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Election of Former Dictator Could Strain US-Guatemalan Relations, says State Dept. - 2003-05-27

The State Department warned Tuesday that U.S. relations with Guatemala will suffer if the country's former dictator, Efrain Rios Montt, wins presidential elections in that Central American country in November. Mr. Rios Montt's 18-month tenure as military ruler in the early 1980s was marked by severe human rights abuses.

In an unusual move, the State Department has publicly served notice on Guatemala that it would be "difficult" to have a good relationship if Mr. Rios Montt returned to power, while also pointing out that the former general is nominally barred from serving under that country's constitution.

The comments follow a decision last Saturday by the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front party to nominate the former military chief as the party's candidate for president in the national election set for November 9.

Mr. Rios Montt took power in a military coup in 1982 and ruled the country for 18 months, during which the armed forces mounted a "scorched-earth" campaign against suspected leftist insurgents that left thousands of people dead and hundreds of Indian villages in ruins.

A 1999 report by a "truth commission" backed by the United Nations accused Mr. Rios Montt of at least tolerating massacres by soldiers under his command during his tenure as military ruler.

At a briefing for reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States supports free, fair, transparent and constitutional elections in Guatemala, while noting that Mr. Rios Montt has already been barred from the presidency because of his role in the coup.

"We would hope to be able to work with, and have a normal, friendly relationship with whoever is the next president of Guatemala," Mr. Boucher said. "Realistically, in light of Mr. Rios Montt's background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship that we would prefer. We understand that Guatemala's Constitutional Court has decided on two occasions to bar Mr. Rios Montt from holding Guatemala's presidency, due to a constitutional prohibition denying eligibility for that office to individuals who have taken power through extra-constitutional means."

Mr. Rios Montt founded the ruling party and was elected head of the Guatemalan Congress three years ago. He is a close associate of the current President Alfonso Portillo, who has said he believes Mr. Rios Montt's bid for elected office will not be blocked by the courts this time.

A Rios Montt candidacy would seemingly be precluded by the country's 1986 constitution, which bars any participant in a coup from assuming the presidency and also bars former heads of state from returning to office.

The popularity of the incumbent Guatemalan president, Mr. Portillo, has plummeted amid a sagging economy and charges of corruption involving drug dealers.

In a report to the U.S. Congress in late January, the Bush administration said the Guatemalan government had "failed demonstrably" in fighting the drug trade, though citing U.S. national interests, it waived economic sanctions against it.