General ready to put fear of God into Guatemala

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Guatemala City

Few lands have been ruled by as many generals as Guatemala. But when Guatemalans talk of ``el General'', everybody knows it is Efrain Rios Montt.

Only a dozen years after the general-cum-born-again-evangelist presided over the burning of hundreds of highland villages and the massacre of thousands of Indian peasants, he is billing himself as the turbulent Central American nation's saviour.

Guatemala's constitution barred the 69-year-old general from running for president in yesterday's elections. But the man who seized power from another general in 1982 was never one to let a little inconvenience like the constitution get in his way. So he ran yesterday in a kind of virtual reality, as a ghost candidate for his Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) behind a hand-picked front-man, a lawyer called Alfonso Portillo. In case anyone was in doubt, the general addressed most campaign rallies; the party's slogan was ``Portillo for President, Rios Montt for power''.

Mr Portillo looked likely to finish a distant second in the first round of voting behind Alvaro Arzu of the National Advancement Party (PAN). But Mr Arzu did not look like receiving the necessary 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a two-man run-off on 7 January. With the other 17 candidates eliminated and campaigning redirected, the general's party is seen as having a chance in the run-off.

For those who lived to tell the tale of his reign of terror, it is a frightening thought. ``Why are people like this running free when they were the ones who killed and persecuted us?'' a local church worker asked. He said seven members of his family were killed in a nearby 1982 massacre after the general seized power.

At the time, General Rios Montt's image was a cross between Billy Graham and Attila the Hun. He had been trained in the US in counter-insurgency techniques, military intelligence interrogation and psychological warfare, knowledge he put to good use.

Not even Pope John Paul was able to sway him. During a 1983 visit here, the Pope appealed for clemency for five prisoners sentenced to death for common crimes. The general's response was to put the men in front of a firing squad before the Pope left. While winning President Ronald Reagan's support by easing military-linked ``death squad'' murders in the capital, General Rios Montt stepped up his predecessor's ``scorched earth'' policy in the jungle highlands. Human rights workers estimate 440 villages were burned down, up to 75,000 Mayan Indians were ``disappeared'' and 150,000 fled to Mexico during his 17-month reign.

All in the name of God. Blaming a Marxist guerrilla insurrection, the general said he was on a crusade against atheism and communism. It was his evangelical fanaticism in a mostly Catholic country, rather than his butchery, that led his own Defence Minister, General Oscar Mejia Victores, to overthrow him in August 1983.

When he tried to register as a presidential candidate this year, he was rejected under a constitutional article barring past coup leaders. A judge ordered him jailed for violating the constitution but he was allowed to remain free on bail. He then nominated his wife, Teresa, but she, too, was rejected. That was when Mr Portillo surfaced. He sprinkled his campaign speeches with biblical imagery, telling Indian peasants that divorce, adultery and a lack of fear of God were at the root of the country's problems.