More than three years after a bloodless coup ended the political career of former Guatemalan President Jose Efrain Ríos Montt, controversy still rages over his 18-month rule. Depending on the observer, Ríos Montt was either a bloody dictator or an anointed Christian statesman.

Guatemalans remember the Sunday-evening television broadcasts when the ex-president preached evangelical faith to this largely Roman Catholic nation. They also remember the thousands who “disappeared” under his government. Interestingly, the act that may have brought down his regime—establishing a stiff 10 percent sales tax—has not been rescinded.

When he became president in 1982, Ríos Montt was principal of a day school operated by El Verbo (The Word) church. After leaving office, he returned to the Guatemala City church to work full-time as an elder.

Elder Ríos Montt

El Verbo is a 1,700-member charismatic congregation whose leaders played an important role in advising the Ríos Montt regime. Housed in a former roller skating rink, the church supports more than 70 daughter congregations (including one in Miami), missionaries throughout Latin America, various publications, a school, and an orphanage.

One of 15 church elders, Ríos Montt directs the “equipping department,” which has developed more than 60 seminars and courses to train Christians for church leadership positions. He also travels throughout Guatemala leading seminars on Christian leadership and discipleship for pastors’ associations.

In an interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Ríos Montt said the transition from head of state to church elder was not difficult. “For me there is no difference. As I see it, back then [as president] I was simply ministering to a bigger church.”

While agreeing that poverty exists in Guatemala, Ríos Montt insists that the most urgent need is bringing people to faith in Jesus Christ. He says God installed him as head of state to make spiritual truths known to the people of Guatemala.

Many have criticized his policies as president, which included distributing guns to Indians and ruthlessly subduing suspected guerrillas. In response, Ríos Montt said, “Some critics take aim at oppression in other countries. They come from Europe and the United States to Guatemala, go look how the Indians live, and they project themselves on that lifestyle. The majority of the Indians are happy where they are. The problems came when they had to flee their land because of the guerrillas.”

The former president dismisses many of his critics as “humanists [who] divide human beings into compartments with separate physical and spiritual needs.” He says this type of humanism is the root cause of a spiritual malaise afflicting the United States.

Citing “liberal church leaders” and “liberation theologians” as the most odious purveyors of this humanist thought, Ríos Montt also points a finger at evangelicals. He says those who look to technology to solve the church’s problems or emphasize spiritual experiences over total Christian commitment have succumbed to humanist ideas. He says he also sees danger in the North American church ignoring needs in Latin America.

“Christians in North America should read 1 Corinthians 12:12–26 [which describes the church as a body].… In this part of the world, the head of the body is the United States. The other countries in America are the rest of the body.… But instead of honoring the humble parts of this body, the United States has forgotten the smaller parts, which is dangerous, because the problems of.… Latin America are also problems of the head [the United States].”

By Kevin Piecuch, in Guatemala City.

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