The last time I spoke with former Guatemalan strongman Efraín Ríos Montt, in 2003, he was running (unsuccessfully, thank God) for President—and he was delusional as ever.
Every bit as unhinged from reality as he’d been two decades before, during the darkest days of Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, when as military dictator from 1982-83, he led a “scorched earth” campaign that killed thousands of mostly indigenous Maya peasants.
“I did nothing that can be considered a crime against humanity,” he told me. The genocide accusations still hounding him a generation later were “just a partisan political complaint with no proof.”
Proof, and Guatemala’s slowly modernizing justice system, finally caught up with Ríos Montt last Friday when a three-judge tribunal sentenced the 86-year-old to 80 years in prison, which he began serving over the weekend (ironically, in a cell on a military base.)
It’s the first time a Latin American leader has ever been convicted of genocide in his own country—and that’s cause for celebration up and down the Central American isthmus, where right-wing and left-wing atrocities alike were commonplace in the 1980s.
But unfortunately, as so many Guatemalans living here in Miami tell me, the cheer is tempered by a realization that the Ríos Montt horrors of the 20th century have been replaced by a new terror in the 21st.
In many respects, Central America—especially the northern triangle formed by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—is a more dangerous place today than it was during the region’s Cold War conflicts. Honduras has become the world’s deadliest country, plagued by a murder rate of more than 80 per 100,000 people.
Guatemala in recent years has been the site of massacres perpetrated by narco-gangs that are all too reminiscent of the 1980s butchery. Two years ago this week, in fact, 27 campesinos were slaughtered and decapitated on a ranch near La Libertad in Guatemala’s northern Petén department—close to where Guatemalan special forces murdered 251 people in December 1982.
Guatemala’s civil war finally ended in 1996, and you’d think that since then U.S. cities like Miami would see less rather than more Guatemalan migration. But while Miami-Dade County’s Guatemalan population was fewer than 10,0000 in 2000, it’s more than 20,000 today—the local Honduran population, too, has risen by more than 100% to more than 55,000—and that growth is driven in no small part by a refugee-like escape from the Maras and other drug mafias plaguing Central America.
When I play soccer in Coral Reef Park on Sunday afternoons, I often talk with recently arrived Guatemalans and Hondurans about conditions back home. To a man, they describe the gang violence scourge in much the same way I once heard their parents, sometimes standing beside mass graves being dug up by forensics experts, talk about the scorched earth days.
What’s common in both cases is a feeling of institutional hopelessness—the sense that now as then there is little if any rule of law in places like Guatemala. But that’s why it’s so important to finally have Rios Montt and other scorched-earth figures behind bars: it means that perhaps rule of law and a functioning judicial system could actually take root in Guatemala.
That in turn signals hope in the fight against the narco-terror that has turned Central America’s northern triangle into what the U.S. military’s Southern Command here in Miami has called “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s happening today in Central America may not be genocide, but it’s scorching a whole generation all the same.