Efrain Rios Montt, who ruled Guatemala at the peak of its bloody civil war in the early 1980s, has died at the age of 91 while under house arrest in Guatemala City. He was facing a retrial over genocide charges.
The 91-year-old ex-military dictator Efrain Rios Montt passed away in his home surrounded by family, his lawyer Luis Rosales told reporters on Sunday. Montt died "with his conscience healthy, clean, surrounded by much love," the lawyer said.
In 2013, Montt became the first Latin American leader to be convicted of genocide over his 17-month-rule of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983. The ruling, however, was overturned within days over a "procedural error." His lawyers used Montt's failing health and alleged senility as arguments to postpone the retrial.
Montt was born near the Mexican border in 1926 and joined the army in 1946, where he rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general in 1972. He ran for president in 1974. Historians believe he won the most votes, but failed to seize the office due to election fraud. Another general, Kjell Eugenio Laugerud, took the post.
The winning faction sent Montt to Spain as a military attache for three years. After returning home, he rejected his birth religion of Catholicism and became an evangelical Christian. In 1982, he led a bloodless coup to oust yet another general, Lucas Garcia.
At the moment of Montt's takeover, the South American country was already deeply immersed into its long running civil war against radical leftist groups, which had started in 1960. The factions were backed by peasants and Maya indigenous groups.
Once in power, Montt lead a ruthless crackdown on the rebels and their supporters, with his forces following a "scorched earth" policy and wiping out entire villages suspected of rebel links. He also appointed "faceless judges", magistrates with hidden identities, who presided over summary trials to execute suspected rebel sympathizers or militants.
Parallel to the crackdown, Montt took to state television to spread a religious message and preach about morality and politics every Sunday evening. He delivered these with a characteristically booming voice and wearing a combat uniform.
In one such appearance, he said that a "good Christian" lived their life "with a bible and a machine gun."
Rejecting genocide charges
His defense minister ousted Montt in in 1983, but the former dictator continued his political career as a lawmaker in the coming decades. He only faced charges in 2012. Prosecutors claimed that forces under his command killed 1,771 Ixil Mayans in a crime which amounted to genocide.
Ex-Guatemalan dictator guilty of genocide
The former dictator rejected the charges during the trial.
"It was never my intention or my goal to destroy a whole ethnic group," he said. "I never authorized, never signed, never ordered an attack against a race, an ethnicity or a religion." After his original sentence of 80 years was overturned in 2013, he was put under house arrest to await retrial. The process was further delayed in 2015 after one of the judges recused herself. A retrial was then initiated and dropped in 2016 but quickly dropped again, before continuing in late 2017.