When a Guatemalan court on May 10 found former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Ríos Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity while head of state, I like many indigenous Guatemalans was pleased. Officials in that Central American country had for decades committed atrocities with impunity.

The case has special interest for me because my stepdaughters are from Guatemala and because 30 years ago I reported on and photographed some of the Guatemalan civil war for the old San Francisco Examiner.

General Efrain Ríos Montt, who became president of Guatemala in a March 1982 coup, was kicked out of office in an August 1983 coup. (AP photo by Moises Castillo)

Unfortunately, the good news was not to last. Impunity again raised its ugly head. On Monday, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court overturned the conviction because of a dispute over which lower court judges should have heard the case. Now the trial will have to return to where it stood on April 19 — once the dispute over the judges is resolved.

General Ríos Montt had been clearly elected president in 1974, but blatant election fraud prevented him from taking office. Quixotically, he then fled to California and joined the Eureka-based Gospel Outreach fundamentalist movement.

After returning to Guatemala, Ríos Montt, along with two other military men seized power in a mostly bloodless coup in 1982 and formed a three-man junta. Less than three months after the coup, however, Ríos Mott dissolved the junta and became dictator.

Helping orchestrate the coup, according to the US liberal group Democratic Underground, were “gringo evangelical cronies [who were] co-founders of the Church of the Word, a Guatemala-based offshoot of Gospel Outreach.”

(Gringo, by the way, is slang but not derogatory. In Spain, the word has been around for more than two centuries. Initially, it was simply a way of referring to people from other places whose speech was difficult to understand. Gringo, in fact, is a variant of griego meaning “Greek,” as in it’s Greek to me.)

Estancia de la Virgen — A refugee stands in front of his former home, which was destroyed by the Guatemalan Army on March 31, 1982.

Well before Ríos Montt took power, the army had begun massacring indigenous villagers lest leftist guerrillas get food or recruits from them. A story I wrote for The Examiner made public for the first time that Guatemalan soldiers had massacred 180 residents of two Indian villages, Trinitaria and El Quetzal, near the Mexican border in February 1982.

In the destruction of Estancia de la Virgen, which occurred after Ríos Montt had taken power, the army ordered all the villagers to relocate to the less-remote village of San Antonio las Trojes where it could keep an eye on them.

Soldiers use the belfry of the San Antonio las Trojes cathedral as a guard tower.

The army had attacked the village of 1,800 previously, killing many residents including children who were beheaded with machetes. This time all but eight men fled, and soldiers shot them to death.

“The men had stayed in their houses, believing God would protect them,” a guide named Miguel told me. There was no road to Estancia de la Virgen, and getting there required hiring three refugees from the village to guide my translator and me through the steep terrain.

A soldier in San Antonio las Trojes assembles men from Estancia de la Virgen in order to count them and give out instructions. Barely visible at upper left is a nun who had shown up to distribute food to the refugees.

The refugees from Estancia de la Virgen were bewildered as to why their village had been destroyed. “We are all farmers,” one Indian said. “There are no guerrillas.”

Another said, “We hope this shadow will go from our village because we are innocent.”

A mother and daughter from Estancia de la Virgen in one of the tents distributed to refugees.

After taking a photo of this mother and daughter, I bought a dozen eggs for them at a tienda in San Antonio las Trojes, but when I went to deliver them, she cried out and ran away — apparently not realizing why I had returned.

Nor were refugees from Estancia de la Virgen the only survivors of massacres I interviewed. On April 26, 1982, I traveled to the village of Chipiacul where Guatemalan soldiers had killed 20 residents the previous night. The victims had ranged in age from 13 to 80.

Many of them were shot to death in the village’s small, cement-block meeting hall. The soldiers then used the books from the village’s one-shelf library to build a funeral pyre in an unsuccessful attempt to dispose of the bodies. The survivors I talked with were still in shock and were mystified as to why Chipiacul had been targeted.

The Guatemalan civil war was fought off and on from 1960 to 1996 and cost roughly 200,000 lives, most of them civilian. What was the fighting all about?

After decades of repressive governments, Guatemala enjoyed its “Ten Years of Spring” from 1944 to 1954 under liberal leadership. But agrarian reforms in the early 1950s outraged the United Fruit Company, and it prevailed upon the Eisenhower Administration to intervene. The result was a June 1954 military coup carried out by a group of CIA-trained Guatemalan exiles and billed as stopping Communism from establishing a beachhead in Central America.

Guatemala has never fully recovered. Indeed, at the very time the Guatemalan army under General Ríos Montt was massacring more than 1,700 Ixil Mayans, the White House endorsed him. “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” said President Reagan in December 1982. “I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

Were he alive today, I’m sure Ronald Reagan would be pleased that Ríos Montt for the moment at least is still enjoying impunity.