The General, the Election, and America's School of Assassins
by Troy Skeels
November 13, 2003
First Published in Eat the State!
[Editorís Note: This article was written before the November 11 election in Guatemala. The Genocidal Butcher Rios Montt came in a distant third. His running mate accepted defeat and said the results would not be contested.]
Visiting Guatemala for the first time recently, the hardest thing to get used to were the election signs for the November presidential elections urging people to vote for Efrain Rios Montt. The man should be in prison for crimes against humanity, not running for president.
But then I wondered why I found Rios Montt's candidacy particularly creepy.
A graduate of the notorious School of the Americas, "The General," as he is called, was basically an enthusiastic servant of the US government when he committed the worst atrocities in Guatemala's bloody history.
The Bush administration has repeatedly criticized Rios Montt's campaign, citing his human rights record. In May, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said "We would hope to be able to work with, and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala. Realistically, in light of Mr. Rios Montt's background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer."
Meanwhile, the US continues to operate the School of the Americas, albeit under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The purpose of the school continues to be churning out Latin American military officers trained in coup plotting, torture, genocide and other nefarious skills for the purpose of keeping their home populations subject to US political and economic dominance.
The Bush Administration that criticizes Rios Montt for human rights atrocities contains many of the same people that were in the Reagan Administration while the General was presiding over those atrocities. At that time, the Reagan Administration denied that Rios Montt's government was doing what the Bush administration now criticizes him for.
In 1982 the US embassy in Guatemala wrote a report claiming that the claims of genocide against the indigenous Mayan campesinos was the result of "a concerted disinformation campaign is being waged in the US against the Guatemalan government by groups supporting the communist insurgency in Guatemala." The victims of this "disinformation," including "conscientious human rights and church organizations," had been duped by the commies into spreading false information for the purpose of frightening Congress into cutting off military aid to Guatemala. "Those backing the communist insurgency are betting on an application, or rather misapplication, of human rights policy so as to damage the [Guatemalan Government] and assist themselves."
Rios Montt ruled Guatemala for 16 months after seizing power from the previous general in a 1981 coup. Under the guise of "counterinsurgency" operations against leftist rebels, he and his fellow generals presided over a scorched earth campaign in which 440 villages targeted as sympathetic to the guerrillas were wiped off the face of the earth.
Speaking in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala recently, Gloria, a former leftist Guerilla, said that "when the army arrived at a targeted village their goal was to destroy all human life--men, women, children, all the farm animals, and all the crops." The village was then burned to the ground--erased.
The report of the UN-backed Guatemala Truth Commission, released in 1999, estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala's three decade civil war. Some 70,000 of those were killed during the 16 month dictatorship of Rios Montt.
According to a since-declassified CIA memo, In October 1982 The General ordered the notorious "Archivos" intelligence unit, which was headquartered in the Presidential Palace, to "apprehend, hold, interrogate, and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit."
Insisting that Rios Montt was "getting a bum rap," and was "totally dedicated to democracy," Reagan signed waivers permitting military equipment like helicopters to be sent to Guatemala. The shipments had been cut off in 1979 over concern with the Guatemalan government's worsening human rights record.
Rios Montt is currently the President of the Congress, and a close friend of Guatemala's current president, Alfonso Portillo, whose corrupt administration is widely unpopular. The General's earlier attempts to run for president were rejected by the courts several times, based on a law that prohibits anyone who has seized power in a coup from running for president. A "stacked" Constitutional Court ruled 4-3 in July that the law, passed in 1985, could not be applied retroactively. The move was roundly criticized around the world and greeted in Guatemala as the death of democracy. Three of the four judges who ruled on Rios Montt's behalf have close ties to him, including one who was once his attorney.
Rios Montt says those opposing him are "groups who wish to destabilize the country" and says that those against his run for president "are injuring the civil and political rights of Guatemalans."
Rios Montt has wide backing in the army and among those who hope that his strongman approach can increase Guatemalans' security. He is opposed by segments of society from the business establishment to human rights organizations. During campaign stops, his entourage has been pelted with stones by people who lost relatives to his genocidal rule.
Polls show the General is in fourth place with about 7% of the vote, but with the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) controlling the corruption-ridden government, there are worries of a rigged election, especially if he makes it to the second round of voting in a crowded field. Public employees have received letters telling them to support his campaign.
Rios Montt is currently facing two genocide cases against him. One has been through in Spain by Rigoberta Menchu and the other in Guatemala by the survivors of 14 massacres during his dictatorship. If the latter case makes it to trial it will be the first genocide case ever tried in the country where the crimes occurred.
While the US government has banned military aid to Guatemala since 1990, and the Bush administration opposes the possible presidency of Rios Montt, the US government continues to operate the School of the Americas, where guys like Rios Montt get their training. So long as the school is open, there will be more Rios Montts. And more dead.
November 21 to 23, thousands of people from throughout the Americas will converge on Fort Benning Georgia, home of the School of the Americas for a "Vigil and Nonviolent Civil Resistance Action," demanding the school be closed. The previous weekend, Nov. 16, a massive anti-SOA march and rally will be held in Tacoma; see calendar for details.
* Sources & more info: School of the Americas Watch, www.soaw.org, The Consortium, Guatemala Report of the Comission for Historical Clarification, World Press Review 11/1/03
Troy Skeels is an editor of Eat the State!, a feisty alternative publication from Seattle, Washington where this article first appeared (www.eatthestate.org).