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All hell is breaking loose in Guatemala and few outside that tragic nation seem to care or even notice.
In recent days, followers of General Efrain Rios Montt, stirred into action by the rightwing Republican Front Party (FRG) which he controls, have charged into the streets of Guatemala City armed with machetes, clubs and guns. Led by FRG militants, the crowds, including many members of the Guatemalan army, have marched on the nation’s courts, opposition parties and newspapers, torching buildings, shooting out windows and bullying opponents of the Bible-spouting dictator.
The riots were orchestrated by Rios Montt’s cohorts after the Guatemalan Supreme Court (the nation’s second highest court) suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed to hear a complaint brought by two right-center parties that the general, the butcher of thousands during the 1980s, is constitutionally barred from running for president of the country he once ruled with an iron fist.
The 77-year old Rios Montt, now white-haired and grizzled, denounced the ruling as "judicial manipulation" and, in a radio address, implored his followers to take to the streets to protest the decision. Within an hour of his speech, thousands of the general’s backers had flooded the capital city, blocking traffic, chanting threatening slogans and waving machetes.
Hooded men ransacked buildings, fired machine guns from SUVs, smashed windows and set fire to cars and piles of tires. The situation in Guatemala City became so chaotic over the weekend of July 26th that the both the UN mission and the US embassy were closed.
It all seemed like a bloody flashback to the 1980s, when Rios Montt’s goons roamed the streets at night threatening nuns and priests, kidnapping reporters, torturing dissidents and killing at will, especially those of Mayan descent.
Journalists appear to have been a main target of the attackers. In the first wave of street violence, Hector Ramirez, a reporter for a Left-center television station, was hounded and chased by a mob until he collapsed in the street and died of heart failure. As Ramirez was carried away, the rioters chanted, "Journalist Spotted, Journalist Dead."
Edgar Valle, a reporter for the Noticias television news show, was briefly detained and roughed up by Rios Montt’s mob. ”They attacked everybody without differentiating,” said Valle, after being released. ”It was strange to me because my channel has always been identified with the government. These people didn’t want the press to cover what was happening.”
The rioters seemed to target cameramen in particular. Hector Estrada was filming the riots for Guatevision when he was attacked by a gang of masked men swinging machetes. They seized his video camera, drenched him with gasoline and tried to light him on fire as he fled down the street.
"I was praying for God to save me," said Estrada. "I thought they were going to hack me to pieces."
Two political reporters in Guatemala told CounterPunch that they have received multiple death threats in the past week. One of the reporters told us that he had gotten two telephone calls threatening him and his wife and children. Another reporter said that she had arrived home to find a death threat nailed to the door of her home.
”The press is the only functioning institution in this country," says Mario Antonio Sandoval, vice president of the excellent daily paper Prensa Libre. "That is why they either have to control it or scare it into silence."
The strategy appears to have worked. Even though much of the violence has been aimed at journalists, the US press has largely ignored the riots and the political re-emergence of Rios Montt and his rightwing thugs. In the US, only the Miami Herald printed detailed accounts of the riots.
Not only has the Guatemalan government taken no action to quell the rioters, members of the Army and police have actually joined the frenzy of violence. One account of the riots by Prensa Libre tallied 46 criminal acts of violence and vandalism, 12 of those the paper said were committed by government troops and police.
Fearing the impending return of the regime that slaughtered nearly 200,000 people, Mayan peasants in the highlands began steaming across the border into Mexico last week. But they were blocked by hostile border patrols with orders from the Mexican government, under its cruel Plan Salvamento, to either send them back into Guatemala or lock them up in immigrant concentration camps, where they are routinely starved and abused by guards.
The reaction of the Bush administration to Rios Montt’s antics has been restrained, given the circumstances. Even though the US Embassy was taunted by rioters, there have been no statements of condemnation directly from Colin Powell. Indeed, we’ve only heard from state department spokesman Richard Boucher, who continues to say the administration would prefer that Rios Montt not run for office. This weekend Boucher was again rolled out to remark on the rampages in the streets of Guatemala City. "They are a dangerous mockery of protest," Boucher said. But he stopped short of pointing the finger at the General, whose infamous career is every bit as bloody as that of Saddam Hussein.
A Rios Montt victory in November could complicate matters for a Bush administration that is crusading against political corruption in Latin America. Of course, the preacher in this crusade is none other than the unappetizing Otto Reich, who enjoys deep and warm ties to Rios Montt and his gang of gruesome generals.
Still, Rios Montt is an unreconstructed monster of an older vintage, trained in the art of the military strongman at the School of the Americas in the 1950s. Powell no doubt feels that the general, if elected, might become as problematic as Manuel Noriega was for the current president’s father. That said, the Bush administration may calculate that it can’t afford to be too harsh in its condemnations of Rios Montt, who no doubt has many stories to tell about the CIA’s affirmative role in the Guatemala bloodbaths of the 1980s.
Guatemala’s court system is a maze of conflicting and overlapping jurisdictions. Already this year, Rios Montt’s election bid has been ruled on by three different courts, the electoral court, the Supreme Court and the constitutional court.
Last week’s decision to suspend Rios Montt’s campaign by the Supreme Court came only day’s after the nation’s highest court, the so-called Constitutional Court, approved the general’s candidacy in a sharply divided 4-3 decision. The majority on the constitutional court agreed with Rios Montt’s claim that the constitutional amendment that bans those who seized power in military coups from running for president doesn’t apply to him since the amendment was passed after he had left office.
The General took power in a bloody coup in 1982, which was backed by the Reagan administration. Over the next 18 months Rios Montt supervised a vicious crackdown on political opponents and Mayan peasants that left more than 19,000 dead, thousands more in jail and more than 100,000 displaced from their homes. He has been called the Pinochet of Guatemala and several war crimes complaints are pending against him in different courts in Guatemala and in Spain.
The constitutional court is slated to hear Rios Montt’s appeal later this week. However, the three members of the court who voted against the General in the previous case announced that they will not attend the hearing unless their safety can be guaranteed by the current government, headed by Rios Montt’s protégé Alfonso Portillo.
Rios Montt has boasted that he owns the votes of four justices on the court. And indeed that’s precisely how many votes he got in the July 15th ruling that initially put him on the ballot.
Rigoberta Menchu, the Mayan activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982 and brought genocide charges against Rios Montt in Spain, bitterly concedes that the general is probably right about having the top court rigged in his favor. She says Rios Montt and his FRG party, its accounts plump with funds derived from a fruitful association with Colombian drug cartels, have corrupted the judicial system through bribes and intimidation in an attempt to grease the old dictator’s return to power.
"The court has supported a coup d’etat by the Rios Montt’s Republican Front," says Menchu. "And they have hidden its hand. The FRG usurped a court that was meant to protect the legal and moral welfare of the Guatemalan state."
Menchu also says that the Rios Montt knows he doesn’t have the votes to win the election in November unless he intimidates enough people into staying away from the polls. He certainly is off to a brisk start. But she suggests that the general’s campaign and the riots that have accompanied it may in fact be a kind of calculated rouse designed to create a chaotic and unstable political situation that would lead the military to seize control of the government in another coup.
"It looks a lot like 1982," she said.
That was a very bloody year.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature (Common Courage Press) and coeditor, with Alexander Cockburn, of The Politics of Anti-Semitism (AK Press). Both books will be published in October.