Why did the primary victims of Rios Montt’s genocide vote for him years later?

A few weeks back, talking about Rios Montt, the genocide trial, and the Ixil people, a Guatemalan colleague commented that the strangest thing for him was that in the area of the Quiché region—the area where genocide occurred—Rios Montt had garnered more votes than in other regions during his failed 2003 presidential campaign. In other words, the area that Rios Montt terrorized the most during his presidency in1982-83 was the area that supported him the most twenty years later. In that same election, in three Ixil towns of Nebaj , Chajul and Cotzal Rios Montt’s party (Frente Republicano Guatemalteco-FRG) won municipal elections. When I heard this, I brushed it aside thinking it was probably not true. Today, I came across a paper that seeks to explain the reasons behind this strange fact. And while I’m not sure I find the methodology all that convincing—the author is very honest that he basically just interviewed  random people that would speak to him—the overall findings seem convincing: the people who support Rios Montt (and therefore reject the genocide claims) benefited from his amnesty proclamation in 1982, even if the rest of the paper is a little thin on evidence.

David Stoll, an anthropologist from Middlebury College, interviewed 55 Nebaj residents following the Rios Montt genocide verdict to try and determine the reasons for the continued support of this ex-military ruler (if that was indeed the case).

¨Of the forty-five Ixils I asked, twenty approved of the genocide verdict, fourteen did not, six leaned toward disapproval, and five were either neutral or did not care to respond. Of the six ladinos and four K’iche´ Mayas who gave me their opinion, none approved of the genocide verdict; together these two ethnic groups make up about 20% of the town’s population.¨

After Rios Montt seized power in 1982 in a military coup, the military increased its repression in the Quiché region. But not everybody in the area remembers it that way. One incident that Stoll sees as influencing those who support Rios Montt is a speech given by General Benedicto Lucas Garcia in December, 1981. Benedicto, the brother of the president at the time gave a speech in Nebaj at the time where he threatened to destroy the town and everybody in it if they didn’t cease in their support of the guerrillas.

“I’m going to put myself at the head of 5,000 men, start at Chimaltenango, and finish off (acabar con) the entire population if I have to!” is how he put it, according to Stoll. Three months later, Rios Montt overthrew the general’s brother. So Benedicto was out and didn’t come back to destroy Nebaj. So even though violence increased in the region after Rios Montt took over, some residents thought (or at least claimed to the interviewer, which to me seems equally, if not more, plausible) that it was the Lucas Garica brothers that were the bad guys and Rios Montt saved them.

This incident, which Stoll thinks might have played a role in peoples mind, is dwarfed by what Stoll and indeed most others see as the real reason: Rios Montt offered amnesty to the guerrillas.  Because this amnesty meant vastly different things to different people, Stoll concludes that the support for Rios Montt depends on how people fared in the amnesty. Even though people blamed the army for their suffering, in a sadly ironic twist, they also credited the army with granting the amnesty.

“The soldiers burned our house, they killed our animals, we lost everything… suffering from hunger and cold.  Soldiers would approach and shoot at anything that moved… Then came Ríos Montt´s amnesty…We were dying of hunger. If it hadn’t been for the amnesty, we would have died.¨

Others who surrendered during the amnesty were killed and most were put in refugee camps. Some Nebaj residents interviewed saw it this way: the guerrillas started the war so they are to blame. The army was killing them because it had to defeat the guerrillas. I’m not really satisfied with that, but maybe I’ll dig up something more.

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