Efraín Ríos Montt: A Guatemalan Rorschach Test

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Interfaith Radio: Struggling with the Legacy of Ríos Montt

Drugs, gangs, and organized crime are probably the most common contributors to violence in Guatemala today (violence which has actually been in modest decline for several years now). But once upon a time in the not too distant past, almost all of the violence in that country was political in nature, the result of a massive internal war between leftist guerrillas and a ruthless national army. No name is more famous — or notorious — in discussions of that violence than that of Efraín Ríos Montt, a military general who was promoted by the military to a triumvirate of authority in 1982 and soon afterward, became the de facto president of the nation. In fact, if we took away the “urban” in the sub-title of this blog, such that it read “A Sociologist’s Blog about Religion and Violence in Central America,” many readers would expect to find frequent posts about Ríos Montt, his legacy, his trial, and the on-going debate over that deeply freighted term, “genocide.” Recently I was invited to be a guest in the recording of a radio program about this topic for the syndicated NPR show called “Interfaith Voices.” The entire episode is devoted to discussing the topic of Ríos Montt and his impact upon religion and politics in Guatemala. Although I am really a scholar of current politics, violence, and religion, and not exactly a scholar of that period of Guatemala´s history, I was privileged to share the mic with Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who is probably the senior scholar who has done more research on Ríos Montt than anyone else, certainly in this country. I thought the program turned out nicely, and provides a very interesting 30 minutes of reflection, even though this is a topic that has already received a good deal of attention, especially in the wake of Ríos Montt´s conviction for genocide last year, and the subsequent overturning of that conviction a week later. These are very “live” issues for the Guatemalan public even today. I will leave for another time my thoughts about the trial itself and, specifically, the decision by the prosecution to seek the genocide conviction. For now, I am simply posting the radio show. If you are already very familiar with the story, and interested in the particular discussion of the impact of Ríos Montt on Guatemalan religion, you may want to skip ahead to the 11-minute marker. (But don´t go too far or you’ll miss a very RARE interview with former mega-church pastor Harold Caballeros.)

One of the points I try to make in the interview is that Guatemala continues to be deeply divided over how to interpret the legacy of Ríos Montt and, in the process, how to treat this man, now in his mid-eighties, lionized and vilified by millions. By calling Ríos Montt and his legacy a “Rorschach test” I am not implying that there is no definitive answer to the question of whether Ríos caused harm (great harm) or not. He did. Rather, I’m emphasizing that Guatemalans “remember” very different things when they talk about him, and indeed when they talk about the violence of the 1980s in general. More reason to support (and read) the excellent work of historians like Garrard-Burnett.

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