He seized power in a 1982 coup and presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s civil war as soldiers waged a scorched-earth campaign to root out Marxist guerrillas
FILE – In this March 24, 1983 file photo, President Efrain Rios Montt, center, accompanied by Defense Minister Oscar Mejia Victores, left, and army Chief of Staff Hector Mario Lopez Fuentes, stand at the ceremony marking the first anniversary of the coup that brought Rios Montt to power in Guatemala City. According to his lawyer, Rios Montt died Sunday, April 1, 2018, in Guatemala City of a heart attack. (AP Photo, File)
GUATEMALA CITY: Former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in a 1982 coup and presided over one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala’s civil war as soldiers waged a scorched-earth campaign to root out Marxist guerrillas, died on Sunday, his lawyers said.
Lawyer Jaime Hernandez said the family told him the 91-year-old died of a heart attack. Another of his attorneys, Luis Rosales, said he “died in peace, surrounded by his family,” a striking contrast to the thousands of Guatemalans who died barbaric deaths during his rule and were often tossed into unmarked graves or whose bodies disappeared.
Echoing Rios Montt’s longstanding, angry denials, Rosales said, “Here (in Guatemala) there was no genocide.”
Rios Montt was convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity for the massacre of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayans by security forces under his command.
But the ruling was swiftly set aside and a new trial ordered, dismaying human rights activists and victims who long sought to see him punished for atrocities during his 17-month regime.
In October, his trial on genocide charges resumed behind closed doors after being suspended for more than a year while his lawyers argued that he was too senile to participate, with no memory and unable to make decisions.
He is survived by his wife, two children and several grandchildren.
An ex-general known for inspiring fear and giving speeches at a near-shout, Rios Montt was later a longtime member of congress and one of the most influential figures in Guatemalan politics for more than three decades.
Born June 16, 1926, in the city of Huehuetenango, in western Guatemala’s highlands, Rios Montt grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family.
He entered the army in 1946 as a cadet and, over a long career, held nearly every military post there was: troop assistant, platoon commander, instructor, defense secretary. He attended the U.S. School of the Americas in the 1950s, and became a brigadier general in 1972.
Rios Montt first ran for president in 1974 but lost amid allegations of electoral fraud and was sent to the Guatemalan Embassy in Spain as military attache.
In March 1982, he seized power in a military coup and promptly suspended the constitution, disbanded congress and set in motion a ruthless counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in thousands of deaths.
According to a UN truth commission, the worst atrocities of the 1960-1996 Guatemalan Civil War took place during his rule.