José Efraín Ríos Montt (16 June 1926 – 1 April 2018) has inspired the most controversy of any of Guatemala’s generals. Assuming power in March, 1982, (following a coup d’état that removed then president Fernando Romeo Lucas García, the brother of our previous subject) Ríos Montt himself would be overthrown the following year. During his short tenure as head of the Guatemalan government, Rios Montt continued the state’s counterinsurgency strategy that resulted in the deaths of thousands of indigenous villagers, most of whom were politically neutral or uninvolved in Guatemala’s Civil War. Estimates of the deaths of non-combatants have run into the tens of thousands with over 100,000 having to flee their homes, particularly in the departments of Quiché and Huehuetenango. Rios Montt would later be held responsible for the policy that led to this tragic outcome, and was indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Guatemalan government convicted him in 2013, but the case was overturned on procedural grounds. Years later, another trial against him ensued, but Rios Montt would die before its conclusion.
In an interview on June 2, 1982, while president, Ríos Montt discussed the allegations that the army was massacring villages under a secret government policy to wipe out the rebels. Ironically, in the following dialogue, Ríos Montt commented on the important presence of indigenous communities within various regions of the country, the same communities he was later accused of trying to destroy in hopes of creating a more uniform national identity. He also analyzed the causes of the guerrilla movement.
We are 7.5 million Guatemalans in total. Only about 500,000 enjoy certain freedoms and rights, or privileges, but the rest of the people don’t have them. So many people don’t have a source of permanent employment. They don’t have a school that is permanent, they don’t have a doctor, a medical center, they don’t have a highway. So then what has happened is that those who govern have overlooked them. They pursue ways to penetrate those areas in ways that promote their own interests, to extract whatever. They forget about the rest of the people there.
The problem is sickness, poverty, ignorance, unemployment, all of it, but there is another serious problem: we are a collection of nations, with different characteristics, with different languages, with different customs. That’s to say that we are not integrated into one family. We are a complex of different nations. We want to create one nationality, one national identity, but that is a fantasy, that is false. We have lost our vision. We are not a transplant of Europe here in America. We are a hybrid, we are a large mix of exploiters on one hand who continue to exploit the rest on the other.
The Petén is a very large territory, which is still full of forests, where we could put a lot of people [to help with land shortages elsewhere], and set up reservations. But we can’t because we would be invading other nations. Really, we are a region of different nations. El Quiche is a nation. Huehuetenango is an area of three nations. San Marcos two nations. Chimaltenango is a place of five nations. They have their own languages and dialects.
There shouldn’t be any repression. I have not ordered it. As president, I assure you that the army is not doing that [massacring peasants in the countryside], but if you want to believe the guerrillas, then there is nothing I can do. I have permanently prohibited operations in the natural areas, and if I can’t control the army, what am I doing here?
There is no repression, there is only reaction.
We are pledged to following the law. The subversives want us to withdraw our personnel who are there in the mountains (as part of a negotiation). They want them to go back to their barracks, but with what objective? Instead of putting the flag of blue and white (the Guatemalan flag) they want a red one with a sickle and hammer on it. What would someone sitting here in my position do, take troops out so they can put up a flag there that isn’t ours? Or, leave our troops there? So, I’m going to leave my troops there. I’m going to say, this place is for Guatemalans, and to those who don’t adhere to Guatemalan laws, you have to be judged by those Guatemalan laws. And for those who don’t surrender, I am going to shoot you.
The excerpts I have edited and translated are from footage of an interview conducted and produced on June 2, 1982 by Pamela Yates, whose work has been crucial in documenting events of the Rios Montt era. The full interview can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDFk5uMBf7U