes full presidential control.
The 14 months of Ríos Montt's rule become the bloodiest period in Guatemala's history since the invasion of the country by the Spanish some 400 years earlier. Mayans suspected of sympathising with the guerrillas are killed en mass or subjected to atrocities. Women and girls are raped. The use of torture is widespread. Over 400 Mayan villages are razed. Crops and livestock are destroyed. About 70,000 civilians are killed or "disappeared".
Altogether, in the period 1981 to 1983, about 100,000 civilians are killed or "disappeared" by the military and civilian patrols. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million are displaced.
Ríos Montt implements an integrated strategy to overcome the guerrillas. At first, they are offered a 30-day amnesty. About 2,000 take up the offer. Then, in a television and radio announcement on the night of 30 June, Ríos Montt declares a one-month state of siege, to begin the following day. He attributes responsibility for the "chaos" wracking the country to the guerrillas and announces the "final battle" and a "war without limits".
"Those who have brought chaos to Guatemala" and have broken down its institutions are "those who offer the red paradise of slavery, those who have unleashed a chain of death," Ríos Montt says.
"It is time to begin to manage this situation as it should be managed, as God orders, as we all want it to be managed."
Ríos Montt tells his audience that "tribunals of special jurisdiction" would be formed to conduct "open, completely just trials" of those committing or attempting to commit crimes such as kidnapping, arson, attacks on defence installations, fabrication or possession of explosive materials, attacks on transport systems, attacks against public utilities and infrastructure, treason, massacres, terrorism, and arms trafficking. Those found guilty would be executed by firing squad or imprisoned.
The US Embassy in Guatemala obtains further information about the measures to be taken during the state of siege. Individuals caught in the act of subversive activities will be tried on the spot; the fact of being caught in the act will be prima facie evidence of guilt; all licences to carry arms will be suspended; gatherings of more than four people will require prior approval from the military; house to house searches without warrants will begin; curfews will be imposed; constitutional guarantees will be suspended; mail may be opened.
Operation Victoria 82 (Victory 82) is launched in the countryside. Victoria 82 is a "rifles and beans" military campaign designed to destroy the support base of the guerrillas. The mainly Mayan civilians who occupy the "areas of operation" are ordered to move to villages controlled by the army. There they are offered social welfare such as housing and food. A "scorched earth" policy is then applied to the surrounding area.
In October Ríos Montt orders the Archivos intelligence unit to apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they see fit.
As the terror reigns, Ríos Montt broadcasts weekly Sunday night "sermonettes" on radio and television. His themes include the need for Guatemalans to change, to substitute violence with love, and to adopt respect for family institutions. He also calls for "true social justice".
Ríos Montt's regime and policies are supported by the US Government and US-based, right-wing religious groups. US President Ronald Reagan is reported to say that Ríos Montt is "a man of great personal integrity" who is "getting a bum rap on human rights".
However, disquiet within the Guatemalan Armed Forces over Ríos Montt's style of leadership begins to fester. A number of officers start to question Ríos Montt's religious idiosyncrasies and his attempts to impose his religious convictions on others. Some officers even advocate that Ríos Montt be removed from office. The military act on 8 August 1983. Ríos Montt is ousted in another military coup.
1985 - The Guatemalan Government passes a new constitution. The document includes a provision forbidding former dictators and those who participated in coups from standing as presidential candidates. The provision blocks attempts by Ríos Montt to run for president in 1991 and 1995.
1987 - Guatemala begins to move towards peace when representatives of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) and the government establish a dialogue during a meeting in Spain.
The URNG is a grouping of Guatemala's principal guerrilla groups. While some progress is made, including the creation by the government of the National Reconciliation Commission, both sides continue to engage in armed actions.
1989 - Ríos Montt founds Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG - Guatemalan Republican Front), a right-wing political party.
Ríos Montt and nine other FRG members win seats in Guatemala's parliament at elections held in 1990. The party wins 32 seats at the 1994 election, becoming the largest single party in the house. Ríos Montt remains a member of parliament for the FRG until 2004. As a member of parliament, he is immune from prosecution.
1992 - The government and representatives of Guatemala's large exiled population sign an agreement setting the conditions for their return from Mexico. The first group of refugees returns on 20 January 1993.
Meanwhile, Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum is awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples".
1994 - UN-moderated peace talks begin between the Guatemalan Government and the URNG. Both parties agree to the establishment of a Commission for Historical Clarification in order "to clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality, the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people".
1995 - The URNG declares a cease-fire. In April the Guatemalan Government and the URNG sign the Accord on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The accord acknowledges that the issue "of identity and rights of the indigenous peoples constitutes a point of fundamental and historic importance for the present and future of Guatemala".
The indigenous peoples "have been particularly subjected to levels of factual discrimination, exploitation and injustice because of their origin, culture and language ... and suffer unequal and unjust treatment," the accord says.
The accord commits the government to act to end civil rights abuses against the indigenous population by recognising ethnic discrimination as a crime, publicising the rights of the indigenous peoples through education, the media and other means, and opening the legal system to indigenous communities.
The government will also sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples being developed by the UN and implement constitutional reforms to establish indigenous cultural and linguistic rights. Communities will be given the right to "change the name of places where they live, when it be so decided by the majority of its members".
However, the accord will not take effect until a final peace pact is signed. The accord also fails to meet Indian and URNG demands for ancestral territory, local political autonomy and measures to alleviate the extreme poverty of Indian groups.
The government and the URNG chart the road to lasting peace when they sign the Accord of Oslo on 23 June. The accord outlines measures for widespread social reforms, including the drafting and approval of a national reconciliation law, and activates the Commission for Historical Clarification.
The commission has the backing of the UN as well as governments from around the world and international non-government organisations. It spends four years interviewing survivors and identifying and examining grave sites. It receives thousands of testimonies, speaks to former heads of state and the high command of both the army and the guerrillas, and reads thousands of pages of documents submitted by non-government organisations. It hopes that by establishing the truth of the violence committed during the civil war it will aid the process of reconciliation.
1996 - Peace comes at last on 29 December when the URNG and government sign the Accord for Firm and Lasting Peace, ending the 34-year civil war, the longest in Latin America's modern history. The Civil Self-defence Patrols are disbanded. The National Police is disbanded in 1997.
1998 - Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera presents the Roman Catholic Church's Recovery of Historical Memory (Never Again) Report detailing the Guatemalan Army's involvement in the atrocities of the civil war. The report attributes about 90% of human rights violations committed during the conflict to the state forces. Two days later, on 26 April, the bishop is beaten to death.
In 2001 three army officers and a Roman Catholic priest are brought to trial for the murder. Despite intimidation of prosecutors, witnesses and judges involved in the case, the three are convicted. The officers are sentenced to 30 years jail each. The priest receives a 20-year sentence. The identities of those responsible for issuing the order to kill the bishop are never revealed. The convictions are annulled by a Guatemalan appeals court in 2002. All four accused remain in jail pending a retrial.
On 29 December the president of Guatemala asks for forgiveness for the human rights violations committed by the military and its operatives during the civil war. The call follows a more limited appeal for forgiveness made by the URNG on 19 February.
1999 - The Commission for Historical Clarification (CEH) hands down its report in May. Titled 'Memory of Silence', the report finds that the army and the Civil Self-defence Patrols were responsible for 93% of the human rights abuses documented by the CEH, including 92% of the arbitrary executions and 91% of the "forced disappearances". Eighty-five percent of all abuses were attributable to the army, and 18% to the patrols.
The guerrilla groups were responsible for 3% of the human rights abuses, including 5% of the arbitrary executions and 2% of the forced disappearances.
Of all the violations documented by the CEH, 91% were committed during the years 1978 to 1984.
"The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state," the report states.
"In consequence, the CEH concludes that agents of the state of Guatemala, within the framework of counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, committed acts of genocide against groups of Mayan people which lived in the four regions analysed."
The report documents 42,275 victims of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the civil war, including 23,671 victims of arbitrary execution and 6,159 victims of forced disappearance. Eighty-three percent of the identified victims are Mayan, and 17% are Ladino (people of European decent). According to the CEH, these figures "are only a sample of the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation".
"Combining this data with the results of other studies of political violence in Guatemala, the CEH estimates that the number of persons killed or disappeared as a result of the fratricidal confrontation reached a total of over 200,000," the report says.
"State terror was applied to make it clear that those who attempted to assert their rights, and even their relatives, ran the risk of death by the most hideous means. The objective was to intimidate and silence society as a whole, in order to destroy the will for transformation, both in the short and long term."
The report's recommendations to encourage "peace and national harmony in Guatemala" include the prosecution of those responsible for human rights abuses and the introduction of new socially responsible codes to govern the behaviour of the army, the intelligence forces and the police.
Full copy of the report (PDF - English).
Despite the signing of the peace accord and release of the CEH report, an atmosphere of fear remains in Guatemala.
In May 1999 Guatemalans reject constitutional reforms granting rights to the Mayans and restricting the influence of the army. Demands by Mayan organisations for compliance with the 1996 peace accords, including the redistribution of land and prosecution of war criminals, are countered with intimidation and violence. A Mayan leader is shot dead in 2000. Threats to journalists, human rights workers, judges, prosecutors and Mayan citizens increase.
Meanwhile, Ríos Montt and the FRG gain complete control of Guatemala's political system at elections held at the end of 1999. Ríos Montt is elected president of the parliament. His daughter is deputy president of the parliament. His second son is head of finances for the army. The foreign minister is a close Ríos Montt associate. The FRG wins a majority of the parliamentary seats. The national president is member of the FRG and an ally of Ríos Montt.
Ríos Montt later says that his role as president of the parliament makes him Guatemala's de facto head of state. "I make the laws of Congress, I approve the budget of Congress, so I already am (national) president," he says.
2002 - On 3 September a trial commences of three former senior commanders of the presidential security and intelligence unit who are accused of instigating the 1990 murder of Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, a vocal critic of the military's mistreatment of rural indigenous communities.
The trial is the first in which prison terms are being sought for high-ranking officers implicated in crimes committed by the military during the civil war and is seen as an important test of Guatemala's judicial system. One of the accused, the retired Colonel Juan Valencia, is subsequently found guilty of ordering the murder and is sentenced to 30 years in jail. The two other defendants are acquitted.
Valencia escapes custody in 2004.
2003 - On 24 May the leaders of the FRG unanimously elect Ríos Montt as their candidate for a presidential election scheduled for 9 November, despite the constitutional ban on former dictators standing for president.
Ríos Montt says he will challenge the constitution.
On 31 July Guatemala's highest court, the seven-member Court of Constitutionality, accepts Ríos Montt's argument that the ban should not apply to him because it was introduced after he was forced out of office.
"This is not a victory for the (party) or for The General but for the country," Ríos Montt says of the result.
Ríos Montt stands for the presidency but only receives about 18% of the vote. His party, the FRG, also loses control of the parliament.
Montt's political career appears to have come to an end and, with his immunity from prosecution set to expire when his term as a politician ends on 14 January 2004, he now faces the prospect of having to stand trial for the human rights abuses that occurred during his dictatorship.
2007 - Ríos Montt announces that he will stand for parliament at elections scheduled for September. He is elected and so once again becomes immune from prosecution.
2011 - On 17 June, retired General Hector Mario Lopez is arrested on charges of genocide and forced disappearance arising from the civil war. Lopez was allegedly involved in about 200 massacres committed while he was chief-of-staff of the Guatemalan military between 1982 and 1983. He is the highest-ranking official to be detained for alleged crimes committed during the war. Retired General José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez is also charged with genocide for his role in the massacres.
2012 - When Ríos Montt's term in parliament expires on 14 January, he loses his immunity from prosecution. On 26 January he is ordered to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity related to the case against retired generals Lopez and Sánchez.
Ríos Montt is alleged to have been involved in 266 incidents that resulted in 1,771 deaths, 1,400 human rights violations and the displacement of 29,000 indigenous Guatemalans. He is placed under house arrest and ordered to pay a US$64,000 bond.
A second genocide charge is lodged against Ríos Montt on 22 May. Prosecutors allege Ríos Montt was responsible for a military operation that killed 201 farmers in the northern village of Dos Erres on 7 December 1982.
2013 - The trial of Ríos Montt and retired general Sánchez on the charges of genocide and war crimes begins on 19 March.
After some stumbles, the trial concludes on 10 May. Ríos Montt is found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison. General Sánchez is acquitted. Ríos Montt spends three nights in prison before being transferred to a military hospital after fainting.
Guatemala's Constitutional Court annuls the verdict on 20 May, citing procedural errors during the opening phases of the trial. The trail is ordered to be restarted from the evidentiary stage. Ríos Montt is returned to house arrest on 10 June.
2015 - On 1 July the Guatemalan National Institute of Forensic Sciences reports that Ríos Montt is mentally incompetent and incapable of understanding the charges against him or participating in his defence. A subsequent court-ordered medical and psychological evaluation finds he is suffering from dementia.
A court rules that the trial of Ríos Montt and General Sánchez can, nevertheless, go ahead. The trial will be held behind closed doors. A guilty or not guilty verdict can be reached, but Ríos Montt will not receive a sentence because of his health. He is not required to attend the trial.
Ríos Montt's legal team continue to content he is not mentally fit undergo trial, causing lengthy delays to the trial's resumption.
2017 - The trial of Ríos Montt and General Sánchez finally reconvenes on 13 October.
Guatemala, another proud episode in the Cold War fight for and against communism in Latin America, and with all the usual consequences - death, destabilisation, economic and social ruin, political polarisation, support for odious and brutal regimes. Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, Chile, El Salvador, the list goes on. And all to combat a perceived communist threat, to prevent another affront like the ascension of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
It all seems so pointless now, and would be if the toll of innocent civilian lives was not so high. Ríos Montt was not the only brutal despot to rule in Guatemala and half of the estimated 200,000 dead were murdered before and after his brief reign, but he was the worst, the most ruthless and unforgiving, despite his "born-again" Christian beliefs. Never trust a dictator, especially one who reads the Good Book.
- World History Archives - The History of Guatemala
- Commission for Historical Clarification Report - 'Memory of Silence' (PDF - English)
- School of Americas Watch
- The Guatemala Documentation Project - The National Security Archive
- Indicted for Genocide: Guatemala's Efraín Ríos Montt - The National Security Archive
- The Final Battle: Ríos Montt's Counterinsurgency Campaign - The National Security Archive
- Efrain Rios Montt & Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez - International Justice Monitor