Rule By Terror

“The shoes, the belts, were piled two meters high and wide, you could see the traces of people that were killed there. They tied me up and left me sitting in their blood.”


– Tiburcio Utuy, Ixil victim at Rios Montt’s trial.1


              Rios Montt was the reigning dictator of Guatemala during the one of the bloodiest junctures of a decades long civil War. From 1981-1983, approximately 200,000 indigenous peoples were killed2. Montt was the last living leader from the Guatemalan Civil War’s heyday, and his subordinate general was found innocent of all the similar charges presented.3 According to an analysis of the Guatemalan tribunal, his killings of helpless villagers were more intense due to a perceived sense of superiority by the State4, possibly in terms of race.

              The impetus for this investigation was manifold, but centers around the execution of a request made to the United Nations, and a three-person panel assigned to summarize their findings for prosecution. Note that the entirety of the document created by the The Commission for Historical Clarification does not mention Montt, except during the timeline of the appendix. It states the heads of state, although technically separate from the military, were aware of the atrocities being committed.

              While Lucas Garcia, Montt’s predecessor, had focused on targeted assassination within cities (and was successful), the new president was focused on stamping out resistance outside of the walls — and much more effectively. 43% of all mortality occurred within the first nine               In addition to procedural gymnastics, Montt’s defense was that of “Show me the money.” Victory 82 and Firmness 83 (released just in the mid-2000s) were genocidal in practice but were much more vague, mostly focusing on verbiage regarding quelling the rebel threat and not overtly racist in the slightest. In summary, Montt was indicted mostly on eyewitness testimony and acquitted due to a procedural error regarding inadequate representation. In 2006, procedures by the Montt defense were successful at disallowing a Spanish judge from in person testimony. This was overturned and allowed, the primary factor in his conviction.5

              Despite frequent usage, detailed accounts do not suggest scorched earth per se. Rather, they exemplify internal terrorism, with the operating definition being “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” The killings were simultaneously wanton and calculated, with what amounted to basically triaged torture, interrogation and public killing with designated bases or posts for the aforementioned.6

              The Rand Corporation offers a short apologetic on Guatemala’s oppressive tactics. Tidbits included the Guatemalan Army’s training from US Green Berets and the role the 1976 earthquake took on distracting said army from combat operations against guerillas.7 A newly-minted Jimmy Carter in Washington exponentially weakened that frailty, as he did not favor the authoritarian rule of Guatemala.8
The government’s objectives were essentially achieved by Montt’s terror spree. By the 1980s, rebels controlled almost half of Guatemala with only a maximum of 6,000 regulars, yet had the support of up to 500,000 citizens.9 After Victory 82? Effectively zero regulars. And the citizenry? They were desperate for peace and accepted the winners, despite their distaste for the state’s constant assassinations and lack of transparency. Without citation, the third act of the case study mentions the following: “COIN force [the Guatemalan state] collateral damage not perceived by population in area of conflict as worse than insurgents’”.10

              Naturally, criminal proceedings with regards to human rights violations are substantive. Despite the sturm and drang, Montt is a free man and will remain that way, and such an eventuality of justice is symoblic gesture. While powerful nations may view it as internal matter, it still very much raw for the Guatemalan populace. As an external observer it is easy to see how international financial support could offer a better chance of re-conviction. What is unclear is the benefit that would provide said powerful nation.



1  Brett, Roddy. The Origins and Dynamics of Genocide:: Political Violence in Guatemala. Springer, 2016. p. 6

2  Higonnet, Etelle. Quiet Genocide: Guatemala 1981-1983. Routledge, 2017. passim.

3  Sanford, Victoria. “Violence And Genocide In Guatemala | Genocide Studies Program”. 2017. Gsp.Yale.Edu.

4  Schmidt (ProPublica), Krista Kjellman. “Guatemala: Memory of Silence, The Commission for Historical…” Accessed November 8, 2017.

5  “Efrain Rios Montt & Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez.” Accessed November 8, 2017.

6  Brett, p. 136.

7  Paul, Christopher, Colin P. Clarke, Beth Grill, and Molly Dunigan. “Guatemala, 1960–1996: Case Outcome: COIN Win.” In Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies, 134-46. RAND Corporation, 2013.

8  Ibid.

9  Ibid.

10  Ibid.

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