- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

One of the authors of a constitutional provision that long kept ex-dictator Gen. Efrain Rios Montt from returning to power in Guatemala is now backing the former coup leader in a presidential election this fall.

Antonio Arenales Forno, Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States, last week described the political ban that has prohibited Gen. Rios Montt or his descendents from participating in the election as a “monstrosity.”

Gen. Rios Montt, a 77-year-old evangelical preacher, is one of five main contenders on the Nov. 9 ballot despite his past as the iron-fisted ruler who led a murderous campaign against leftist rebels in the early 1980s.

“I cannot justify those excesses. But that was that war,” said Mr. Arenales, who now believes Gen. Rios Montt is the best candidate to restore economic equality to the Central American nation where 10 percent of the population receives almost half of the nation’s income.

Guatemala’s Constitutionality Court on July 14 overturned a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting Gen. Rios Montt from running, but the decision is being contested amid violent street protests by masked pro-Rios Montt demonstrators who back his anti-establishment platform.

Continued legal bickering, warned Mr. Arenales, “would be a very serious matter that could lead to violence or protests. The only way of solving a political problem is by political means, and that is an election.”

The constitutional provision that has prevented Gen. Rios Montt from running in the past, Mr. Arenales added, was written under considerable pressure from the Catholic church, which did not want to see an evangelical preacher in power.

Gen. Rios Montt was trained at the U.S. Army “School of the Americas,” which at the height of the Cold War instructed various Latin American leaders in combat and counterinsurgency tactics. A number of those graduates, including Gen. Rios Montt, have been accused of some of the worst human rights abuses on the continent.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu has filed a suit against the former general for an anti-guerrilla campaign started by former Guatemalan leader Romeo Lucas Garcia that wiped out hundreds of Mayan villages and left thousands dead.

Although he is trailing badly in the polls, Gen. Rios Montt, who represents the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, has won considerable support in the same countryside and among the indigenous people that he once flattened.

“I call it the ‘battered woman syndrome,’…” said Manuel Orozco, director for Central America of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

In a country that is sinking under corruption and poverty, “he can portray himself as a disciplined, value-based man who used force to maintain discipline and order,” explained Mr. Orozco.

Front-runner Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance coalition, meanwhile, has won the support and financial backing of the nation’s powerful private sector.

But it is not clear whether Mr. Berger, 57, would have the political clout to clean up the corruption plaguing the country or to prosecute those involved in past human rights abuses.

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