Former Humboldt County Resident Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemalan Military Dictator, to Answer to Genocide Charges Tomorrow

Hank Sims / Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012 @ 4:07 p.m. / News

Almost thirty years after the end of his brutal military reign, 85-year-old Efraín Ríos Montt will appear in a Guatemala City court tomorrow to answer charges that he ordered the genocide of tens of thousands of his countrymen of Mayan descent during his year-and-a-half long tenure as dictator of that country. (Coverage: Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The Guardian.)

The court case begins less than a week after Ríos Montt lost the immunity from prosecution that he enjoyed as a state official. After being deposed in a coup in 1983, Ríos Montt embarked on a semi-legitimate political career that culminated in a failed presidential bid in 2003 and eventual election to the legislature in 2007.

Sometimes noted in the current round of coverage is the fact that Ríos Montt is an ordained minister with the Iglesia del Verbo (Church of the Word). This is a Latin American offshoot of the Eureka-based Gospel Outreach, a Christian denomination that has its roots in the old Lighthouse Ranch Jesus commune on Table Bluff.

But Ríos Montt was much more than a casual member of the church. In 1974, the School of the Americas-trained military officer lost a disputed presidential election. Shortly afterward, he left Catholicism and found his way to California, where he hooked up with Gospel Outreach founder and spiritual leader Jim Durkin.

In Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy, a 1995 history of the Guatemalan civil wars by journalists Victor Perera and Daniel Chauche, the authors write that “Ríos Montt is fond of boasting that he purged his soul of old grudges by cleaning toilets in the Eureka-based [Gospel Outreach] mission.”

When he returned to Guatemala, Gospel Outreach went with him. Durkin remained his spiritual advisor before, during and after the 1982 coup in which he gained power. As recounted in this Peter Schrag column from 1983 — well after Montt had ramped up the murder of indigenous citizens — researchers from The Nation magazine showed that Gospel Outreach promoted Montt’s cause, raising money among its growing organization to promote their church member as a bastion against the spread of Communism in Latin America. Church leaders were promoted to high governmental positions.

A few years after Montt was thrown out for the first time, a documentary by Bay Area filmmakers Steve Talbot and Elizabeth Farnsworth, showed that the church acted as the good cop to Montt’s bad in the infamous “Beans and Bullets” program, in which hundreds of indigenous villages were razed.

These days, Gospel Outreach has an open compound — a large church, plus several homes — just of Harris Avenue, about halfway between Safeway and Redwood Acres.

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