Guatemala’s former dictator Efrain Rios Montt (file) has died of a heart attack aged 91.Former Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt has died at the age of 91, a bitterly divisive figure in the country’s long civil war who escaped a 2013 genocide conviction only to face renewed charges last year.
At the time of his death, which his lawyer Luis Rosales announced on Sunday, Rios Montt was again on trial for genocide for his role during one of the bloodiest phases of the Cold War-era conflict that lasted from 1960 until 1996.
“He died facing justice,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, a former Guatemalan attorney general who was instrumental in bringing charges against members of the military accused of committing atrocities during the civil war.
“Thank you to the survivors for their dignity and bravery. May it never happen again,” Paz y Paz added on Twitter.
Ruling Guatemala from 1982 to 1983, Rios Montt was in 2013 convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, to the relief of many victims’ families. Then, barely a week later, judges at the country’s top court threw out the sentence.
President Jimmy Morales, whose party has strong ties to the military, expressed his condolences to Rios Montt’s family, while other leaders on the right also paid their respects.
Former conservative President Alfonso Portillo, a party colleague of Rios Montt’s who was convicted of money laundering in 2014, said he had valued the retired general as a friend.
“I learnt a lot from him and his life is part of our history,” he said, noting the two had also their differences.
An evangelical Protestant, Rios Montt served in Congress for nearly two decades and stepped down in 2012, putting an end to the immunity he enjoyed by law as a public official.
A Guatemalan court in January 2012 charged him for conceiving a counter-insurgency plan that killed at least 1771 members of the Ixil tribe and displaced thousands more.
Rios Montt maintained he was innocent of genocide until the end.
An estimated 200,000 people, mostly Maya civilians were killed during the war, and a further 45,000 went missing.
Born on June 16, 1926 Rios Montt took part in the 1954 US Central Intelligence Agency-backed military coup that ousted democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz, who was seen by the US as a communist sympathiser.
Rios Montt was a general by 1972 and two years later ran for the presidency. He lost and went to Spain, serving as military attache, then returned to Guatemala in 1977. In March 1982, he headed a junta which removed President Angel Guevara from power.
Rios Montt was diagnosed with senile dementia in 2015, and a new genocide trial overseen by a Supreme Court tribunal began against him in 2017.
Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan activist and Nobel peace laureate who fought for victims of the conflict, said the death of the general would now give some a measure of closure.
“Either way, for us, the victims, he has already been judged, and the crimes have been set out,” she said.