For many years, between 1975 and 1992, I traveled across Southern Mexico in search of Mayan ruins. Friends have asked me whether I have seen the ruins at Tikal in Guatemala, but all I could do was sadly shake my head. The closest I came to Guatemala was the Mexican State of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula. I would dearly love to have crossed the border into Belize, and from there proceeded to Tikal, but it was not to be. The reason was the ugly stories filtering across the border of massacres, torture, rape, and genocide, especially of the native Mayan population. The perpetrator? One Efrain Rios Montt (pictured in the center above), who had staged a rightist coup in 1982.
It was only when President Ronald Reagan called Rios Montt “a man of great personal integrity” who had been given a “bum rap” as a human rights abuser when I knew that we were dealing here with a world-class criminal rat. Out of a population of some seven million in 1980, Rios Montt and his death squads were responsible for some 200,000 extra-judicial murders in Guatemala, “the land of the eternal spring.” Over a million natives fled the country for safety in the United States and elsewhere. Yet the Reagan administration continued to support the man and offer him aid.
In 2012, Rios Montt was charged with genocide and was convicted. But then his daughter Zury warned other of the nation’s leaders that, if Rios Montt served any time, they would be next. The verdict was repudiated by the Constitutional Court, and Rios walked a free man. The people of Guatemala are still trying, however, to have him called to account for his crimes against his people, either at home or at The Hague. Rios might be in his eighties, but he should not be allowed to die as a free man.