GUATEMALA CITY – Former General and coup leader José Efraín Ríos Montt, one of Guatemala’s most controversial political leaders, who is wanted in Spain on charges of war crimes, has finally ceded leadership of the political party that he formed in 1990 to try unsuccessfully to return to the presidency democratically.
During the Oct. 30 General Assembly of his right-wing political party, The Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), Ríos Montt, 84, resigned as secretary general of the party – a post he has held for 20 years – and handed power to lawmaker Luis Fernando Pérez.
But the aging general, who ran for president in 2003, may still hold some sway over his party. The FRG also announced that Zury Ríos Sosa, Ríos Montt’s daughter, will be the party’s new deputy secretary general and presidential pre-candidate in the 2011 elections.
In his resignation speech last weekend, Ríos Montt, whose 15-month military regime from 1982-’83 is blamed for some of the worst scorched-earth atrocities of Guatemala’s civil war, stressed the “fundamental” and “historical” role that his party has played in the country’s recent history, and its “important contributions” to democracy and state of law.
With the support of a young group of military officials, Ríos Montt led a March 23, 1982 coup against President Romeo Lucas García. Ríos Montt remained in power until August, 1983, when he was overthrown by a subsequent coup.
Although short-lived, Ríos Montt’s tenure was one of the bloodiest of Guatemala’s prolonged civil war. In 2005, the Guatemalan government formally apologized to the survivors of 268 Achi indigenous people who were slaughtered in a 1982 massacre conducted under Ríos Montt’s command in the northern province of Baja Verapaz (TT, June 5, 2005).
On behalf of the thousands of indigenous people who were killed during his short de facto tenure, indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchú filed criminal charges of genocide, state terrorism and torture against Ríos Montt in Spain in 1999. In 2006, Spain issued an arrest warrant for Ríos Montt (NT, July 19, 2006).
However, the former general faces no charges in Guatemala, where he has immunity as lawmaker.
In 1999, Ríos Montt played kingmaker, helping Alfonso Portillo get elected president as the candidate of the FRG. During the Portillo presidency (2000-2004), Ríos Montt was viewed as the power behind the throne.
Portillo is now in jail in Guatemala on charges of corruption and money laundering.
Despite the constitutional ban on his candidacy for leading a coup in 1982, Ríos Montt challenged the law in the Constitutional Court and was able to present his candidacy in 2003.
But he lost the election to conservative challenger Oscar Berger.
In 2007, Ríos Montt was reelected to the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), where he continues to enjoy legal immunity from all criminal proceedings.
FRG sources told EFE this week that they will run Ríos Montt as their party’s candidate for Parlacen again next year to “keep him protected.”