2003, Efrain Rios Montt, the dictator who ruled during the bloodiest
years of the civil war, left his seat in Congress to run for president
of Guatemala. A 1997 constitutional law bans ex-dictators from
running for president. He ran anyway. And he campaigned hard for
the indigenous vote, proclaiming he would secure land titles for
people who still lack the proper documents for legal ownership,
like the people of Santa María Tzejá. The military
dictator accused of genocide against the Mayans was now running
for president in their name. As it happened, when he left Congress,
Rios Montt lost his immunity to prosecution for human rights violations.
When a journalist was killed at a pro-Rios Montt demonstration,
a court judge immediately put the former general under house arrest
for inciting a riot.
Rios Montt came in third in the elections, losing to former
businessman and Guatemala City mayor, Oscar Berger. Still, Rios
Montt remains popular, especially among the Mayans who served
in the old paramilitary civil patrols, like Pablo Gux. At his
home in Santa María Tzejá, Gux still displays
political posters for Rios Montt. Both men are "born again"
evangelicals. Gux said he hoped the new president would pay
the ex-paramilitaries for their service in the war.
But President Oscar Berger had a different plan. Addressing military officers, diplomats and human rights activists in April 2004, President Berger made a state apology for the 1990 assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack. About two hundred people were already massed around the entrance to the Presidential Palace when I arrived with my camera. As the crowd didn't appear to be moving, I tightened my straps, hoisted the camera above my head and pushed my way through, shouting "La prensa! La prensa! Por favor." I got in minutes before the event commenced and improvised a camera set-up in front of the President just in time for the national anthem.