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From the Archives: With the April 1, 2018, death of Efraín Ríos Montt, seen by many as one of Guatemala's seamier – yet substantive – past caudillos, we rerun this piece from July 28, 2003.

Déjà vu politics and unrest in Guatemala

By Barnard R. Thompson

Presidential elections in Guatemala are scheduled for November 9 of this year [2003], and while the actual campaigns of the different parties’ candidates have yet to begin one fight has already broken out.  And it is a clash the world has seen before.

Once again retired Brigadier General Efraín Ríos Montt wants to run for the presidency of Guatemala, and over the past several weeks the quest for power by the former dictator and two-time presidential hopeful has brought about not just legal crises and a constitutional dilemma, but political pandemonium and rioting in the streets.

The enmity among opponents of the now 77-year old populist and current president of the unicameral Guatemalan congress goes back more than 20 years, to a time when Ríos Montt ruled Guatemala with an iron fist.  For those old enough to remember it goes back to a so-called civil war when tens of thousands were killed in insurgent fighting, and to an era when further tens of thousands were massacred.

General Ríos Montt participated in the March 1982 military coup that ended the brutal reign of General Romeo Lucas García [1978-82], and he was part of the junta that then took power.  But it was Ríos Montt alone who ultimately emerged as "chief-of-state,” the superpower position he held until he himself was unseated by another general in August of 1983.

The forced retirement of Ríos Montt led him to become active in Guatemala’s evangelical religious movement, where he kept a rather high profile in part to launder his image.  And the retired brigadier kept an eye on politics, with his thirst for power yet to be quenched.

The general’s ambitions however were dealt a blow.  On January 14, 1986, Guatemalans promulgated a new Constitution, and Article 186 prohibits anyone who has participated in a coup d’état or similar movement from being president.  Moreover, Article 187 prohibits the reelection of persons who have been president, although it refers specifically to those elected by popular vote.

But Ríos Montt now says, just as he claimed in the past, that the constitutional reforms do not apply to him.  Furthermore, he insists that what was promulgated in 1986 cannot be applied retroactively.

In late 1989, during the run-up to the 1990 presidential elections, I interviewed Efraín Ríos Montt at his home in Guatemala City.  And what he said then is what he argued prior to the 1995 elections, and almost exactly what he is saying today.  The following are excerpts from that 1989 interview.

BRT- Will you officially become a candidate for the presidency of Guatemala?

ERM- Yes.  Legally I have no obstacles.  From the judicial aspect there are no obstacles.

BRT- What about the Constitutional Court and its ruling (against the legality of your candidacy)?

ERM- (That court) has nothing to do with the process of my being a candidate.

BRT- So, does Guatemalan law allow the reelection of an ex-president?

ERM- No.

BRT- Then how can you run?

ERM- Because, according to the laws of Guatemala I have not been president.  As such, and according to the Constitution, there are no problems.

BRT- What about the prohibition against anyone who has participated in a coup d’état?

ERM- That went into effect after my government.

BRT- But again, what about the Constitutional Court rulings?

ERM- That court cannot consider the issue, because the one that makes the real judgment is the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.  The Supreme Electoral Tribunal is convened for elections, and it addresses the political questions.

The interview continued, with Ríos Montt reiterating his argument several times that no constitutional obstacles exist to his becoming president.  Besides the semantics manipulation, the one-dimensional logic boiled down to questions of human rights, the constitutionality of Article 186 and whether the applicable laws applied — then or now — to him?  In addition to maintaining that the Constitution cannot be applied retroactively, the general and his backers argued that Article 186 violated other articles of the same Constitution, as well as Article 23 (“Right to Participate in Government”) of the American Convention on Human Rights.

On July 14, 2003, the Constitutional Court found that Ríos Montt could not be barred from running for president, overruling a prior judgment of the lower Supreme Court of Justice.  Following opponent appeals, the Supreme Court next ordered a suspension of the general’s candidacy, and on July 23 the Constitutional Court upheld that ruling.  On July 24 supporters of Ríos Montt, many armed and wearing masks, pugnaciously took to the streets.


Barnard Thompson, editor of, spent more than 50 years in Mexico and Latin America providing multinational clients with in-depth information as well as actionable intelligence; country and political risk reporting and analysis; plus professional, lobbying and problem resolution services.


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