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The death of two dictators  


The former presidents of two long-suffering Central American countries have both died within a day of each other.  

Francisco Guillermo Flores of El Salvador, a country of some seven million people, who was facing charges of diverting $15 million in contributions for earthquake victims to his personal and political party accounts, died on Jan. 30, at age 56.

Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, a Guatemalan brigadier general who presided over some of the bloodiest years of his country’s civil war before seizing power in a 1983 coup, died Feb. 1. He was 85.

Flores was a member of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the conservative party that has controlled the presidency of El Salvador for two decades, beginning in 1989. He took office in 1999 and was in power until 2004.

He had been under house arrest since November 2014, accused of embezzling donations from the Taiwanese government that were intended for earthquake survivors in 2001. Flores contended that El Salvador enjoyed “a privileged relationship” with Taiwan because it backed that country’s application for membership in the United Nations.

In December, a Salvadoran judge ordered Flores to stand trial on charges of pocketing $5 million personally and dispersing $10 million to his party’s coffers.

When he was inaugurated for a five-year term in 1999 at the age of 39, Flores was the youngest president in the Americas.

After he was elected, Flores paid homage to a founder of his party, Roberto d’Aubuisson, a National Guard officer accused of many right-wing murders, including the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, during the country’s vicious civil war, in which an unknown number of people “were disappeared” during the conflict, and more than 75,000 were killed.

His government was characterized by its close alignment with United States policies. He authorized the deployment of 3,000 Salvadoran troops to Iraq in support of U.S. forces in 2003. Flores was also responsible for the Salvadoran adoption of the United States dollar as its official currency.

Guatemala’s Mejia Victores was in a long line of military dictators. From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 civilians were killed during a civil war between government forces and leftist guerillas. More than 80 per cent of the victims were Mayans, who make up about half of Guatemala’s population of 16 million.

Almost half of the war’s human rights violations occurred in 1982, when General Efrain Rios Montt seized power and made Mejia Victores his defence minister. Seventeen months later, Mejia Victores ousted Ríos Montt. But political killings continued.

The government, under pressure from the United States and other nations, did move to reform the political system, and Mejia Victores announced elections for the framing of a new constitution and for the presidency.

But shortly before leaving office in 1986, he issued a decree granting amnesty to all those accused of political crimes and human rights violations committed during his and his predecessor’s rule. The law was repealed a decade later.

In 2011, Mejia Victores was prosecuted in Guatemala on charges of crimes against humanity for the killings of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans by soldiers under his command. He was ruled unfit to stand trial because of a stroke.

The two countries have recently moved along different political trajectories. Salvador Sanchez Cerén, a former guerrilla fighter, won the 2014 presidential election in El Salvador as the candidate of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

But in Guatemala, James Ernesto Morales was elected president last year under the banner of the right-wing National Convergence Front (FCN-Nacion), a party with close ties to the military.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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