Ríos Montt takes over in Guatemala after praying with his elders.

Guatemala’s March 23 coup was stalled for more than an hour while General Efraín Ríos Montt gathered the elders of his church for their advice and prayers. When they had given their blessing and laid their hands on him, he proceeded to the National Palace.

There howitzers and tanks in the central park had remained trained on the second floor offices of President Hernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. He had adamantly refused to surrender power to the junior officers who had smoothly executed the bloodless coup, insisting that he hand over to a general. The coup-makers named Ríos Montt. But his whereabouts was unknown, and they finally put out a call over the national radio network for him to present himself.

Four hours after he was ushered into the palace in civilian clothes, he appeared on television in camoflauge fatigues as president of a three-man military junta.

Ríos Montt, 55, is a dedicated believer and leader in the Verbo (“Word” as in John 1:1) Church. Founded by a group sent to Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake by Gospel Outreach of Eureka, California, Verbo is a fast-growing charismatic church that is successfully penetrating the middle and upper classes of Guatemala City. Sunday services draw crowds of over 1,000, and are held in a multicolored tent.

The main ministry of the church, according to its leaders, is the discipling carried out in the 12 “home churches” that meet in different sections of the city on Thursday evenings. One of them has been held in the Ríos Montt home, a modest two-story dwelling in a middle-class neighborhood, and led by “Brother Efraín” and Montt’s wife, Maria Teresa. Now the location of that group will have to change.

Actually, when Ríos Montt was summoned, he was working in his office at the Verbo Christian Day School, next to the tent. Why an active general was serving as an administrator of an evangelical institution is an eyebrow-raising story that could only occur in Latin America.

His military career was exemplary; he moved successively to commander of the Mariscal Zacapa Brigade, instructor and then commandant of the Polytechnic Institute (Guatemala’s equivalent of West Point), and army chief of staff.

But then in 1974 he resigned his post and ran for president in that year’s elections against the regime’s official candidate. Ríos Montt and his supporters claimed victory and many outside observers agreed with them. The military government, however, declared General Laugerud Garcia the victor by 41.1 percent of the votes cast to Ríos Montt’s 31.1 percent.

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“The government was determined to hold on to power,” a reporter for the New York Times quoted a diplomat who had been a close observer of the process as saying. “So when it had to win by fraud it decided to win handsomely. The final figures, of course, bear no relationship to reality.”

Many of Ríos Montt’s supporters were outraged and wanted to take up arms against the corrupt right-wing officers who have run the country for the last 20 years. But he rejected that course, attempting instead to launch a campaign of nonviolent opposition. That fizzled, and Ríos Montt was dispatched to Madrid for two years as a military attaché—a thinly disguised form of exile.

“Even though they stole the election from me in 1974,” Ríos Montt said several months ago, “I thank God he allowed it to happen. At the time, I was very bitter. But now I can see God’s hand in it.”

That bitterness, in fact, was an important factor in his spiritual pilgrimage. Despite a religious background (his brother is the Roman Catholic bishop of Esquintla, the country’s third largest city), Ríos Montt did not know Christ at the time. He did evidence spiritual interest, even inviting an evangelical pastor to address the students at the military academy when he headed it. But it was when he returned to Guatemala after his stint in Spain that he and his family became involved in a home Bible study, and eventually, three-and-a-half years ago, with the Verbo Church.

The general was assigned no specific duties on his return from Spain, presumably to keep him from building a power base. It was for this reason that he was able to contribute his time to the school and also to serve as Sunday school superintendent. Ríos Montt’s two sons, both army officers, are also active in the church, while his 14-year-old daughter is a student at the Verbo school.

The Verbo Church is pastored by a group of lay elders, and Ríos Montt was scheduled to have been ordained as an elder the Sunday following the coup. Events dictated otherwise, but he was in church that Sunday and is expected to be ordained later on.

The junior officers who plotted the coup apparently sought out Ríos Montt because of his integrity and the respect he had gained in his various posts. They knew he shared their deep concern about the repressive tactics used by the military, and about concentration of the nation’s wealth in the hands of a privileged few. During an earlier civil war with leftist guerrillas in the 1960s—when he was chief of staff—he was particularly effective in granting amnesty to many of the guerrillas.

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There was a national sigh of relief at the results of the coup. A new respect for human rights was immediately apparent. The junta never even imposed a curfew. Promptly arrested were the much-despised chief of the National Police, General German Chupina Burahona, and Colonel Hector Montalban, head of the “G-2,” the army’s intelligence unit. Their plainclothes police are accused of being the death squads that have assassinated thousands of civilians suspected of disloyalty or leftism.

Although Ríos Montt suspended the country’s constitution and is now ruling by fiat, he is expected to announce a timetable for returning the country to an elected government after the junta has gotten itself organized.

The general clearly believes that he was divinely placed at the national helm. “I have confidence in my God, my Master, and my King, that he will guide me,” he declared the evening of the coup, “because only he can grant or take away power.

“Take your machine guns off your chest, take your pistols out of your belts, and put your machetes back to work,” he exhorted his fellow citizens. The peace the country so desperately needs, he said, depends on each individual. “The peace of Guatemala is in your heart. Once there is peace in your heart, there will be peace in your home, and there will be peace in society.”


Evangelicalism And Guatemala

If Ríos Montt can spark a turn-around in the deteriorating social climate of Guatemala, beset by a growing left-wing insurgency, he will win the gratitude of his 7.5 million countrymen and considerably enhance the reputation of Guatemala’s burgeoning evangelicals.

The evangelicals are celebrating 100 years of presence in the country this year—a centennial that will culminate in November with parades and a nationwide Luis Palau evangelistic campaign.

At a centennial-kickoff pastors’ conference in Quezaltenango in February, the first National Church Directory was introduced. It lists more than 6,000 churches with a total membership of nearly 335,000, and estimates that the broader evangelical community numbers 1.5 million, or 20 percent of the total population.

As recently as 1930 there were probably no more than 10,000 believers. Some factors behind recent rapid growth:

• Half the population of Guatemala is Indian, and it was here that Cameron Townsend, founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, caught the vision of reaching these tribes in their own languages. They have proved responsive.

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• Evangelism-in-Depth, a countrywide saturation evangelism effort in 1962, capped a decade in which evangelical numbers tripled—mostly in Pentecostal churches.

• Outreach was begun to the upper classes. Ríos Montt was among the fruit of this relatively recent thrust.

Ironically, evangelicals have traditionally considered politics sinful. This decade should tell whether they can complete the transition from a despised, lower-class minority to that of a major—perhaps even the major—component in national life.

Gothard Sued By Ex-Employees

A group of former employees of Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts filed two lawsuits in a Chicago federal court on March 31. One of the suits charges Gothard and his board of directors with seriously mistreating employees, and the other one charges them with misspending millions of dollars of the institute’s money.

The lawsuits were filed after the employees and the institute’s directors were unable to reach agreement on a discussion of the allegations to be conducted by the Christian Legal Society’s Conciliation Service, in an effort to keep the dispute out of court.

The first lawsuit is a class action suit filed on behalf of former employees who allegedly have been mistreated. The suit claims more than 100 are affected. Among the allegations are these:

• Employees were told that when they went to work at the institute they would get sufficient salary, living expenses, property, and retirement benefits, which they did not receive. Because of this breach of contract, the suit asks for $1 million in damages.

• Gothard and the board “engaged in conduct to discredit, libel, slander and malign” the plaintiffs, using illegal means that held them up to “public hatred, contempt and ridicule.” This allegedly was the case since 1980, when the troubles at Gothard’s institute broke open, causing about 40 employees to leave, and causing some to talk publicly about troubles at the institute. To compensate for this, the suits asks for $500,000 in damages.

• The institute imposed “outrageous standards of personal conduct,” including sexual mistreatment, and then directed that the mistreatment not be disclosed under threat of retaliation. The suit asks for $1 million in damages to compensate for these problems, as well as another $1 million in punitive damages. (This is the only charge for which punitive damages are asked.)

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The second lawsuit is also a class action suit, filed on behalf of people who have paid to attend the seminars, and also on behalf of those who contributed money to the work of the institute. The suit claims the alumni have a vested interest in the continuing affairs of the institute, including the right to see that the money they contributed is spent properly.

This suit names Bill Gothard and other board members as defendants. It alleges that they failed to monitor properly the institute’s financial affairs and allowed some of the money to be misappropriated by others in the organization. The suit cites these examples: purchasing pornographic movies, paying for personal use of the institute’s jet, purchasing antiques valued at more than $100,000, and purchasing real estate “at values greatly in excess of the recognized market value.”

The suit also alleges that the institute’s board consistently made false allegations about the former employees who have differences with Gothard, in an effort to discredit them.

This suit asks that the court appoint a trustee to run the institute, the entire board of directors be replaced, and a full financial audit be conducted.

The lawyer for the former employees, Stewart Entz of Topeka, also asked for a court order restraining the defendants from destroying records, using institute money to defend themselves in court against their alleged wrongdoing, and using institute money to inform alumni and donors about the suit in a disparaging manner.

Although Gothard and some board members are named in the suits, not all board members are named. Most notably, the name of Samuel Schultz is absent. He resigned from the board in 1980 because of the troubles that caused so many of the employees to leave. The plaintiffs have asked for all institute records, and if they gain access to them, they will refine the list of defendants to those they feel are directly culpable.

At press time, neither Gothard nor his lawyer had issued a statement in response to the suits.

The troubles in the Gothard institute came to light in the summer of 1980, when dozens of employees left the organization. It had become known that Bill’s brother, Steve, who was responsible for administrative affairs of the institute, had had sexual intercourse with a number of secretaries (seven, apparently) at the institute’s retreat in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was the second time it had become known within the organization that Steve Gothard had been involved with female staff members. The last time had been some four years earlier, when Steve was working at the Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters of the institute. Some staff members urged that Steve be dismissed then. Instead, Bill sent him to the Michigan retreat to work on institute matters from there, although unmarried female employees were present there. (Bill Gothard steadfastly maintains that he was unaware of the sexual problems when they recurred.) Some of the senior staff members who left in 1980 are upset that Bill did not move decisively in firing Steve when the second round of problems surfaced, although Bill maintains he took proper action.

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Most of the allegations about misused money stem from purchases Steve made for the Michigan property, and the rental of pornographic films by him.

From the outset, the disgruntled employees asked for a multiple-year audit of all institute expenses. Last year Gothard hired an independent firm, Price Waterhouse, to perform an audit, but it was limited to the most recent fiscal year. They examined earlier records only as they applied to the purchase of the Michigan property. The auditors found nothing amiss and praised the institute, but acknowledged that their scope was limited.


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