24. ‘Morality’ Broadcasts by a Dictator

By David Crowther

Jose Efrain Ríos Montt (1926-2018) was a complicated figure, to say the least. President of Guatemala for a brief period in the 1980s, and an influential figure in Guatemalan politics thereafter, Ríos Montt was an uncompromising Protestant moralist in a country that increasingly followed his path of conversion. As leader of the military junta, Rios Montt also oversaw the deadliest period in Guatemala’s decade-long genocide. It is estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed over the course of Guatemala’s civil war, known in Guatemala as La Violencia, in a series of generally state-directed extrajudicial executions and disappearances which disproportionately targeted the nation’s Mayan population. A full 43% of the total documented state killings occurred in Ríos Montt’s eighteen months in power – a rate of over 800 a month – meaning that if the 200,000 figure is accurate, he oversaw the death of 86,000 people during his brief rule.

This brutality, however, was married to a self-identified Protestant outlook on the world, which Ríos Montt outlined in a series of speeches every Sunday on every radio and television station known as the discursos del domingo. Headline topics chosen included warnings that Estamos en una Crisis de Valores (“We are in a Crisis of Values”), lectures that Usted y Yo Tenemos que Cambiar (“You and I Have to Change”), and exhortations to Hacer las Cosas como Dios Manda (“Do Things as God Intended”). Throughout, Ríos Montt places the blame for Guatemala’s woes on individual citizen’s immorality, which had to be resolved to reach La Nueva Guatemala (“the New Guatemala”).

Despite this prominence, his collated speeches were hardly a bestseller, and are currently only extant in a handful of American universities. This is a fact that an uncharitable viewer might attribute to how they quite often read like the ramblings of a man whose main qualification for delivering this weekly pontification on every Guatemalan radio station was his position as unelected head of the latest military junta.


Ball, Patrick, Kobrak, Paul, and Spirer, Herbert F. State Violence In Guatemala, 1960-1996: A Quantitative Reflection. Washington DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1999

Garrard-Burnett, Virginia. Terror in the Land of the Holy Spirit: Guatemala under General Efrain Rios Montt, 1982-1983. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

O’Neill, Kevin Lewis. City of God: Christian Citizenship in Postwar Guatemala. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009

Ríos Montt, Efraín. Mensajes del presidente de la República, general José Efraín Ríos Montt. Guatemala: Tip. Nacional. 1982.

Weld, Kirsten. Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2014

Image credit: Efrain Ríos Montt, pictured in 2013 during his trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. Photograph taken by Elena Hermosa and made available via Wikimedia Commons here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ex_General_Efrain_Rios_Montt_testifying_during_the_trial.jpg

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