Putting War on Trial
This month, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide of the country's indigenous people and crimes against humanity. Set against the history of judicial corruption and intimidation in Guatemala, this verdict was monumental. Though the ruling had been overturned due to procedural issues, the case continues generating interest worldwide.
Ríos Montt came to power through a coup in March 1982 and was removed from office by a counter-coup in August 1983. He led the country for 17 months in the midst of more than three decades of guerrilla warfare. Ríos Montt had made a confession for Christ and was involved in a Pentecostal church, so at the time, evangelicals championed him as an instrument of God against the evils of Marxism. Ríos Montt was hailed inside and outside Guatemala as a testament to the hand of God, a narrative he asserted as well. His presidency coincided with the centennial celebration of the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Guatemala, a historically Catholic country.
Like others who lived in Guatemala during the Ríos Montt era, I am conflicted. My mother was Guatemalan, and I have spent many years of my life there. El amor por "la tierra de la eternal primavera" fluye en mis venas ("The love for the 'land of eternal spring' flows through my veins"). Without minimizing the terrible atrocities that happened while he was in office, I wonder if the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity misrepresent the nature of a long and complex war.
Guatemalan and North American evangelicals both can learn from Ríos Montt's presidency and the terrible things that took place during that time. On the one hand, it reminds us how complicated sociopolitical realities can be. We too often are ignorant of history, or we draw naïve lines between right and wrong. His presidency also raises questions about Christian advocacy of war to defeat what we view as evil.
Ríos Montt took office in the early '80s, when Cold War conflicts raged worldwide and fighting persisted within the country. Since the U.S.-sponsored coup of 1954, the Guatemalan government had been led by military men or heavily influenced by the armed forces. The country's guerrilla war spanned decades, beginning in 1960 and not ending until 1996. Some of the worst atrocities came during the presidency of Romeo Lucas García, the general who preceded Ríos Montt.
With Ríos Montt, the scorched earth policy against revolutionaries and supposed sympathizers continued. Through a campaign called fusiles y frijoles or "guns and beans," he attempted to coordinate military action, the creation of civil patrols, and charitable aid to areas of conflict. The guerilla forces reached considerable strength in the early 1980s—a threat that this strategy was designed to eradicate. The efforts came at great human cost, now labeled genocide in the recent trial.
Technically, genocide is the intentional destruction of an ethnic or religious group. Was the war in Guatemala genocide in this precise sense, as many human rights and indigenous activist organizations claim? No. There was no strategy directed at the entire indigenous population. The armed forces focused on specific areas. Thousands of Ladinos, a distinct ethnic group with a mix of Hispanic and indigenous cultural traditions, also died in the war, and some heavily indigenous parts of the country did not suffer the horrific fate of others. Was Guatemala's deeply ingrained racism against the indigenous a factor in the war? No doubt it was, but it was not the ultimate driving force behind the conflict.