Efrain Rios-Montt

06.11.2012 ( Last modified: 05.04.2018 )
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José Efraín Ríos Montt was born on 16 June 1926. He began his military career in 1946 as a cadet and was made general in 1972. Between 1970 and 1974 he was chief of the Guatemalan army. In 1974 he was elected president as a candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, but the candidate of the armed forces, general Kjell Laugerud, deposed him and sent him into exile.

On 23 March 1982 Ríos Montt became de facto president in a coup d’état, deposing General Fernando Lucas Garcia. He initially established a three-member military junta before assuming total control. During his rule, Ríos Montt installed a military regime, dissolved the congress, and suspended the constitution, replacing it with the Fundamental Statute of Guatemala (Estatuto Fundamental de Guatemala, Decree law 24-82). His era was characterized by massacres against the Indian population and the destruction of 440 Indian villages. Hundreds of thousands of victims were buried in secret mass graves.

Ríos Montt ruled the country for over sixteen months until he was overthrown by a subsequent military coup by his then Minister of Defense Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores on 8 August 1983.

In 1989, he founded the Guatemalan Republican Front (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, or FRG) party. In 1990, he ran unsuccessfully for president and failed on constitutional grounds. The same year he was elected to congress and served until 2004.

legal procedure


On 6 June 2001, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR) launched a criminal complaint against Rios Montt for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for the massacre committed by military forces in 11 villages in 1982, wherein hundreds of civilians were killed. The complaint was directed against Efraín Rios Montt and four other former members of the junta: Egberto Horacio Maldonado Schaad, spokesman of the military junta from 23 March 1982 until June 1982; Francisco Luis Gordillo Martinéz, spokesman of the junta from June 1982 until 8 August 1983; Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, Minister of Defence from 1 September 1982 until 8 August 1983; Héctor Mario Lopez Fuentes, chief of the army’s General Staff from 24 March 1982 until 21 October 1983. The AJR was joined by Guatemalan civil society organization Center for Human Rights Legal Action (Centro para la Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos, or CALDH) and attorney Edgar Perez.

In 2010, another complaint was filed regarding the massacre that took place in the “Area Ixil”.

On 26 January 2012, twelve days after Ríos Montt’s congressional term ended and with it his parliamentary immunity, Rios Montt was indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with his term as de facto head of state. He was placed under house arrest pending his trial. On 17 March 2012, the prosecution issued a formal indictment against Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez. The accusation aimed 72 facts committed against the Mayan people of the Ixil Triangle involving 1’771 victims.

On 21 May 2012, a second charge of genocide was added to the indictment regarding the Dos Erres massacre where 201 civilians were killed between the 6 and 8 December 1982.

After several procedural debates, the trial against Ríos Montt finally started on 2 May 2013. On 8 May 2013, the prosecutor requested a sentence of 75 years in prison against Ríos Montt and his co-accused Rodríguez Sánchez for genocide and crimes against humanity. Ríos Montt pleaded not guilty of all charges. On 10 May 2013, Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison for genocide and to 30 years for crimes against humanity. In addition, the Court ordered his immediate detention. His co-accused, Rodríguez was acquitted of all charges.

However, on 19 and 20 May 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that Ríos Montt’s due process rights had been violated and invalidated all proceedings that took place after 19 April 2013, effectively vacating the judgment. In May 2017 the Center for Human Rights Legal Action filed a complaint against three (now former) judges of the Constitutional Court arguing that they committed legal prevarication (breach of duty) when delivering this ruling.

On 25 October 2013 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released a statement urging the State of Guatemala to ensure that the amnesty law does not prevent the investigation of the serious violations of human rights that took place during the armed conflict, nor the identification, prosecution and punishment of the responsible for these crimes.

Retrial proceedings were reinitiated on 23 July 2015. Based on a report by the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses, Ríos Montt was declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

After various interruptions, on 16 March 2016 Presiding Judge María Elena Castellanos declared in hearing that retrial proceedings in the Maya Ixil genocide case should start before High Risk Tribunal “B”, disregard pending motions. Ríos Montt was not present due to health conditions, while his co-accused, Rodríguez Sánchez, was present.

On 3 June 2016, the First Court of Appeals suspended the trial indefinitely Separate trials against on Ríos Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez resumed in 13 October 2017 before the High Risk Tribunal B following an order by the Constitutional Court. The case was separated in two distinct trials because it was found that Ríos Montt suffers from dementia and therefore special provisions should be applied in his case. These include holding the proceedings behind closed doors as opposed to public hearings, representation in court by his guardians or their legal representatives and no application of criminal sentence if found guilty. His defence team filed lack of jurisdiction and recusal motions against the Tribunal which were both dismissed.

On 31 March 2017, a new trial against Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity committed during the « Dos Erres » massacre was ordered.

Ríos Montt died on 1 April 2018, He was 91 years old.


In December 1999, the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation (Nobel Peace Prize laureate) launched a criminal complaint against eight Guatemalan militaries – amongst them General Rios Montt – for genocide, torture and crimes against humanity. The complaint was submitted to the Spanish authorities, as several Spanish citizens had been victims of the repression in Guatemala. On 30 June 1980 the Spanish embassy had been attacked and destroyed after about thirty demonstrators of a Maya farmers’ union had taken refuge there; 36 people died, among them the plaintiff’s father.

On 27 March 2000, Judge Guillermo Ruiz Polanca declared himself competent to take up the case. However, on 1 December 2000, the highest Spanish Criminal Court ruled that the proceedings had to be abandoned, as “the Guatemalan judiciary is capable of trying the case, thereby voiding the competence of the Spanish courts”.

In March 2003, the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation filed an appeal against this decision. On 23 February 2003, the Appeal Court denied the Spanish courts competence to judge the genocide of the Maya Indians of Guatemala, but recognized their jurisdiction over the murder of Spanish citizens in Guatemala.

On 26 September 2005, the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected this decision. It asserted that according to international law, it was not necessary that there be Spanish victims in order to sit on judgement on international crimes. On 7 July 2006, a Spanish judge ordered Efraín Rios Montt and his seven co-defendants to be remanded in custody pending trial. An international arrest warrant was issued to that end.

On 14 December 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court refused the extradition of Rios Montt and the other high-ranking officials claiming that Spain did not have jurisdiction over these cases.


THE CIVIL WAR (1960-1996)

Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala was embroiled in a civil war that resulted in 250 000 victims (deaths and disappearances). The war ended following a peace signing on 29 December 1996.

The civil war, which would last for 36 years, began in 1960 when young defiant officials and countrymen revolted against the dictatorial regime. Until 1982, there were a series of military or pro military governments.

In 1978, General Fernándo Romeo Lucas García became the president of Guatemala. It was during his presidency that the first large-scale massacre against the Mayan population took place.

In 1982, General Efraín Ríos Montt took control following a coup d’état. He set up Civil Defense Patrols (PAC) made up of 900 000 militia who the army had recruited by force to fight against the guerrilla. He intensified the scorched earth policy, tortures and enforced disappearances. More than 45 000 people fled to Mexico where they stayed in refugee camps in Chiapas and Tabasco. In response, 6000 soldiers from the four main guerrilla groups (EGP, ORPA, FAR and PGT) unified to form the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). From this point onwards, the conflict truly became a civil war.

Ríos Montt’s brief presidency (from 1982 to 1983) is considered to be the most violent period of the conflict. During this period, 440 Mayan villages were completely destroyed and 200 000 Mayan people were killed in attacks of extreme cruelty (such as; amputation, impalement and torture). Although the (left-wing) guerrilla forces and the (right-wing) death squads had committed summary executions, forced disappearances and had tortured civilians, the majority of human rights violations (93%) were committed by the Guatemalan army and by the PACs that it controlled.

In 1986, free elections were at last organised and were won by Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo of the Christian Democratic Party. It was not until 1996, however, that a peace agreement was signed between the government and the guerrilla, putting an end to a conflict that had lasted for 36 years.


In June 1994, the Oslo Accords ordered the creation of a truth commission called the Guatemalan “Commission for Historical Clarification”; its aim was to investigate human rights violations in relation to the armed conflict and to prepare a report covering these violations and their causes. The Commission also aimed to establish specific recommendations to “encourage national peace and harmony in Guatemala”. After having listened to thousands of accounts and having unearthed several clandestine burial sites, the Commission published a final report in February 1999, titled “Silent memories”.

In its report, the CEH accounted for 200 000 deaths, 50 000 disappearances, one million internally displaced refugees and more than 600 devastated communities. The majority of crimes (91%) were committed during the regimes of General Romes Lucas García (1978-1982) and General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983).

The facts established by this report have been used on a number of occasions during the trials of perpetrators of human rights violations, particularly that of Felipe Cusanero Coj. A former paramilitary officer, he was the first person to be tried for the forced disappearances of civilians during the civil war.

The CEH was supported by another report, “Never again”, published on 24 April 1998 as part of the inter-diocese Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI).


On 12 December 2006, an agreement signed between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government established the CICIG. It is an independent body that aims to assist the Guatemalan office of the prosecutor, the national police and other institutions involved in the investigation of sensitive cases, as well as working to dismantle illegal security groups. The CICIG has the right to initiate investigations proprio motu.

The CICIG’s investigations have led to the issuance of 18 arrest warrants, notably for Javier Figueroa and Erwin Sperisen.