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Efrain Rios Montt—who seized power in 1982 and whose scorched-earth policy of the following 18 months resulted in more than 19,000 deaths—became an official candidate in late July. He is a former general in the Guatemalan army, the former head of the Guatemalan evangelical church, and current president of the National Congress.
The Guatemalan constitution prohibits anyone who has taken power by force from running for president. For months, Rios Montt and supporters in his Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front or FRG) appealed to the country’s confusing and overlapping jurisdictional court system to allow his candidacy, arguing that the constitutional clause is not retroactive and therefore does not apply to coup leaders who took power before it was enacted. Each appeal was turned down until it reached the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest. As head of the legislative branch and de facto leader of the executive, Rios Montt influenced judicial appointments. Four of the seven judges are his supporters.
On July 24, just before his appearance before the Constitutional Court, Rios Montt called for a demonstration in support of his candidacy. About 5,000 masked rioters armed with machetes and clubs descended on the capital, where they shut down the U.S. Embassy, harassed workers at several human rights organizations and held a portion of the city hostage. A Guatemalan journalist died of a heart attack while being chased through the streets, and a Reuters photographer was beaten along the same route. Neither the national police nor the army helped quell the violence, despite claims by President Alfonso Portillo that he ordered both.
Rios Montt called off the demonstrations the next day and a week later the Constitutional Court allowed his candidacy. Subsequently, the Guatemalan press has reported that government resources were used in the demonstrations, and numerous FRG functionaries and members of Congress were implicated in helping to organize the demonstrations, including Montt’s niece, an FRG deputy in Congress.
Karen Ohm Heskja, a human rights worker in Guatemala, called the demonstrations a coup. “He brought in his own army and intimidated everyone into giving him what he wanted,” she said.
The violence and uncertainty that has characterized Guatemalan life for years has worsened during the campaign: 21 candidates or political functionaries have disappeared since the race began in December; not a single one is affiliated with the FRG.
Twelve candidates remain. According to recent polls, right-wing pro-business candidate Oscar Berger has a 44 percent lead, but these polls don’t take into account rural communities that form Rios Montt’s base of support. Alvaro Colom of the left-leaning UNE party is running second. URNG candidate Rodrigo Asturias, former guerilla commander and son of Nobel prize-winning author Miguel Angel Asturias, is polling behind Rios Montt.
International reaction to Rios Montt’s candidacy has been consistently negative. The U.S. State Department said it would be difficult for the United States to maintain normal relations with Guatemala if Rios Montt were to gain power, and the European Union, the Organization of American States and the United Nations all have called for observers to ensure a fair election.
A congressional delegation led by U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) recently visited the capital and threatened to exclude Guatemala from the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement if Rios Montt assumes power by fraudulent means. Fraud is a chief concern because frequent press reports indicate that Rios Montt and the FRG have repeatedly violated the electoral pact signed by all the parties at the beginning of the race that pledged no use of intimidation, violence or state resources.
Most Guatemalans are watching and waiting. Many believe that Rios Montt and the FRG will do whatever it takes to win the election. As for the return of “the General,” as his campaign calls him, a child of ex-guerrillas who grew up in exile had this to say: “It was because of him that we were in Mexico before. If he wants war again, we will give him war.”
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