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Last Updated:7/18/03
Guatemala’s Future Might Be Its Frightening Past

By David N. Weinreb, CIP Intern

On July 15th the Guatemalan Constitutional Court made a landmark decision to allow General Efraín Rios Montt to run for president. General Rios Montt is one of Guatemala’s most notorious former heads of state, as he ruled over a period of massive human rights violations and crimes against humanity. As a “law-and-order” candidate, Ríos Montt remains popular in Guatemala’s countryside, but during past election cycles his candidacy was prohibited by the Guatemalan constitution, which excludes candidates who had come to power through non-democratic means. The controversial decision by the highest court in the land determined that the 1985 statute did not apply to the General and he was free to run. Public outcry has already been tremendous and the implications for Guatemala’s future international relations are ominous.

Taking power in 1982 by means of a violent coup-de-etat, General Ríos Montt embarked upon what is now called a “scorched earth” campaign against Guatemala’s URNG guerrillas, eliminating political dissidents and achieving dominance through torture and summary executions. Targeting mostly Mayan Indians, Rios Montt’s government forces are said to have been responsible for over 19,000 deaths during the general’s eighteen-month rule [1] . Even after being forced from power in 1983 the civil war, which began in 1954, continued to rage in Guatemala until 1996, ultimately causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans.

After fading from public view for a number of years, General Ríos Montt attempted to run for President of Guatemala in 1990 and 1995. In both cases, the Constitutional Court (CC), which has ultimate authority even over the Supreme Court, ruled that the General’s candidacy was unconstitutional. The 1985 constitution included a clause prohibiting the presidential candidacy of any person who came to power via a “golpe de estado” or coup. This measure was included in the constitution as a direct response to the brutality of Ríos Montt’s regime. On his third attempt, now in 2003, the CC reversed the decision it had rendered on both previous occasions and stated that because Ríos Montt had come to power before the new constitution was enacted it could not be retroactively applied to him. This is a position that Ríos Montt himself has taken for many years.

So what changed? What caused the court to reverse its decision and the decisions of two other high courts in Guatemala? In 1999 the right wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, founded by Ríos Montt himself, took control of the unicameral Guatemalan congress and elected Ríos Montt’s protégé, Alfonso Antonio Portillo, as president. The FRG has controlled the congress ever since and as a result, has a unique ability to influence the Guatemalan court system.

The Guatemalan Constitutional Court is made up of five justices who each take turns over five-year terms serving one year as chief justice. Of those five, one is elected by the congress and one is appointed by the president. Both of these justices would be sympathetic to General Rios Montt’s cause. The current serving chief justice is Guillermo Ruiz Wong who has been described as a “childhood friend” of Rios Montt [2] . This is not enough to guarantee a favorable vote as the remaining three justices are not tied to the government by constitutional design. However, in an interesting turn of events, two additional justices were appointed “by lottery” to the CC for the express purpose of deliberating on this case. Both have established ties to the FRG government, one of them had even served as Rios Montt’s legal defense [3] . The votes of these two justices added to the votes of Ruiz Wong and a swing vote, Cipriano Soto of the University of San Carlos, gave Rios Montt a 4 to 3 majority, exactly the number of votes he needed to gain his candidacy. The reason for the addition of two justices to the court system was unclear from the start and the lack of transparency during the entire process has been criticized by many [4] .

The possible election of General Ríos Montt to the presidency has stirring implications for the future of both American and European relations with Guatemala. The public outcry against Ríos Montt is loud and includes everything from the General being pelted with stones by angry opponents to a declaration by Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú who said that the FRG “usurped” the power of the Constitutional Court [5] . The U.S. State Department said on May 27th that relations with a Ríos Montt government would be “difficult” [6] . While not exactly a damning statement, it does raise questions about the future of U.S. relations with a country that has received millions of dollars of economic aid and is currently “decertified” for failing to collaborate sufficiently in the war on drugs.

In addition to troubles with the United States, Guatemala would face strained ties to Europe; all EU diplomats have been instructed to have “no relation of any kind with Rios Montt” [7] . In addition to the risk of having a president accused of genocide and ties to organized crime and drug trafficking, the international opposition voiced thus far should make Guatemalan voters think long and hard about the future of their country before making a decision in November.



[1] St. Clair, Jeffrey The Return of General Rios Montt: http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair07162003.html

[2] Ibid

[3] Permiten en Guatemala la candidatura del ex dictador Ríos Montt: http://www.cnnenespanol.com/2003/americas/07/15/rios.montt/index.html

[4] Ibid

[5] Ex-dictator allowed Guatemala run: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/americas/07/15/guatemala.election.ap/index.html

[6] U.S. Opposes Rios Montt Candidacy in Guatemala, AFP Reports: http://quote.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=10000086&sid=aSXd2wl2aPNI&refer=latin_america

[7] Rodriguez, Martin, EE.UU. y Europa Preocupados: Embajadores Comentan Resolucion de la CC Sobre Inscripcion de Rios: http://www/prensalibre.com/pls/prensa/detnoticia.jsp?p_cnoticia=60726&p_fedicion=16-07-03

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