|From the Friendly
The first time I heard about Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt was in the late 1970s, when he was rising through the ranks as a dictator-in-waiting. Oddly enough, I heard about him from a speaker at an evangelical assembly that I regularly attended at a youth. We were told of his conversion to Christianity, which in the parlance of Kansas City Youth for Christ meant converting from Catholic to evangelical. By uttering a few words about his relationship with Jesus, this man earned a kind of halo beneath which he could literally get away with murder, and retain the blessings of political and religious leaders in the United States.
I heard about Ríos Montt again yesterday afternoon, as NPR reported that his ongoing trial has been derailed. He is the first head of state ever to be tried for genocide in his own country, and it seems to have been a bad idea, as he still controls the process by a variety of means.
News of this apparent mistrial came on the same day I had been speaking of the relationship between religious leaders and human rights in Latin America, in a sermon on liberation theology in the context of Pope Francisco's inauguration. I had mentioned the Catholic church's history of collusion with repressive regimes, but should have included this example of evangelicals as well. In the United States, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell supported Ríos Montt, as did Ronald Reagan, who was not religious but who owed his success in large part to appearing as though he was.
The crimes of Guatemala's dictators -- particularly Ríos Montt's move of the atrocities into the countryside -- those are described in the work of Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu. The dictators and their executioners also documented their own crimes, as detailed in the Frontline documentary Guatemala: The Secret Files. The record-keeping obsession reveals an arrogance about the crimes that is difficult to fathom.