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Efraín Ríos Montt

Last modified 24 October 2014.

First published 1 September 2001. Reviewed 30 January 2007

Full name José Efraín Ríos Montt. AKA 'The General'.

Country: Guatemala.

Kill tally: About 70,000 Mayan peasants and political dissidents.

Background: Guatemala is invaded and colonised by the Spanish early in the 16th Century. The country proclaims its independence in 1821, but real reform is not achieved until 1944 when a civilian is elected president. However, the reformist government is overthrown by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed coup d'état in June 1954.

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.

Mini biography: 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 he 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.

A "born-again" evangelical Protestant, Ríos Montt 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, will become 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 guerilla groups emerge following the government's crackdown, including the Revolutionary Movement November 13 (MR-13), the Guatemala Workers Party PGT), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR), the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), and the Organisation of People in Arms (ORPA).

The civil war goes into full swing when the groups begin to engage in armed conflict.

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. Reorganisation and an uneasy consolidation of the guerrillas follows. Their subsequent kidnapping and assassination campaign claims many leading figures, including, in 1968, US ambassador John Gordon Mein. The German ambassador, Karl von Spreti, is kidnapped and murdered in 1970.

The conflict takes another sinister turn when unofficial "death squads" begin to emerge. Using civilian informers and lists prepared by military intelligence, the squads target alleged "subversives" for elimination. Going under such names as 'National Organised Action Movement', 'New Anti-communist Organisation', 'Anti-communist Council of Guatemala', 'Eye for an Eye', and 'Jaguar of Justice', they are tolerated by the government and receive clandestine military support.

In Guatemala City, the 'Judicials', the National Police and the Treasury Police, become the principal agents of state terror, and will remain so for almost 20 years.

Between 1966 and 1970 a reported 10,000 civilians, most of whom are Mayans, are killed in the army campaigns.

In 1968, the then deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Guatemala, Viron Vaky, expresses his concerns about the human rights situation in the country.

In a report he presents to the US Department of State, Vaky states, "The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated. ...

"In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we (the US) are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt. ...

"This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all - that we have not been honest with ourselves. We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalised away our qualms and uneasiness.

"This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as communists are being killed it is all right. Murder, torture and mutilation are all right if our side is doing it and the victims are communists. After all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people."

1970s - The terror continues into the 1970s, with guerrilla and political leaders, trade unionists and student activists being targeted for murder or "disappearance". It is estimated that the military campaigns result in a least 50,000 deaths during the decade.

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, with the military's preferred candidate taking 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.

In December 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."

1977 - The US suspends military aid to Guatemala following an upsurge in death squad activity against the guerrillas and Mayan peasants.

Ríos Montt, meanwhile, 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.

1978 - Military strongman General Fernando Romeo Lucas García becomes president on 7 July. His period in office will be marked by an escalation of the civil war violence, especially between the months of October 1981 and March 1982.

The Peasant Unity Committee (CUC) is formed. Advocating land reform and respect for the human rights of the Mayans, the committee becomes the largest peasant organisation in the country.

1980 - In January a small group of Mayan peasants join with student activists and occupy the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City as a meeting is taking place between the ambassador and a group of prominent citizens. After government forces surround the site a fire breaks out within the embassy compound, killing all inside except the ambassador, who escapes but is badly injured. Thirty-nine die. Some reports suggest that the activists deliberately started the fire.

1981 - The guerrillas widen their campaign across the country, occupying municipal capitals, sabotaging installations, blocking roads and conducting executions. Activity in the capital also intensifies, with police stations coming under attack and sabotage becoming 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 will be 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 - On 23 March, after Romeo Lucas García has been deposed as president in a military coup, Ríos Montt is asked by the coup leaders to take control of the country. A three-member junta is formed, with Ríos Montt as its head. The constitution is annulled, parliament is dissolved, political parties are suspended, and the election law is cancelled.

Ríos Montt promises that the junta will "end corruption, guarantee respect for human rights and revitalise our institutions." Guatemalans and the international community initially welcome the coup, hoping it will herald a more humane and less corrupt regime.

However, the various guerrilla factions, united under the banner of Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), denounce the Ríos Montt junta and step up the attacks.

In April the junta passes the 'National Plan for Security and Development', which identifies the main regions of conflict.

On 8 June, Ríos Montt disbands the junta and assumes the presidency, ruling as a dictator. He also acts as minister of defence until 31 August.

An integrated strategy is now implemented to try to quell the insurgency. At first, insurgents 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 guerillas and announces the "final battle" and a "war without limits."

"Those who have brought chaos to 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 says "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.

Information obtained by the US Embassy in Guatemala provides more details. 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 are 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.

In the field, operation 'Victoria 82' (Victory 82) is launched. 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.

The 14 months of Ríos Montt's rule will become the bloodiest in Guatemala's history since the invasion of the country by the Spanish some 400 years earlier. Mayans suspected of sympathising with the guerillas 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. The insurgency is contained but with a tragic human cost.

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 as saying 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 ousted from office.

1983 - The state of siege in Guatemala is lifted, political activity is once again allowed and elections scheduled. The US reinstates military training assistance in January, authorising the sale of US$6 million of military hardware. However, on 8 August, Ríos Montt is ousted in another military coup.

It is estimated that during the 14 months of Ríos Montt's rule about 70,000 civilians have been killed or "disappeared". During the period 1981 to 1983 about 100,000 have been killed or "disappeared" and between 500,000 and 1.5 million displaced, fleeing to other regions within the country or seeking safety abroad.

"When I arrived in the government, we began a change in the state," Ríos Montt later says. "We realised that it shouldn't be the state of a single boss, the state of a regent, the state of a king, but a state that guarantees the rule of law, a state that serves."

Referring to the genocide that occurred during his rule, he says, "I can't deny anything, nor can I corroborate or prove anything. I'm at an impasse. ... If there is proof that shows that I am responsible, then I'm going to wind up a prisoner, because I do not want by any means to evade my responsibility."

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.

1987- Guatemala begins to move towards peace when representatives of URNG and the government establish a dialogue during a meeting in Spain. The government also creates the National Reconciliation Commission. However, both sides continue to engage in armed actions.

1991 - Jorge Serrano Elías, a right-wing businessman and close ally to Ríos Montt is elected president in January. Ríos Montt had wanted to run for the post but was prevented by the constitutional provision banning former dictators from standing as presidential candidates.

1992 - Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples."

Meanwhile, in October, the government and representatives of Guatemala's large exiled population sign an agreement defining the conditions for their collective return from Mexico. The first group of refugees returns on 20 January the following year.

1994 - UN-moderated peace talks begin between the Guatemalan Government and the URNG. An early outcome is the signing of an accord to establish 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."

In August a new parliament is elected in Guatemala. It is controlled by the right-wing Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG - Guatemalan Republican Front), headed by Ríos Montt, and the centre-right National Advancement Party (PAN).

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' acknowledging 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 will spend four years interviewing survivors and identifying and examining grave sites. It will receive thousands of testimonies, speak to former heads of state and the high command of both the army and the guerrillas, and read 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.

Meanwhile, Ríos Montt again tries to run for the national presidency but is again prevented by the law forbidding former dictators and those who participated in coups from standing as candidates.

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.

On 19 June 1998, meanwhile, Ríos Montt is reelected for a third term as head of the FRG.

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.

Also during the year, US President Bill Clinton publicly apologises for his country's support of Guatemala's past regimes.

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 (English). Spanish copy of the report.

However, in a referendum held in May, the same month as the release of the CEH report, Guatemalans reject constitutional reforms granting rights to the Mayans and restricting the influence of the army.

In December, Ríos Montt is elected president of the Guatemalan Parliament. His daughter is deputy president of the parliament, his second son is head of finances for the army, and the foreign minister is a close Ríos Montt associate. The FRG also wins a majority of the parliamentary seats.

Alfonso Portillo, a member of the FRG and an ally of Ríos Montt, wins the post of national president. This had not been Portillo's first tilt at the presidency. In 1996 he had unsuccessfully campaigned on the slogan "Portillo the presidency, Ríos Montt the power."

On his role as president of the parliament, Ríos Montt will later say, "I make the laws of Congress, I approve the budget of Congress, so I already am (national) president."

Meanwhile, Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Guatemalan human rights organisations petition the Spanish national court to hear a case charging Ríos Montt and seven other Guatemalan military and civilian officials with genocide, state terrorism and torture. The court decides not to proceed, arguing that while there was strong evidence against the accused there is no reason why the case could not be heard in Guatemalan courts. However, members of the Guatemalan Parliament, including Ríos Montt, are immune from prosecution by law.

2000 - In August, Ríos Montt and 23 other parliamentary members of the FRG are charged with unlawfully altering a law covering alcoholic beverages to favour powerful Guatemalan businesses. On 5 March 2001 the Guatemalan Supreme Court removes the immunity from prosecution covering Ríos Montt and the other accused and orders criminal proceedings against them to begin. However, on 24 April 2001 the charges against Ríos Montt are dismissed.

Meanwhile, Mayan organisations demand compliance with the peace accords of 1996, including the redistribution of land and prosecution of war criminals. Subsequently, a Mayan leader is shot dead and threats to journalists and human rights workers increase.

2001 - On 5 June the Guatemalan Association for Justice and Reconciliation (Asociación para la Justicia y Reconciliación) launches a case in the Guatemalan courts against Ríos Montt and four others for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, claiming he had command responsibility for 11 massacres committed during his dictatorship.

The 'denuncia' (formal complaint) lodged by the association states; "The military junta and the high command supplied arms, personnel, intelligence and all the required logistical support to provide the army of Guatemala with the necessary means to carry out the acts complained of. They acted as accomplices to the crimes committed during the offensive. They knew about the developments in the offensive, and that the said acts had been carried out, including mass killings, mass displacement and the other criminal acts committed in order to carry out their orders. As they were responsible for the discipline, control, order, supervision and obedience of their subordinates, neither the members of the military junta of the government nor the members of the high command held anybody responsible for the commission of those acts, and they allowed the offensive to continue. Therefore, it follows that José Efraín Ríos Montt, Egberto Horacio Maldonado Schaad, Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores and Héctor Mario López Fuentes participated as authors of the crimes of genocide (Art 376 of the Criminal Code), and crimes of inhumanity (Art 378 of the Criminal Code), according to the facts set out in this petition."

A fiscal, or prosecutor, from the Department of Justice is assigned to investigate the case.

2002 - On 17 June about 8,000 former members of the Civil Self-defence Patrols formed by the army in 1981 and disbanded in 1996 stage a demonstration in the north of the country. The former militias are demanding that the government pay them about US$2,500 each for "services rendered to the fatherland" during the civil war (a demand that will be met the following year when Ríos Montt's FRG party pushes a plan through the parliament granting the former militias about US$660 each).

At the same time, it is reported that the former militias have reactivated their intelligence-gathering network and remain loyal to Ríos Montt.

An atmosphere of fear and intimidation remains in the country. Prior to a visit to Guatemala by the Pope John Paul II in July several members of the country's Catholic Church, including a bishop, receive death threats. Human rights organisers are subjected to similar intimidation.

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, although an attempt is launched to have their acquittals overturned in the court of appeal.

However, human rights activists receive a blow on 8 October when the convictions against the three army officers and a Roman Catholic priest found guilty of the 1998 murder or Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera are annulled by a Guatemalan appeals court.

The court orders a retrial, saying there were irregularities in the testimony of a key prosecution witness. All four of the accused will remain in jail until the retrial.

2003 - Intimidation of human rights activists continues. On 9 April an alliance of social groups issue a statement accusing the government of organising a string of burglaries and attacks which "together provide evidence of continuous pressure and systematic policies." The attacks are thought to be a response to the creation of a state commission to investigate civil rights abuses.

On 7 May a Guatemalan appeals court overturns Juan Valencia's conviction, saying there was insufficient evidence to link him to the killing of Myrna Mack.

In a subsequent appeal heard by the Supreme Court in January 2004, Valencia's conviction is upheld and he is returned to jail to serve out his 30-year sentence. However, Valencia escapes from custody and eludes jail.

On 24 May 2003 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.

Though the run-up to the 9 November elections is marred by some violence, with 29 activists from various opposition parties reported to have been killed, the vote is conducted in relative peace and with a record turnout of more than 60% of the electorate. The election, which is monitored by about 2,000 observers, is considered to be fair and free.

Two days after the poll it is apparent that Montt has received only about 18% of the presidential vote, well behind the two most popular candidates, Oscar Berger (36%) and Álvaro Colom (27%), and that he will not be eligible to stand in an election run-off scheduled for 28 December. (Berger, a former mayor of Guatemala City, wins the run-off.)

Montt's party, the FRG, also loses its 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.

Human rights lawyer Frank LaRue says, "We are going after him. We believe we will be ready to go to trial by April of next year." However, the threat comes to nothing.

2005 - On 16 July, Reuters news agency reports that 30,000 police files confirming that human rights abuses took place in Guatemala during the 1980s have been discovered in the archives of the now disbanded National Police.

According to Sergio Morales, Guatemala's human rights ombudsman, "This is one of the most important discoveries in recent times."

By the end of the year, 15-20 million more files have been uncovered. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, they will be warehoused with some 120 million other documents in the largest police archive of its kind in Latin America.

The archive is opened to the public in 2009.

In an unrelated development, the Guatemalan Government apologises on 18 July for a military-directed massacre of 226 people in the highland village of Plan de Sanchez on 18 July 1982.

The massacre, which took place during Ríos Montt's dictatorship, was conducted by soldiers aided by members of the Civil Self-defence Patrols.

The Guatemalan Government was ordered to make the apology by the Inter-American Human Rights Court. The court also ordered the government to pay survivors and relatives US$7.9 million in damages.

In December, Sergio Morales announces that documents from the National Police archives show that the office of the director of police ordered the murders and disappearances of leftists during the civil war.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Constitutional Court rules that courts in Spain can hear cases involving crimes against humanity, even if the crimes occurred outside Spain and no Spanish citizens were involved.

2006 - In June, Spanish Judge Santiago Pedraz travels to Guatemala to investigate the genocide case brought before the Spanish courts by Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Guatemalan human rights organisations in 1999.

On 7 July, after his return to Spain, Pedraz charges Ríos Montt, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores and six others with genocide, torture, illegal arrest and terrorism and issues international warrants for their arrest.

2007 - At the start of the year, 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.

2009 - On 30 January, Guatemala's National Compensation Program files 3,350 criminal complaints accusing former soldiers, paramilitaries and others of human rights violations against more than 5,000 civilians during the civil war.

The National Compensation Program was founded by the Guatemalan Government in 2003 to identify and compensate victims of the war.

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.

According to a report in the 'New York Times', Ríos Montt says he would also be willing to face justice for crimes committed during his rule.

"It was a time of war, of guerrilla wars," he is reported to say. "If there is no justice, there can be no talk of peace."

In October, former president Oscar Mejia is charged with ordering massacres of indigenous Guatemalan's while he served as Ríos Montt's military chief in 1982-83. In November, Mejia, who ousted Ríos Montt in the 1983 coup, is found to be mentally and physically unfit to stand trial.

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 - On 28 January, a Guatemalan judge confirms that there is enough evidence to try Ríos Montt and retired general Sánchez on the charges of genocide and war crimes. The trial begins on 19 March.

The three-judge panel hearing the case will decide whether Ríos Montt should be found guilty and sentenced, whether he should be exonerated, or whether he should be ordered to face a public trial.

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. His trail is not expected to restart until January 2015.

2014 - In May Guatemala's Congress approves a non-binding resolution that denies there was any attempt to commit genocide during the civil war. The resolution was proposed by a member of Ríos Montt's FRG party.

Comment: 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.