Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Efrain Rios Montt, Former Guatemalan Dictator, Dies At 91

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of Central America's most infamous former dictators died this weekend. In March of 1982, Efrain Rios Montt seized power in Guatemala. That country was in the middle of a civil war, and the new leader promised a crackdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EFRAIN RIOS MONTT: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY: "Anyone who is outside the law will be executed." Rios Montt speaking there on Guatemalan television shortly after he took power. For the next year and a half, armed forces under his control would carry out systematic massacres of Indigenous Mayan villages, killing thousands. A Guatemalan court eventually convicted him of genocide and crimes against humanity. That was in 2013, but he spent just one weekend in jail before his sentence was overturned. Victoria Sanford is the author of several books on the Guatemalan genocide. She testified in one of the trials against Rios Montt, and she joins us now. Welcome.

VICTORIA SANFORD: Thank you.

KELLY: Describe that moment for us - that moment when Rios Montt took power, and an already-brutal civil war turned a corner and got worse.

SANFORD: From the moment that Rios Montt took power, he consolidated army control throughout the country by massacring unarmed civilians. And anyone who wasn't on his team was exterminated.

KELLY: And we mentioned that the people being targeted - being exterminated - were Indigenous Mayan population. Why?

SANFORD: The Mayan were targeted because they're the majority in the country, and Rios Montt and others in the military were afraid that they would join the guerrilla. They weren't actually in the guerrilla. They were unarmed civilians. It was a pre-emptive genocide.

KELLY: How did he justify it? I mean, what was the policy, as he articulated it, that he was carrying out?

SANFORD: He said - his exact words - we don't have a policy of scorched-earth. We have a policy of scorched communists. He conflated the category of Mayan Indigenous people with communist, which was also conflated with being subversive - which meant that you would be killed. And there are declassified CIA documents that say all Ixil Maya are pro-guerrilla. They will be given no quarter.

KELLY: But that leads to my next question, which is that Rios Montt enjoyed the support of the very highest level of the U.S. government. President Ronald Reagan met him in 1982, praised him, called him - and I'll quote - "a man of great personal integrity and commitment." Did the U.S. government know what was happening under his watch?

SANFORD: Absolutely. Not only did the U.S. government know what was happening under Rios Montt's watch, Rios Montt is a product of the U.S. school of the Americas. He had counterinsurgency training. He had officer training. He led classes for them.

KELLY: And I'm curious what your take on his legacy is. I mean, we mentioned he was convicted of genocide, but he died at home. He didn't die in prison. Was justice ever served in his case?

SANFORD: Well, he didn't die in prison, but he wasn't a free man. He died under house arrest. And I think that history vindicates that he was a genocidaire. And those who support him today, who were implicated in the crimes against humanity he committed, I'm confident that they will also be brought to trial.

KELLY: And so what went through your mind when - this weekend - you learned that he had died?

SANFORD: Too bad it wasn't in jail.

KELLY: Victoria Sanford. She is director of the Lehman Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at the City University of New York. Thank you.

SANFORD: Thank you.

KELLY: Former Guatemalan ruler Efrain Rios Montt died on Sunday at the age of 91. Up until his death, he was still being tried in absentia.

(SOUNDBITE OF LRKR'S "CHILEAN SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.