With the Bible in One Hand, a Submachine Gun in the Other

in 31st Guadalajara International Film Festival

by Dennis West

In his infamous motto, the Guatemalan born-again Christian and military dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt contended that “A good Christian man packs a Bible in one hand and a submachine gun in the other.” On March 23, 1982, a right-wing coup d’état installed  Ríos Montt as head of an anti-communist military junta. Congress was dissolved and democratic elections suspended. Until August 8, 1983, the authoritarian  Ríos Montt served simultaneously as President of the Republic of Guatemala and Commander in Chief of the Army; and he allegedly functioned as the éminence grise of the most bloodthirsty counterinsurgency campaign in the modern history of Latin America. The decades-long civil war sweeping Guatemala at the time pitted outgunned leftist groups and their allies against a series of savage military dictatorships propped up by helicopter gunships, military trucks and jeeps, armaments, and officer training freely furnished by the United States, which was deeply committed to the anti-communist worldview typifying the period of the Cold War. At one point, U. S. President Ronald Reagan—concerned about the rise of armed leftist movements in Central America—even met personally with  Ríos Montt, whom he subsequently publicly characterized as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment” who wished to “promote social justice.”

Reagan’s favorable view of General  Ríos Montt no longer holds sway in the United States or Latin America. In fact, the now 89-year-old ex-dictator has in Guatemala recently been publicly and formally accused of genocide and crimes against humanity since during his leadership the military routinely employed counter-insurgency tactics such as “scorched earth” offensives, the routine annihilation of hundreds of indigenous rural communities, and the systematic extra-judicial execution of non-combatants.

In 1999, Spanish justice—at the behest of Mayan activist Rigoberta Menchú and other parties—invoked the legal concept of universal jurisdiction in genocide and human rights cases in order to attempt to try  Ríos Montt; but the former generalissimo was never extradited to Spain. The Spanish case against  Ríos Montt is examined at length in American Pamela Yates’ Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (2011), which is the only other feature documentary that I know of dedicated to an examination of the infamous Guatemalan leader. In her film, Yates, commenting on the social and moral dimensions of her work, contends that “witnessing is the essence of being a documentary filmmaker.”

Now, the young Guatemalan screenwriter-director Izabel Acevedo in her first feature documentary The Good Christian [El buen cristiano] (2016) continues this invaluable task of witnessing. The following are all provocatively explored:  Ríos Montt’s ideological and religious worldviews, his sociopolitical and military policies, and the consequences of his bloody actions.

One of Acevedo’s approaches involves closely following his public trial in Guatemala City in 2013 for genocide and crimes against humanity. Since the filmmaker includes extensive actuality footage of many testifying witnesses, it appears that she enjoyed at all times full access to the First Criminal Court of First Instance for Criminal Justice, Drug Trafficking and Environmental Crimes—the court of Presiding Judge Iris Yassmín Barrios Aguilar.  Ríos Montt himself testifies. In medium shot, dressed in a business suit, the accused earnestly faces the camera to maintain in his defense that he did not order genocide and that in the military at the time there in fact existed no “chain of command” originated by him. He further contends that regional commanders had considerable autonomy—i.e., any atrocities committed by the military were carried out on the explicit orders of regional commanders rather than on orders from the top. The same specious argument is also articulated in Granito; but both documentaries make clear that simultaneously as both President of Guatemala and Commander in Chief of the Army in an authoritarian regime  Ríos Montt ipso facto knew of the widespread human rights atrocities and was ultimately responsible for them.

In The Good Christian, Francisco Chávez Raymundo, a member of the Maya Ixil ethnic group, appears in court as the star witness. Dressed in traditional garb, he recounts in detail the military’s destruction of his rural community and the manner in which troops hunted down his father, an innocent non-combatant, and extra-judicially executed him. In a later sequence, we see Chávez Raymundo journey to the site where he and his younger sister were forcibly displaced by the military and held in precarious conditions as detained children completely unaware of whether their mother was still living or not. Acevedo’s crosscutting between Chávez Raymundo’s life narrative and the court proceedings effectively works to link  Ríos Montt’s policies and deeds to their devastating consequences for human beings living today.

Unfortunately, Acevedo’s coverage of courtroom proceedings lacks a clear structure or framework of information allowing lay persons—i.e., spectators who are not lawyers—to follow chronologically the unfolding of justice and its complex implications. The activities of two courts are followed: the principal one depicted is the First Criminal Court of First Instance for Criminal Justice, Drug Trafficking and Environmental Crimes; but also featured are clips from the Court of Constitutionality, which appears to annul on a procedural technicality the previous [?] court’s condemnation of  Ríos Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity. By the end of The Good Christian, uncertainty prevails in terms of  Ríos Montt’s legal status: are his two trials in two different courts concomitant or sequential? Which of the two courts is superior to the other or are they somehow equal? At the end of the proceedings in Barrios Aguilar’s court, why would the judge read out a lengthy sentence condemning  Ríos Montt if another entity, the Court of Constitutionality, had already freed him? Can and will the ex-generalissimo be retried? To add to the confusion, two other courts are mentioned in passing: the First Court for High Risk Crimes (Tribunal Primero de Mayor Riesgo) and the Supreme Court of Justice; but their roles and standing are never clarified. At film’s end, then, viewers who are not themselves lawyers or cognoscenti remain in a legal fog.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of The Good Christian is the extensive gallery of former supporters, apologists, or collaborators of the  Ríos Montt regime—such as the influential businessman-politician Harris Whitbeck Piñol—who speak in talking-heads format at some length about their collaboration. It is unusual in documentary film to feature such far-reaching collaboration from perpetrators or supporters of crimes. The  Ríos Montt regime subscribed to the nefarious National Security Doctrine that viewed the Maya Ixil and other national indigenous groups as the “internal enemy” (enemigo interno) to be annihilated as social organizations. These talking heads, then, offer considerable insight into the specific ideological constructs, programs, and policies that were part and parcel of the racist National Security Doctrine that in the countryside tore apart Guatemala’s indigenous social fabric and cultural values: “beans and bullets” (“frijoles y fusiles”), “bases of support’ (“bases de apoyo”), “food for work” (“comida por trabajo”), forced conscription into “civil self-defense patrols” (“patrullas de autodefensa civil”), and “development hubs” (“polos de desarrollo”).

In The Good Christian, Acevedo breaks no new esthetic ground but adds incalculably to our understanding of  Ríos Montt and what he and his ilk represent. And the ways in which genocidal dictators and other criminal leaders may be brought to justice in Guatemala and certain other Latin American countries where the rule of law remains precarious. After all,  Ríos Montt represents the first genocidal leader in world history to be formally brought to justice within his own nation’s judicial system. The Good Christian had its world premiere at the 31st edition of the Guadalajara International Film Festival, where it captured the prestigious FEISAL prize bestowed by the Federation of Audiovisual Schools of Latin America.

Dennis West