Like many other Latin American dictators, Efraín Ríos Montt counted on the training and support of the United States. In 1951, he attended the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. (In 2001, the school changed its name to try to escape its reputation as finishing school for dictators and death squad leaders.) But Ríos Montt’s most profound connection to the United States was through evangelical Christianity.
After a destructive earthquake struck Guatemala in 1976, two-dozen missionaries from a Eureka, California-based Pentecostal group traveled to Guatemala to spread the gospel and build houses. They converted a prominent general named Ríos Montt, who seemed to have won the presidency in 1974 only to have it stolen through electoral manipulation by his rival. Ríos Montt converted from Catholicism to become a preacher for the U.S.-based church and dropped out of politics for several years. He preached the gospel.
In 1982, Ríos Montt’s staged a political comeback and seized power in a coup. Jim Durkin, the leader of the Pentecostal church, traveled to Guatemala and said the dictator’s ascension was a “miracle” aided by God. As Virginia Garrard-Burnett chronicled in her book, Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit, during his dictatorship Ríos Montt appeared on television each Sunday to give “Sunday sermons” on morality, even as he directed scorched earth campaigns in the highlands. In just one year, at least 10,000 people were murdered, most of them indigenous. More than 400 towns were wiped off the map. In 2013, a trial against Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity revealed he had ordered the massacres.
Here are just a few selections from the thousands of testimonies given to those who put together the U.N. Truth Commission report from the period when Ríos Montt was dictator. I include them to give a sense of the terror and destruction of entire families and communities that Ríos Montt unleashed, the abuses to which his evangelical allies were willfully blind:
An unnamed survivor from Aguacatán, Huehuetenango: “The military came to burn whole families out, to burn their houses and not just their houses but the people themselves. They burned men, women, and children who died in flames, incinerated. It caused us terror, it caused us a lot of fear.”
Any unnamed survivor from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz:“The military officials raped the girls who were 12 and 13 years old. The girls couldn’t do anything because there were so many soldiers lining up to take their turn. First they raped them and then they killed them.”
Another unnamed survivor from Rabinal, Baja Verapaz: “The children were kicked to death. The children shouted and shouted, and then they were silent.”
Even as word of the genocide leaked out, Ríos Montt maintained friendships with prominent U.S. evangelical Christians Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Ronald Reagan had won the presidency in 1980 by flipping the evangelical vote away from the Democrats, who had helped elect Carter four years before. In 1982, Reagan traveled to Guatemala during the genocide and dismissed reports of abuses, saying that Ríos Montt was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.” Reagan said “frankly I’m inclined to believe” Ríos Montt has been “getting a bum rap.”
Ríos Montt died on April 1 of this year, while under house arrest pending re-trial, just a day after Pope Francis caused controversy by seeming to indicate that hell doesn’t exist. A meme went around among Guatemalans on social media: the Pope said there was no hell, and Ríos Montt finally figured he could finally take the risk of dying. Then the Pope took his comments back.
Rachel Nolan is a journalist and a doctoral candidate in Latin American and Caribbean History at New York University.