Guatemala: God's Man on Horseback

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Rios Montt fires his junta partners and seizes the presidency

Thank you, my God. You have put me here.

Political leaders of all persuasions attribute successes—and, occasionally, failures—to the Almighty. But few do so with more fervor and sincerity than Guatemala's Brigadier General Jose Efrain Rios Montt, 55, a born-again member of the California-based Christian Church of the Word. Montt took it as God's call in March that he leave the church school where he was academic director (TIME, April 5) and join the three-man junta that had been picked to run the country by the junior officers who ousted General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. In an equally swift maneuver, Rios Montt last week fired the other two members of the junta, and expressing thanks to God for having put him in command, proclaimed himself President of the country.

The move took most of Guatemala's 7.5 million people by surprise. Rios Montt requested and secured the resignation of Brigadier General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad, a docile officer who was apparently tired of being a figurehead. After that, he summoned his other partner, Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martinez, to breakfast at the presidential residence and demanded the colonel's resignation. Gordillo Martinez stubbornly refused to submit it. He reconsidered, however, when heavily armed soldiers restrained him and escorted him to his office.

With a pledge of support extracted from other senior commanders, the general convened a ceremonial session to proclaim himself President. Rios Montt prudently dispatched tanks to the country's principal air force base as "a preventive measure" in case the officers there chose to be rebellious.

With most of Guatemala's 14,000-man army so far loyal to the born-again President, there was little that either recalcitrant generals or civilian leaders could do about the maneuver. But they were still frustrated and angered by Rios Montt's move. As recently as last month he had insisted that he did not seek the presidency. In addition, he has steadfastly refused to set a definite time for elections. When pressed on the issue, he has replied: "It could be six months and it could be six years."

As a result, Rios Montt could be Guatemala's man on horseback for the foreseeable future. U.S. officials are not particularly distressed by that prospect. Says Ambassador Frederic Chapin: "We consider President Rios Montt a significant improvement over the previous President, and we hope to be able to work constructively with him."

In the three months that Rios Montt has led the government, it has often appeared disorganized and occasionally naive. "Sometimes he speaks in parables," says Francisco Bianci, an elder of the Christian Church of the Word, to which Rios Montt has belonged since his political career went into eclipse after the 1974 elections. "It is difficult to understand." But Rios Montt's critics give him grudging respect. "He might be crazy," admits one. "But he isn't stupid."

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