"Journalist spotted; journalist dead!"
Guatemala bleeds; US press shrugs
By Jeffrey St. Clair
July 29 -- All hell is breaking loose in Guatemala and few
outside that tragic nation seem to care or even notice.
In recent days, followers of General Efrain Rios Montt,
stirred into action by the rightwing Republican Front Party
(FRG) which he controls, have charged into the streets of
Guatemala City armed with machetes, clubs and guns. Led by
FRG militants, the crowds, including many members of the
Guatemalan army, have marched on the nations courts,
opposition parties and newspapers, torching buildings,
shooting out windows and bullying opponents of the
The riots were orchestrated by Rios Montts cohorts after
the Guatemalan Supreme Court (the nations second highest
court) suspended his campaign for the presidency and agreed
to hear a complaint brought by two right-center parties that
the general, the butcher of thousands during the 1980s, is
constitutionally barred from running for president of the
country he once ruled with an iron fist.
The 77-year old Rios Montt, now white-haired and grizzled,
denounced the ruling as "judicial manipulation" and, in a
radio address, implored his followers to take to the streets
to protest the decision. Within an hour of his speech,
thousands of the generals backers had flooded the capital
city, blocking traffic, chanting threatening slogans and
Hooded men ransacked buildings, fired machine guns from
SUVs, smashed windows and set fire to cars and piles of
tires. The situation in Guatemala City became so chaotic
over the weekend of July 26th that the both the UN mission
and the US embassy were closed.
It all seemed like a bloody flashback to the 1980s, when
Rios Montts goons roamed the streets at night threatening
nuns and priests, kidnapping reporters, torturing dissidents
and killing at will, especially those of Mayan descent.
Journalists appear to have been a main target of the recent
attackers. In the first wave of street violence, Hector
Ramirez, a reporter for a Left-center television station,
was hounded and chased by a mob until he collapsed in the
street and died of heart failure. As Ramirez was carried
away, the rioters chanted, "Journalist spotted, journalist
Edgar Valle, a reporter for the Noticias television news
show, was briefly detained and roughed up by Rios Montts
mob. "They attacked everybody without differentiating," said
Valle, after being released. "It was strange to me because
my channel has always been identified with the government.
These people didnt want the press to cover what was
The rioters seemed to target cameramen in particular. Hector
Estrada was filming the riots for Guatevision when he was
attacked by a gang of masked men swinging machetes. They
seized his video camera, drenched him with gasoline and
tried to light him on fire as he fled down the street.
"I was praying for God to save me," said Estrada. "I thought
they were going to hack me to pieces."
Two political reporters in Guatemala told CounterPunch that
they have received multiple death threats in the past week.
One of the journalists reported that he had gotten two
telephone calls threatening him and his wife and children.
Another reporter said that she had arrived home to find a
death threat nailed to the door of her home.
"The press is the only functioning institution in this
country," says Mario Antonio Sandoval, vice president of the
excellent daily paper Prensa Libre. "That is why they either
have to control it or scare it into silence."
The strategy appears to have worked. Even though much of the
violence has been aimed at journalists, the US press has
largely ignored the riots and the political re-emergence of
Rios Montt and his rightwing thugs. In the US, only the
Miami Herald printed detailed accounts of the riots.
Not only has the Guatemalan government taken no action to
quell the rioters, members of the Army and police have
actually joined the frenzy of violence. One account of the
riots by Prensa Libre tallied 46 criminal acts of violence
and vandalism, 12 of those the paper said were committed by
government troops and police.
Fearing the impending return of the regime that slaughtered
nearly 200,000 people, Mayan peasants in the highlands began
streaming across the border into Mexico last week. But they
were blocked by hostile border patrols with orders from the
Mexican government, under its cruel Plan Salvamento, to
either send them back into Guatemala or lock them up in
immigrant concentration camps, where they are routinely
starved and abused by guards.
The reaction of the Bush administration to Rios Montts
antics has been restrained, given the circumstances. Even
though the US Embassy was taunted by rioters, there have
been no statements of condemnation directly from Colin
Powell. Indeed, weve only heard from state department
spokesman Richard Boucher, who continues to say the
administration would prefer that Rios Montt not run for
office. This weekend Boucher was again rolled out to remark
on the rampages in the streets of Guatemala City. "They are
a dangerous mockery of protest," Boucher said. But he
stopped short of pointing the finger at the General, whose
infamous career is every bit as bloody as that of Saddam
A Rios Montt victory in November could complicate matters
for a Bush administration that is crusading against
political corruption in Latin America. Of course, the
preacher in this crusade is none other than the unappetizing
Otto Reich, who enjoys deep and warm ties to Rios Montt and
his gang of gruesome generals.
Still, Rios Montt is an unreconstructed monster of an older
vintage, trained in the art of the military strongman at the
School of the Americas in the 1950s. Powell no doubt feels
that the general, if elected, might become as problematic as
Manuel Noriega was for the current presidents father. That
said, the Bush administration may calculate that it cant
afford to be too harsh in its condemnations of Rios Montt,
who no doubt has many stories to tell about the CIAs
affirmative role in the Guatemala bloodbaths of the 1980s.
Guatemalas court system is a maze of conflicting and
overlapping jurisdictions. Already this year, Rios Montts
election bid has been ruled on by three different courts,
the electoral court, the Supreme Court and the
Last weeks decision to suspend Rios Montts campaign by the
Supreme Court came only days after the nations highest
court, the so-called Constitutional Court, approved the
generals candidacy in a sharply divided 4-3 decision. The
majority on the constitutional court agreed with Rios
Montts claim that the constitutional amendment that bans
those who seized power in military coups from running for
president doesnt apply to him since the amendment was
passed after he had left office.
The General took power in a bloody coup in 1982, which was
backed by the Reagan administration. Over the next 18 months
Rios Montt supervised a vicious crackdown on political
opponents and Mayan peasants that left more than 19,000
dead, thousands more in jail and more than 100,000 displaced
. He has been called the Pinochet of Guatemala and several
war crimes complaints are pending against him in different
courts in Guatemala and in Spain.
The constitutional court is slated to hear Rios Montts
appeal later this week. However, the three members of the
court who voted against the General in the previous case
announced that they will not attend the hearing unless their
safety can be guaranteed by the current government, headed
by Rios Montts protégé Alfonso Portillo.
Rios Montt has boasted that he owns the votes of four
justices on the court. And indeed thats precisely how many
votes he got in the July 15th ruling that initially put him
on the ballot.
Rigoberta Menchu, the Mayan activist who won the Nobel Peace
Prize in 1982 and brought genocide charges against Rios
Montt in Spain, bitterly concedes that the general is
probably right about having the top court rigged in his
favor. She says Rios Montt and his FRG party, its accounts
plump with funds derived from a fruitful association with
Colombian drug cartels, have corrupted the judicial system
through bribes and intimidation in an attempt to grease the
old dictators return to power.
"The court has supported a coup detat by Rios Montts
Republican Front," says Menchu. "And they have hidden its
hand. The FRG usurped a court that was meant to protect the
legal and moral welfare of the Guatemalan state."
Menchu also says that Rios Montt knows he doesnt have the
votes to win the election in November unless he intimidates
enough people into staying away from the polls. He certainly
is off to a brisk start. But she suggests that the generals
campaign and the riots that have accompanied it may in fact
be a kind of calculated rouse designed to create a chaotic
and unstable political situation that would lead the
military to seize control of the government in another coup.
"It looks a lot like 1982," she said.
That was a very bloody year.
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