The decision by Guatemala’s highest court to allow former dictator Efrain Rios Montt to contest presidential elections brings back horrifying memories of the country’s 36-year civil war and his infamous role in it.
Guatemala moved into the dark period of instability, repression and brutal state-sponsored murders after a CIA-backed coup in 1954. The coup removed democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz from power.
In the ensuing 36 years, an estimated 200,000 people were killed by government-sponsored militias and the army which all enjoyed American support.
Despite opposition and widespread protests, successive Guatemalan regimes were able to sustain their rule due to the backing of the United States.
In February 1999, a report from the Historical Clarification Commission set up to investigate the abuses during the 36-year period concluded that the CIA and US army advisers were crucial to the acts of genocide committed by the Guatemalan army, mainly against the Mayan peasant community.
America's backing of the murderous juntas came back to haunt the US.
US interference led to violence
A month later, in a rare admission, the then US President Bill Clinton said Washington’s support for Guatemalan military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong. The US must not repeat that mistake, he said.
The 1954 coup was challenged for the first time in 1961 by a section of military officers. It failed and the officers fled to the mountains. A year later, when another coup attempt by reformist minded military personnel failed it led to the formation of two guerrilla groups.
"US support for Guatemalan military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong"
US President Bill Clinton in 1999
The government hit back. With the help of US special forces, the government launched a counter-insurgency operation which claimed 8000 lives. This signalled the intensifying of repressive measures that claimed thousands more lives in succeeding years.
By 1980, the heat was full on. The world watched aghast when Guatemalan security forces in a ruthless act set fire to the Spanish embassy which was occupied by Mayan peasants. They were merely trying to attract the attention of the world to their plight.
There was no let up. The army initiated massive, counter-insurgency scorched earth campaigns killing suspected guerrillas and their supporters besides wiping out entire Mayan villages off the map. The government suspected the Mayan peasants of backing the guerrillas and made them pay a heavy price for it.
In 1982, the then military general Efrain Rios Montt seized power in a coup and continued with the repressive counter-insurgency campaign. The Mayans were the worst hit. This was the reason why activists now opposed his candidature for elections, but in vain as the highest court has allowed him to contest.
Montt was overthrown in another coup a year later and the military continued with its violently repressive rule. It was not until 1991 that the government and guerrilla groups started the peace process which progressed gradually, first ending military rule and later leading to a comprehensive agreement in 1996.