A Violence Called Democracy

The Guatemala of Rios Montt

by | Dec 28, 2003

A local election rally for the opposition PAN party gathers workers.

It became known as Guatemala’s Black Thursday. Peasant demonstrators swept through the streets of Guatemala City. They smashed windows and burn cars, while some chanted “We want Rios Montt, because he is for the poor, the other candidates are for the rich.” The allegedly spontaneous July 25 riots were a well-orchestrated and financed show of support for the presidential candidacy of former general Efraín Rios Montt and for the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), the party he founded and now leads.

The Guatemalan Constitution states that that no one involved in a coup d’etat may run for president. Rios Montt, who oversaw the1982-1983 massacre campaign after coming to power through a military coup, asserted that the law did not apply to him. He was registered as a presidential candidate July 14 by the FRG-packed Constitutional Court. However, the Supreme Court challenged this decision a week later, upholding the constitutional rule. The riots were intended to show “the will of the people” to have the former dictator run for president.

Newspaper Prensa Libre called the riots “mental insanity provoked by the impossibility of (Rios Montt) reaching the presidency” and warned “The government, its resources, its institutions, were placed at the disposition of terrorism of the State, which represents an historical regression of such gravity that it only demonstrates what the FRG has become.”

Military and police commanders stayed in the barracks as FRG-paid provocateurs looted, stoned, and threatened journalists, pedestrians, workers and embassies. One 65-year old reporter, Hector Martinez, died of a heart attack while running from demonstrators. As if the physical destruction and loss of life were not enough, the Constitutional Court promptly overturned the Supreme Court decision a week after the riots.

Rios Montt and the Portillo regime do not represent something new. They represent, rather, a more extreme version of a democracy premised on the pre-emptive logic of counterinsurgency and run by an army and a political elite that refuse to confront the repressive past. The institutional structures that derived from the doctrine of national security have not been dismantled in Guatemala. In attempting to only “normalize”, minimize or ameliorate, rather than eradicate repression and human rights violations and truly reform the state, the army succeeded in none of the above.

Speaking about guaranteeing human rights and the dismantling of military intelligence apparatuses in Guatemala at a time when anti-terrorism is at the center of global politics and right-wing governments dominate in both Guatemala and the United States, is like tacking into a hurricane with a dinghy.

And yet the Guatemalan situation is a litmus test for human rights and democracy. Rios Montt, now Congressional leader, is already considered the power behind the throne in the Portillo government. One frequently told joke is that President Portillo has the last word, and it is ”Yes general.” It is no joking matter though. Rios Montt’s political machinations have enabled him to penetrate Congress, the Constitutional Court and the army. His son, General Enrique Rios Sosa, rose meteorically from Chief of Finances of the Army to Chief of Staff of the National Defense in 30 months. The days of the riots, Rios Sosa ignored civil society’s call for troops, keeping them in the barracks. Rumors circulated that Rios Sosa might even attempt a coup when his father’s approval rating plummeted 60% in the opinion polls after the riots. It is little wonder then that there was a sigh of relief when Rios Sosa was removed from his post by President Portillo “for personal reasons.” (Prensa Libre editorial, Sept. 2 2003) only a few days after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that the U.S. had “serious reservations” about the Rios Montt candidacy (Prensa Libre August 14 2003).

Intimidation continues nonetheless with threats against journalists and human rights activists, as well as candidates from other parties in the countryside. Lorenzo Sequec Juracán, a mayoral candidate who stepped down from the race due to death threats, declared, “Life comes before any elected office” (Prensa Libre August 14 2003).

The lesson in Guatemala is that you can’t establish democracy without confronting the preeminence of preemptive security and the forces empowered to guarantee it in whatever manner deemed necessary. Otherwise, one is merely establishing a violence called a democracy.

In Guatemala, the apparatuses of military intelligence were never dismantled. Individual officers were targeted for corruption, but not for human rights violations. The phenomenon of ex-General Rios Montt as presidential candidate illustrates the legacies of a transition to peace and democracy that was built on the scaffolding of a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in which 75,000 were killed. Rios Montt headed this massacre campaign and is a child of the marriage of counterinsurgency premised on the logic of national security. This logic within Guatemalan military intelligence included preemptive killings in the name of forced disappearances and what officers refer to as matazonas or “killing zones” with no distinction made between civilians and combatants.

The phenomenon of Rios Montt is also the result of the malnourished Peace Accords signed in 1996: the elite of Guatemala has systematically refused to take fiscal responsibility to implement the necessary economic and social reforms of the Peace Accords for Guatemala to become a liberal democracy. The army, for its part, responsible for creating a complicity of violence with a paramilitary of over one million male indigenous villagers, was unwilling in the negotiations to give up its intelligence apparatuses.

Both actions have opened the political space of discontent for Rios Montt and the FRG to ride in on the coattails of army-identified, popular discontent. Equally as critically, it kept in place the doctrine of national security and the institution that such a doctrine empowered: the army.

Closely associated with organized crime and murky intelligence networks established in the decades of naked military governance and dire human rights violations, the phenomenon of Rios Montt also has to do with using the structures of governance—the Army and its intelligence apparatuses, the executive and legislative offices—to oversee corruption and drugtrafficking in the millions of dollars. FRG government scandals indicate to what extent Rios Montt and his FRG-intelligence compatriots will go to win the election in order to retain their grip on power.



After three decades of naked military rule since 1954, the Guatemalan military had a political awakening. A group of “’institutionalist”’ officers advocated a unique form of civil-military co-governance with which to win the counterinsurgency campaign both militarily and politically. With the 1982 coup, this group of officers set in motion a politico-military project that fashioned a democratic transition out of a counterinsurgency campaign: they ”prepared the environment” for elections by way of massacre and once pacification was, in their view, accomplished after 18 months, ordered elections for a civilian presidency for 1985.

They looted the legal and parliamentary system as a way of maintaining the army’s prerogrativesprerogatives, creating a flexible yet bounded political opening in which intelligence is free to selectively repress, and if deemed necessary, eliminate potential “opponents of the state.”

Refusing to restructure the intelligence apparatus was a serious error on their part, as it opened the door for the re-ascendance of those officers who very much disagreed with this civil-military “mixed” approach: those wedded to the economic old guard, or cofradía, returned to power with the FRG in 2000.

The institutionalists had wanted to operate within the paradigm of a controlled democracy, maintaining control over intelligence activities and ensuring a moderate apertura. They were hoisted on their own petard for two reasons. On the one hand, because they overestimated the ability of the left, they were unwilling to “reform” intelligence of its dirty war tactics. On the other hand, because they underestimated the ability of the right, they lost control of intelligence to the ultra cofradíadeadset against the civil-military “mixed” solution and the peace accords. These hardline officers managed to re-take power by way of a political party on the back of civil-military co-governance.



A symbiotic relationship exists in Guatemala through which the civilian president presides over the administration of the State, while the military remains in charge of security issues. Civilian presidents effectively are held hostage to “security” and “anti-terrorist” concerns by military intelligence. For example, neither the Arzu administration (1996-2000) nor the Army High Command cooperated in providing documents, testimonies or archives to the Commission on Historical Clarification (the truth commission)—as so established by the Peace Accords.

This situation allowed for the army, during the UN-directed peace process in the mid-1990s, to negotiate terms that were minimally inconvenient to the army and did not threaten its basic institutional power or autonomy. Thus, the military has remained firmly in control of intelligence activities, monitoring all forms of protest, overseeing police actions, ordering disappearances and killings, and then carrying out their own investigations of these activities to maintain oversight of their impunity. The military continues to define what constitutes internal as well as external security issues without meaningful civilian oversight, and maintain their ideological and operational justifications for doing so in direct violation of the Peace Accords

Under the Portillo regime, the Presidential Chief of Staff (EMP), notorious in the 1970s and early 1980s for its operations of disappearance and killing, serves as part of a ’parallel power’ network—although the apparatus was to have been dismantled as part of the Peace Accords. The main players behind the scenes are a number of very hardcore intelligence officers, many of whom were cashiered from the army for their connections with organized crime and drug-trafficking. Disregarding internal army procedures, these officers make all recommendations concerning military staffing, budget, promotions, logistics and intelligence over and above the National Defense Minister and military zone commanders. Officers with FRG affinities were purportedly promoted to “maintain stability within the army”; yet given drugtrafficking flights into specific military zones, loyal commanders were appointed to serve as confidantes to the parallel power. In this role, they dispatch suitcases filled with millions of dollars to both the EMP and the executive office, according to officers interviewed (2003 interviews).

As one military officer has remarked, “The parallel powers within the FRG—contraband, organized crime, and hardline retired officers, many of whom were cashiered from the army for drugtrafficking—are contaminating the entire system of governance ” (2002 interview). This extreme politicization of staffing and command positions has created a dangerous sense of uncertainty and frustration within the army.

With few ties to the traditionally elitist private sector, Portillo and the FRG began in office by actively pushing for a package of new taxes and fiscal reforms bitterly opposed by the powerful lobbying arm of the established private sector (CACIF). The FRG turned to the political and economic network it had developed from its two presidential campaigns, referred to as the “hidden forces” behind Portillo. “I’m an outsider,” Portillo confided to me with regard to the Guatemalan ruling elite, “so I’ve had to look to others for financial support” (2000 interview).

This volatile combination of the “parallel power” and “hidden forces” has rocked the Portillo regime with public scandals of top government officials involved in money laundering and drugtrafficking charges, prompting stinging critiques, as well as political pressures, from both the State Department and the U.S. Embassy. Given this situation, it is even more problematic that under Portillo and in the wake of September 11, retired military intelligence officers have acquired enhanced powers with a new form of ”integration of security forces.” In November 2001, at the urging of the United Nations, Guatemala established a new anti-terror commission led by a retired military officer who directs a new interagency security committee dominated by military officers.



One might say that now, in the early part of the 21st century, officers are reaping what they sowed institutionally: intelligence-engendered violence, corruption and crime that has become the scaffolding of government. But the global order in which these events are happening is also of some consequence. Human rights violations and protections, as we know, do not operate in a vacuum.

While the Bush administration claims its National Security Strategy has no historical precedents to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the new doctrine in fact does not “exclude or eliminate other tools of national security” (Colin Powell testimony, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, September 2002). Parallels of NSS to counterinsurgent wars are worth noting: a)the notion of pre-emption: a logic of war premised on potential threats in the remote future; in the case of Guatemala, this took the form of forced disappearance and special tribunals in which lawyers could not meet with their clients and b) the deliberate lack of distinction between terrorist/combatant and civilian. The Argentine, Chilean and Guatemalan generals, if we remember, described their opponents as ‘terrorist-subversives” to be liquidated. While the winning of hearts and minds “to gain the will of the people to cooperate voluntarily” is important, one officer informed me, intimidation and torture are not abandoned when it is deemed necessary to wage war against potential “enemies of the state”—who may be your local mayoral candidate.

In Guatemala, the U.S. supports the November 2003 elections, pressures Rios Montt’s son to step down as Chief of National Defense, denies visas to military officers involved in drugtrafficking, and publicly supports threatened human rights activists. However, it has also reaped what it has sown over the last half century. In identifying first communists, then drugtraffickers, and now terrorists as the enemy that needed to be defeated even if it meant supporting a dictatorship like Rios Montt in the 1980’s and establishing and financing the repressive security apparatus throughout this tragic period, the US ultimately has provided a bulwark to state-sponsored repression and corruption in Guatemala. It needs to understand that its global campaign of national security strategy against terrorism, including military trials, provide officers like Rios Montt and his cofradía with a sense of vindication: we were right all along to fight terrorism in the killing zones and with special tribunals of the 1980s and right to continue to repress Guatemalans through the “legitimate” institutions of a democratically elected government. Finally, similar to the current Bush administration with its potential major scandals such as Iraq contracts and fabricated intelligence, were they to lose the elections, the scandal-rocked FRG and Rios Montt are out to win the elections at any cost to keep their grip on power.

Apart from developing effective strategies to expose and eradicate the ‘parallel powers’ and ’hidden forces’ that work for impunity against corruption and human rights violations in this and future civilian regimes in Guatemala, the parallels between counterinsurgency and NSS, and the potential for killing zones and special tribunals in the future, should not be ignored. In the end, without purging the murderous security apparatus, even moderate dissent remains a dangerous activity in Guatemala, jeopardizing this very fragile liberal democracy.

Fall 2003Volume III, Number 1

Dr. Jennifer Schirmer, a political anthropologist, is a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Development and the Environment at the University of Oslo, Norway. She has written extensively on the Guatemalan armed forces for over a decade, notably The Guatemalan Military Project: A Violence Called Democracy (UPennsylvania Press 1998 & 2000). She currently directs a Norwegian Foreign Ministry-funded project to draw the armed actors into the peace process in Colombia.

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