The deceased despot and some of his victims

NOWHERE in the Americas was the cold war fought more brutally than in Guatemala. After the CIA toppled a reformist democratic government in the name of anti-communism in 1954, a long line of military dictators followed, engendering left-wing guerrilla movements that they proceeded to crush. Efraín Ríos Montt, who died this month at 91, headed a military junta for 17 of the bloodiest months of this campaign, in 1982-83. His life tells the story of his country’s halting progress from horror to democracy and the rule of law.

In his way, General Ríos Montt was a reformer. In 1974 he ran for president for the tame opposition. Fraud denied him victory. Perhaps that made him contemptuous of such electoral fictions. “I am a true political leader…because I am here without your votes,” he proclaimed after the officers’ coup that installed him as president in 1982. He stood out from his fellow dictators, above all, for his bluntness.

In place of the corruption, chaos and the freelance death squads of his predecessors, Ríos Montt brought a lethal modernisation to counter-insurgency. “We will execute by firing squad whoever goes against the law,” he said. “But no more murder.” The army went after the guerrillas and the Mayan Indians they lived among in Guatemala’s verdant highlands. Thousands were killed and scores of villages razed. Survivors were moved to “strategic hamlets” and enrolled in counter-insurgency “civil patrols” in a campaign dubbed fusiles y frijoles (guns and beans). Ríos Montt, like many Guatemalans, had converted to evangelical Protestantism. That and his anti-communism made Ronald Reagan’s administration his fervent supporter.

Partly under American pressure, and with the guerrillas reduced to an irritant, the army agreed to a return to democracy, at first under its tutelage. Ríos Montt reinvented himself as a cynical civilian politician. He was widely seen as personally honest. In a country traumatised by violence his brand of order was popular, at least with part of the population.

In an election in 1990 he tried but failed to overturn a constitutional bar on former dictators running for president. But he became a power-broker, serving for a while as the Speaker of congress. He lived in a quiet, middle-class suburb of Guatemala City, his house furnished with faux-Louis XV lacquered tables, Persian-style carpets and paintings of lachrymose children.

With the war ended by an agreement in 1996, Guatemalan democracy tried to hold the army to account for its crimes. A truth commission backed by the UN reckoned that 200,000 people died in the conflict, most of them Mayan Indians killed by the security forces. Prosecutors were emboldened by a UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which had been set up in 2007 to help establish the rule of law (and continues to operate, albeit under threat of rescission by the government).

No longer enjoying parliamentary immunity, in 2013 Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. At 86 he was sentenced to 80 years in jail, only for the conviction to be quashed on a technicality. A retrial in 2015 collapsed. Because of his longevity and political visibility he came to symbolise a past which still divides Guatemalans. That he was held to account, however imperfectly, shows how much his country has changed.