This month, former Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide of the country's indigenous people and crimes against humanity. Set against the history of judicial corruption and intimidation in Guatemala, this verdict was monumental. Though the ruling had been overturned due to procedural issues, the case continues generating interest worldwide.
Ríos Montt came to power through a coup in March 1982 and was removed from office by a counter-coup in August 1983. He led the country for 17 months in the midst of more than three decades of guerrilla warfare. Ríos Montt had made a confession for Christ and was involved in a Pentecostal church, so at the time, evangelicals championed him as an instrument of God against the evils of Marxism. Ríos Montt was hailed inside and outside Guatemala as a testament to the hand of God, a narrative he asserted as well. His presidency coincided with the centennial celebration of the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Guatemala, a historically Catholic country.
Like others who lived in Guatemala during the Ríos Montt era, I am conflicted. My mother was Guatemalan, and I have spent many years of my life there. El amor por "la tierra de la eternal primavera" fluye en mis venas ("The love for the 'land of eternal spring' flows through my veins"). Without minimizing the terrible atrocities that happened while he was in office, I wonder if the charges of genocide and crimes against humanity misrepresent the nature of a long and complex war.
Guatemalan and North American evangelicals both can learn from Ríos Montt's presidency and the terrible things that took place during that time. On the one hand, it reminds us how complicated sociopolitical realities can be. We too often are ignorant of history, or we draw naïve lines between right and wrong. His presidency also raises questions about Christian advocacy of war to defeat what we view as evil.
Ríos Montt took office in the early '80s, when Cold War conflicts raged worldwide and fighting persisted within the country. Since the U.S.-sponsored coup of 1954, the Guatemalan government had been led by military men or heavily influenced by the armed forces. The country's guerrilla war spanned decades, beginning in 1960 and not ending until 1996. Some of the worst atrocities came during the presidency of Romeo Lucas García, the general who preceded Ríos Montt.
With Ríos Montt, the scorched earth policy against revolutionaries and supposed sympathizers continued. Through a campaign called fusiles y frijoles or "guns and beans," he attempted to coordinate military action, the creation of civil patrols, and charitable aid to areas of conflict. The guerilla forces reached considerable strength in the early 1980s—a threat that this strategy was designed to eradicate. The efforts came at great human cost, now labeled genocide in the recent trial.
Technically, genocide is the intentional destruction of an ethnic or religious group. Was the war in Guatemala genocide in this precise sense, as many human rights and indigenous activist organizations claim? No. There was no strategy directed at the entire indigenous population. The armed forces focused on specific areas. Thousands of Ladinos, a distinct ethnic group with a mix of Hispanic and indigenous cultural traditions, also died in the war, and some heavily indigenous parts of the country did not suffer the horrific fate of others. Was Guatemala's deeply ingrained racism against the indigenous a factor in the war? No doubt it was, but it was not the ultimate driving force behind the conflict.
It is more accurate to say that under Ríos Montt, Guatemala suffered appalling atrocities in a geographically circumscribed area within a broader war. These must be denounced, but to characterize his goal as genocide is to co-opt a slice of a 36-year war for other (howbeit noble) ends. For many, Ríos Montt symbolizes all that was inhumane, especially the massacres of the indigenous, but the realities are more dense and culpability more widespread.
His Christian defenders have claimed, then and now, that the accusations against Ríos Montt are exaggerated. They view him as the target of an international agenda to discredit Guatemala by ignoring the fact that the country was at war during that time. Amid the fighting, the guerrilla forces also committed violations of human rights (though no one suggests at the level of the army). Despite disagreements over the nature of the conflict, there is no denying its effects and the thousands who perished as a result.
Though many Christians continue to support war in various instances, Ríos Montt reminds us to think seriously about the reality and cost of such conflict. Should there not be a deep reluctance to support the use of force, when others—primarily the innocent—bear a terrible price for those convictions? Our discussion of war often center on sociopolitical ends and economic factors. Ideology largely determines Christian views on the issue, with the Bible sadly serving as a secondary source. Not enough thought is given to whether armed conflict truly reflects the gospel of the Prince of Peace or how it furthers the mission of his church.
Decades after his rule in Guatemala, the Ríos Montt trial is an opportunity for Christians to rethink attitudes toward war. The genocide verdict should lead us to reflect more broadly on why we continue to endorse politics of violence. We must learn from that dreadful time that the political end cannot justify inhumane means for those who claim the faith.
M. Daniel Carroll R. is distinguished professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and adjunct professor at a seminary in Guatemala City.