When Slobodan Milosevic died, he was in a prison cell at The Hague facing war crimes charges, and it made world headlines. The May 27 passing of Guatemala’s equally genocidal dictator of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Romeo Lucas Garcia, was largely confined to the obituary pages and wire copy, and he died a free man, passing his final years in luxurious Venezuelan exile. Nothing could indicate more clearly how much cheaper life is for indigenous peoples such as Lucas Garcia’s Maya Indian victims, and for those whose oppressors happen to be on the good side of US imperialism. Obits have generally noted his bloody 1980 attack on the Spanish embassy after it was occupied by Maya protesters. This is because Spanish judicial authorities would later seek his extradition over the affair. Forgotten is what the embassy occupiers were protesting–the reign of terror in the Guatemalan countryside that (carried on by Lucas Garcia’s successor Rios Montt) would ultimately leave some 50,000 dead, a million displaced and hundreds of villages destroyed. The obits have generally not used the “G word,” but the 1999 findings of the UN-backed Guatemala Historical Clarification Commission estimated 200,000 dead in the civil war that lasted from 1962 to 1996, squarely accusing the Guatemalan state of “genocide.” (BBC, Feb. 25, 1999) The Lucas Garcia-Rios Montt period was the bloodiest of the war, and that in which the violence was most explicitly aimed at the Maya ethnicity. This typically abbreviated account from Reuters, May 29:
GUATEMALA CITY – Former Guatemalan dictator Romeo Lucas Garcia, accused of human rights atrocities during a 36-year civil war, has died in exile in Venezuela at the age of 81, his family said on Sunday.
He became Guatemala’s president in 1978 after winning an election rigged by the military, but was ousted in a coup four years later by Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, whose rule was the bloodiest in a war that claimed about 200,000 lives.
Lucas Garcia died of respiratory failure on Saturday in a hospital in Venezuela, where he had lived since the 1980s, his relatives told a Guatemalan radio station. They said he was buried on Sunday.
Under his rule, Guatemalan security forces killed 37 people in a 1980 attack on the Spanish Embassy after student and labor activists opposing the government took over the building.
Vicente Menchu, the father of rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, was one of the protesters killed in the attack.
In 2005, Lucas Garcia was briefly placed under house arrest in Venezuela after a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant accusing him of war crimes, but Venezuelan courts ruled against his extradition.
The former president, who reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, is survived by his Venezuelan wife and two children.
Guatemala’s civil war between left-wing rebels and a string of right-wing governments ended with peace accords in 1996.
Both Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt were graduates of the US Army’ School of the Americas, and SOA Watch noted on its website (Jan. 14, 2001) a courageous if abortive effort in Guatemala to win some justice for their victims:
Judges have ordered investigations into two former Guatemalan dictators – one of them the current head of the country’s congress – accused of genocide in the killings of Maya Indians between 1978 and 1982.
The rulings were issued Tuesday against ex-President Romeo Lucas García and his successor, Efraín Ríos Montt, by separate judges in response to criminal complaints filed by human rights groups. Ríos Montt is president of Guatemala’s congress and the major force in the ruling party, the Guatemalan Republican Front. The two rulings mark the first time Guatemalan courts have agreed to investigate former dictators for atrocities committed during 36 years of civil war.
Judge Marco Antonio Posada, who ordered the investigation of the complaint against Ríos Montt, said he was aware of the historic nature of his decision. “Prosecutors will conduct a careful investigation that I will personally oversee,” Posada said. “This process is extremely important.”
Lucas García won an election rigged by Guatemala’s military in 1978 and began an anti-insurgency campaign that targeted Mayan communities thought to be sympathetic to rebel causes. Ríos Montt, who toppled Garcia’s government in a 1982 coup, oversaw a scorched-earth policy that reduced hundreds of Mayan villages to ashes during 18 months in power.
The rulings stem from complaints filed May 3 by the Association for Reconciliation and Justice, which alleges Lucas García and Ríos Montt used their positions to wage a “calculated war” against Guatemalan Indians. Last week, the same group teamed up with Guatemala’s Center for Human Rights Legal Action to file a more specific genocide complaint against Ríos Montt on behalf of 14,000 people killed in attacks on 11 Mayan villages. A truth commission report commissioned by the United Nations in 1999 accused Ríos
Montt of tolerating massacres by soldiers under his command. The report found that the retired general’s offensive wiped 448 mostly Indian villages off the map.
A party spokesman said Wednesday that Ríos Montt was not familiar with the judge’s ruling and could not comment. When asked in the past about genocide complaints, Ríos Montt told reporters he has “nothing to hide.” Lucas García, who lives in Venezuela, is reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and has not made any public statement for several years.
In 1999, Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú filed genocide charges against Ríos Montt, Lucas García and six other military figures before Spain’s National Court. The court rejected the case, ruling that Menchú had made no effort to prosecute Ríos Montt and the others in Guatemala. The definition of genocide under Guatemalan law is less restrictive than in other parts of the world, and includes acts that harm the mental or physical well-being of a national, ethnic or religious group.
See also the Peace Pledge Union page on the Guatemalan genocide.