The Legacy of Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s Most Notorious War Criminal

Guatemala’s most notorious dictator, retired army general José Efraín Ríos Montt, died last Sunday of a heart attack at the age of 91. Ríos Montt came to power in a military coup d’état on March 23, 1982. He was deposed just 17 months later, on August 7, 1983, in a military coup orchestrated by his Minister of Defense, Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores.

Guatemala experienced extremely high levels of violence during its 36-year internal armed conflict. An estimated 200,000 people were killed, 45,000 disappeared, and tens of thousands forcibly displaced or exiled, along with countless victims of torture and sexual violence. According to the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), Ríos Montt continued and amplified the scorched-earth policy designed and implemented by his predecessor, Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982). Allegedly put in place to destroy insurgent movements, these repressive policies were also used to systematically destroy Guatemalan social movements that were advocating for change or challenging the military government, as noted by the CEH:

During the period between 1979 and 1985 the spiral of violence increased to reach unimaginable levels. The governments of generals Romeo Lucas García and Efraín Ríos Montt concentrated their efforts in annihilating the internal enemy, but they did not limit themselves to combating guerrilla movements but also systematically attacked social movements and the civilian population in areas with strong guerrilla presence, which were principally Mayan indigenous population.

The short 17 months in which Ríos Montt ruled Guatemala were the most brutal of the conflict. Human rights organizations estimate that 10,000 people were killed in the first three months of his government alone. During the first eight months of his government, there were 19 massacres each month, and more than 400 indigenous communities were destroyed.

According to the CEH, 83 percent of the victims of the conflict were indigenous. Based on these and other indicators, the CEH determined that the counterinsurgency strategy deployed during the Ríos Montt years constituted “acts of genocide” against the indigenous population in five regions of the country.

The Genocide Trials

After avoiding justice for decades, Ríos Montt was prosecuted in an open, public trial that started on March 19, 2013 and culminated in a guilty verdict on May 10, 2013. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison: 50 for genocide and 30 years for crimes against humanity against the Maya Ixil people.

Over 100 survivors and relatives of victims testified in the trial, recounting the horrors they endured, including massacres, torture, mass rape, and forced displacement. Those who fled into the mountains told harrowing stories of trying to survive amidst relentless military persecution. Many died of starvation, while others said that because of their desperate conditions, they ultimately turned themselves in and were resettled in the infamous “development poles” set up by the army to control the rural population.

Ten days after the verdict was handed down, the Constitutional Court partially suspended the genocide proceedings, based on a technicality, thereby vacating the verdict. It is suspected that various outside factors went into this decision, including pressure from Guatemalan business elites. Ríos Montt was released from military prison and placed under house arrest. His intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, who had been acquitted in the same trial, was also returned to house arrest. National and international human rights organizations argued that the Constitutional Court ruling was illegal and should be overturned.

The retrial of both Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez was set to begin in January 2015, but due to several challenges raised by Ríos Montt, the proceedings did not get underway until March 2016. At that point, Ríos Montt had been diagnosed with dementia, leading the court to apply special measures to the proceedings: the trial would not be open to the public; Ríos Montt would not be required to be present; and even if found guilty, no punishment would be handed down. After dozens of hearings, those proceedings were also suspended after a court determined that Rodríguez Sánchez had the right to an open, public trial.

In October 2017, the retrial began again. This time, however, the court determined that it would only hear the case one day a week. The court was hearing the closed-door proceedings against Ríos Montt on Friday mornings, and in the afternoons, it heard the public proceedings against Rodríguez Sánchez.

In 2017, a court also determined that Ríos Montt should stand trial for the 1982 massacre at Las Dos Erres, in which 200 people, including women, children, and the elderly, were killed.

Ríos Montt’s Legacy

Ríos Montt will be remembered as one of the 20th century’s most ruthless dictators. The 2013 sentence that convicted him of genocide, while technically invalidated by Guatemala’s highest court, will stand as a historic document, which based on testimonial, documentary, forensic, and other evidence, demonstrated Ríos Montt’s responsibility for genocide against the Maya Ixil people. He will be remembered not as a great political leader or military strategist, but as a man who deployed legions of lawyers to delay, obstruct, and avoid justice; ultimately dying while being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at George Mason University. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Paulo Estrada is a human rights activist, archaeology student at San Carlos University, and civil party in the Military Diary case.


  1. So true. Great article except for where it mentioned, “ultimately dying while being prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.” The government actually overruled his sentence because of two judges vote.

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