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Putting War on Trial

Lessons from the case of Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt.
Putting War on Trial
Image: Eric Vandeville / Gamma-Rapho / Getty

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 ...

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Putting War on Trial
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