When General Efrain Rios Montt was Guatemala's military dictator from 1982 to 1983, during the bloodiest phase of a 36-year-long civil war, his army massacred Maya Indian peasants suspected of aiding leftist guerrillas. The throb of military helicopters above highlands villages was often followed by deafening automatic rifle fire. Tens of thousands died, and a federal genocide case is now pending against Ríos Montt in a Guatemalan court. Asked at the time about his "scorched-earth" strategy, Ríos Montt quipped, "We don't have a policy of scorched earth we have a policy of scorched communists."
So it can be chilling to watch Ríos Montt, 77, a candidate in the Nov. 9 presidential election, arrive at those same towns in a convoy of campaign helicopters, greeted by firecrackers. But many, if not most, of the local Mayas not only hail Ríos Montt as their man they absolve him of any guilt for the atrocities. "It's just a black campaign against him," says Catalín Pastor, an Ixil Maya in traditional garb, as she mounts the stage for a Ríos Montt rally in San Juan Cotzal. At 22, Pastor doesn't remember Ríos Montt's dictatorship and she's proud to be running for a seat in Congress with his party, the Guatemalan Republican Front (frg).
The prospect of a Ríos Montt presidency is a moment of high anxiety even in dysfunctional Guatemala. Polls show Ríos Montt is running a close third and gaining, and could make it to a Dec. 28 runoff. If he wins, "what little institutional credibility we have left in this country would be lost," says Frank LaRue, director of Guatemala's private Center for Human Rights Legal Action, a joint prosecutor in the genocide case against Ríos Montt, who has immunity as a member of Congress, which he headed until starting his campaign. It could also cause regional tremors, as nations like Argentina and Colombia try to figure out what to do with the bloodstained leaders of their own civil conflicts. The U.S., which tacitly backed Ríos Montt's dictatorship in the '80s, now warns that relations with his government would be strained at best. "The U.S. can say what it wants," Ríos Montt told Time. "What matters is what the people say."
Ríos Montt, an Evangelical Christian, considers it his destiny to become President. After narrowly losing a suspect presidential election in 1974, he went on to topple Romeo Lucas García's depraved military dictatorship in 1982 only to be ousted by another coup a year later. In 1988, retired from the military, Ríos Montt formed the frg as a foe of Guatemala's rigid and venal oligarchy shrewdly casting himself as the kind of populist caudillo (strongman) that Latin voters still tend to favor. The Maya Indians' traditional quiet stoicism about past trauma has made it easier for Ríos Montt to sell his quasi-delusional version of the local paramilitary squads he helped form, which terrorized the countryside until the civil war ended in 1996. "I did nothing that can be considered a crime against humanity," he says. "In '82, we finally got people to organize themselves, defend themselves, take account of their dignity."
The frg has pushed long overdue programs for the vast rural poor, but the frg-led government (headed by current President Alfonso Portillo, who is barred by law from another term) is tainted by scandals, including an alleged $44 million bilking of the federal social security fund. In July, Ríos Montt campaign thugs set off a two-day riot in Guatemala City after lower courts citing a constitutional ban on former coup leaders running for President blocked his candidacy. Five days later the high court, dominated by Ríos Montt allies, ruled he could run. Last month his supporters beat up locals, representing scorched-earth victims, who decried his visit to the town of Ixcán. And though Ríos Montt campaigns on law and order, violent crime and political murders have soared under the frg.
Ríos Montt is helped by the blandness of the oligarchy-supported frontrunner, agriculture baron Oscar Berger, whose proposals include using Guatemala's Nobel Peace laureate, Maya Indian Rigoberta Menchú, to promote tourism. Still, if Ríos Montt loses, he also loses immunity from prosecution, which has raised fears that he might resort to desperation tactics to win. Ríos Montt dismisses these. The genocide case "is just a partisan political complaint with no proof," he says. "If the courts prosecuting cases like Kosovo find real evidence against me, I'll go before them, anywhere." Meanwhile, he'll keep stumping on the same earth he once scorched.