Efraín Ríos Montt: A Guatemalan Rorschach Test


Interfaith Radio: Struggling with the Legacy of Ríos Montt

Drugs, gangs, and organized crime are probably the most common contributors to violence in Guatemala today (violence which has actually been in modest decline for several years now). But once upon a time in the not too distant past, almost all of the violence in that country was political in nature, the result of a massive internal war between leftist guerrillas and a ruthless national army. No name is more famous — or notorious — in discussions of that violence than that of Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general who was promoted by the military to a triumvirate of authority in 1982 and soon afterward, became the de facto president of the nation. In fact, if we took away the “urban” in the sub-title of this blog, such that it read “A Sociologist’s Blog about Religion and Violence in Central America,” many readers would expect to find frequent posts about Ríos Montt, his legacy, his trial, and the on-going debate over that deeply freighted term, “genocide.” Recently I was invited to be a guest in the recording of a radio program about this topic for the syndicated NPR show called “Interfaith Voices.” The entire episode is devoted to discussing the topic of Ríos Montt and his impact upon religion and politics in Guatemala. Although I am really a scholar of current politics, violence, and religion, and not exactly a scholar of that period of Guatemala´s history, I was privileged to share the mic with Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who is probably the senior scholar who has done more research on Ríos Montt than anyone else, certainly in this country. I thought the program turned out nicely, and provides a very interesting 30 minutes of reflection, even though this is a topic that has already received a good deal of attention, especially in the wake of Ríos Montt´s conviction for genocide last year, and the subsequent overturning of that conviction a week later. These are very “live” issues for the Guatemalan public even today. I will leave for another time my thoughts about the trial itself and, specifically, the decision by the prosecution to seek the genocide conviction. For now, I am simply posting the radio show. If you are already very familiar with the story, and interested in the particular discussion of the impact of Ríos Montt on Guatemalan religion, you may want to skip ahead to the 11-minute marker. (But don´t go too far or you’ll miss a very RARE interview with former mega-church pastor Harold Caballeros.)

One of the points I try to make in the interview is that Guatemala continues to be deeply divided over how to interpret the legacy of Ríos Montt and, in the process, how to treat this man, now in his mid-eighties, lionized and vilified by millions. By calling Ríos Montt and his legacy a “Rorschach test” I am not implying that there is no definitive answer to the question of whether Ríos caused harm (great harm) or not. He did. Rather, I’m emphasizing that Guatemalans “remember” very different things when they talk about him, and indeed when they talk about the violence of the 1980s in general. More reason to support (and read) the excellent work of historians like Garrard-Burnett.

Religious NGO’s and Justice: A Unique Approach in Honduras

About a month ago the New York Times printed a story by Nicholas Phillips, a free-lance journalist who has been doing research on Central American gangs recently. He sent me the link to this story but I was so busy I forgot to post it at the time. The article profiles a very interesting program spearheaded by theAsociación para una Sociedad más Justa, which is an organization supported by Christian Reformed churches and individuals, especially in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. Kurt Alan Ver Beek is a sociologist on faculty at Calvin College who, in addition to teaching and conducting research on development in Honduras, helps provide leadership to ASJ in Honduras. In the article, he points out:

“We often blame the police, but what’s underreported in all this is that these cases also require witnesses to be brave. Fear on the part of witnesses is just as big of a problem as corruption in the system. And both create a vicious circle.”

Most folks tend to think of religious gang intervention programs aseither preventive or restorative in nature, but the ASJ program focuses on justice for victims and, interestingly, does so in cooperation with (hand-picked, trustworthy) members of the police and the courts.

“The investigators are part of an experiment in Nueva Suyapa that shows how the cycle of violence and impunity can be broken when middlemen do the work that the police and prosecutors either cannot or will not, tracking down witnesses, gaining their trust and persuading them to cooperate with the authorities.”

I have grown increasingly convinced that in order to address the problem of gang violence in Central America, judicial reform is absolutely critical. Prosecutors (in Honduras it’s the “investigative police” while in Guatemala it’s the Ministerio Publico) must have both the resources and the political will behind them in order to do their job effectively. After all, when fewer than 10% of murders reach a conviction, as is the case in Guatemala, not only do those who commit murder have the option of continuing in the trade, but victims’ families find it very difficult to opt for taking information to the police rather than simply arranging for “punishment” often through a third party (including the opposing gang). But I typically talk about judicial reform as something that needs to happen at the highest levels through pressure from the UN or international human rights advocates. But ASJ is using a kind of bottom-up approach (although they also advocate for structural reforms in the justice system as well).

It requires a change of perspective in order to imagine a church-sponsored private investigator, but ASJ is doing some groundbreaking work here, I believe. Last summer I met a Pentecostal pastor whose church in a barrio of Tegucigalpa provides an office for an ASJ-sponsored lawyer who takes complaints from community members, including extortion, and follows up on them, often working hard in order to reassure the victim or family that they will be kept safe and that the information will not end up in the wrong hands. It will be interesting to see if the idea catches on. Surely, a lot depends on the success of cases like those of Nueva Suyapa.