Obituary: Guatemala's Efrain Rios Montt

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Efrain Rios Montt sits during a court hearing in Guatemala City in 2013Image source, AFP/Getty Images

Guatemala's former military leader Efrain Rios Montt was one of the central American nation's most controversial figures, who briefly seized power during one of the bloodiest periods of the country's brutal 36-year civil war.

In May 2013, he was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the conviction was later overturned by the high court.

Legal battles over whether he was fit to stand for retrial endured until his death in 2018.

Born in Huehuetenango, Efrain Rios Montt joined the army as a young man and was an officer by the time President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was deposed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1954.

He rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general and the army's chief of staff in 1970 during the military regime of President General Carlos Manuel Arana Osorio.

He came to power through a coup in March 1982 in the middle of Guatemala's bloody war, in which Marxist rebels battled the military regime.

Civilians - the vast majority of them indigenous Mayans - were caught in the crossfire, and an estimated 200,000 died before a truce was reached in 1996, making the conflict one of Latin America's most violent wars.

Although Gen Rios Montt was overthrown by his Defence Minister Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores in August 1983, he is considered to have had a major impact on the conflict through the so-called Guns and Beans campaign.

The rebels were offered terms through which they would be fed if they supported the regime, but crushed if they continued fighting.

Prosecutors say that during his 17 months in power, Gen Rios Montt and his chief of military intelligence, Gen Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, ordered the deaths of more than 1,700 members of the Ixil Maya ethnic group, whom they suspected were supporting the rebels.

In 2012, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologised to the relatives of the victims of a December 1982 massacre in which Guatemalan soldiers killed more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres, saying it was a stain on Guatemala's history.

'Guatemala was in ruins'

General Rios Montt returned to the political limelight when he ran for president in 2003, despite a constitutional rule that no-one who had overthrown a government could stand for the presidency.

During the campaign, he was accused of orchestrating a violent protest by his supporters against the constitutional ruling.

A journalist died of a heart attack while running away from protesters in what became known as Black Thursday in Guatemala City.

But Gen Rios Montt was cleared of manslaughter charges in 2006, with prosecutors citing a lack of evidence.

He stood for president again in 2006 but was defeated in an election was marred by violence, with more than 22 people connected with political parties killed in the run-up to the vote.

The general returned to public office in 2007 as a member of Congress, which secured him immunity from prosecution over the war crimes allegations.

But that immunity expired with the end of his term in office in January 2012, and within two weeks of leaving office he was summoned to court and formally charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors called for 75-year sentences to be given to both Gen Rios Montt and his former spy chief.

Although the case was beset with delays, legal loopholes and a temporary suspension, the pre-trial hearing was held in January 2013.

The three-judge tribunal reached its verdict on 10 May, declaring him guilty and sentencing him to 80 years in prison.

Gen Rios Montt did not testify during the court proceedings, but broke his silence to give an impassioned hour-long defence before the three judges retired to consider their verdicts.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Members of the Ixil ethnic group were in court to hear the 2013 address

On more than one occasion, the 86-year-old apologised for appearing doddery, reminding the judges he was a great-grandfather. But he was crystal clear in claiming that there was no evidence he ordered the extermination of the Ixil ethnic group during his presidency.

"I am innocent," he said. "I never had the intent to destroy any national race, religion, or ethnic group."

He argued that his "mission as head of state was to reclaim order, because Guatemala was in ruins", rather than overseeing the civil war at a local level.

On 20 May, the Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned the conviction.

A retrial eventually resumed in October 2017, behind closed doors and in special conditions because of his deteriorating mental health.

He died of a heart attack, aged 91, on 1 April 2018.