This article is one of four about the secret influence of The Family – the secretive Christian group that runs the National Prayer Breakfast – on recent U.S.-Guatemala relations. TYT’s reporting on The Family can be found here.
In 1953, Guatemala was an overwhelmingly Catholic country with a government committed to protecting the rights of workers. Today, the country is plagued by poverty, drugs, and corruption. Civil liberties are in jeopardy – and non-existent in Guatemala’s statutes for LGBTQ people.
The decades of transformation in between were not the result of some far-reaching plan by The Family or anyone else. But The Family has been an unseen player at key moments.
When Guatemala’s government began to pursue reforms that would expropriate unused lands held by the United Fruit Company, American politicians took umbrage. One of them, Sen. Alexander Wiley (R-WI), was an ally of Norwegian immigrant Abram Vereide, who started The Family as a network of Christian businessmen so opposed to the concept of organized labor that they organized themselves to fight it.
Wiley wasn’t just an ally of Vereide, he was Vereide’s “lieutenant,” according to journalist Jeff Sharlet, and ran The Family’s weekly prayer groups in the Senate. He also chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
So America paid attention in 1953 when Wiley attacked the new Guatemalan government with the most powerful magic word of his era: Communism. “[C]ommunism has established a strong beachhead in Guatemala,” Wiley said in a statement that merited a story in the New York Times.
The Red Scare was a benchmark for the politicization of religion. As Sharlet has reported, The Family would claim a number of seminal victories at the time that still infuse religion into America’s civic life today. In 1953, evangelist Billy Graham convinced Pres. Eisenhower to attend The Family’s first National Prayer Breakfast. The following year, a Family board member introduced a Senate resolution adding “Under God” to the pledge of allegiance.
Against that backdrop, Wiley, the Foreign Relations chair, “quietly greenlighted U.S. participation” in the overthrow of Guatemala’s government, Sharlet wrote, “culminat[ing] in a ticker-tape parade in New York City for the dictator installed in its place by America.”
In countries around the world, the Cold War provided a rationale for American intervention and fertile territory for The Family’s expansion. By 1957, internal Family documents show, The Family had groups in 125 countries, including Guatemala.
By 1960, Guatemala’s junior military officers were unhappy with the corruption and incompetence of the ruling autocracy and its army brass. Then the government let the U.S. train militants in Guatemala for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The junior officers revolted, touching off decades of civil war that would see Guatemala’s poor and indigenous populations band together against the government.
A corrupt government engaged in civil war and the slow-moving genocide of Mayans was ill-prepared to respond when a massive earthquake hit Guatemala in 1976. When average Americans wanted to help the survivors, Pres. Ford didn’t channel their generosity through the government. His administration told Americans to “contact church and private sector organizations,” according to a paper by Lauren Turek of Trinity University in the journal Diplomatic History.
Notable among the American organizations filling Guatemala’s relief vacuum were conservative evangelicals. The earthquake had created rich terrain for harvesting souls. Seeing no problem that doesn’t include Jesus as part of the solution, Graham, Luis Palau, and other evangelical stars, sent proselytization along with aid and supplies.
Guatemala’s evangelical population underwent a seismic shift of its own. According to a paper by Miho Egoshi of CUNY City College, the number of Guatemalan Protestants grew by 14 percent in just two years after the quake and another 42 percent in the following four years.
One of those evangelical converts was Gen. José Efraín Ríos Montt, a former Catholic whose new American friends included Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
By 1982, evangelicals made up 22 percent of Guatemala’s population – and they got their first evangelical leader when Ríos Montt seized power. He credited Israeli military advisors for his coup’s success. (A later president, neo-Pentecostal Jimmy Morales, reportedly explained that Guatemala’s historic ties with Israel are due in part to Christian beliefs.)
Guatemala’s evangelical population continued to grow under its new evangelical president, and afterward. This growth was attributed in part to fear of government attacks on Catholics, who were suspected of aligning with the guerrillas.
“If you are with us, we will feed you,” Ríos Montt reportedly said. “If not, we will kill you.” For religious Guatemalans, Pentecostalism was safer than Catholicism; for getting fed and for not getting killed. The death toll under Rios Montt topped 200,000. (Pres. Reagan, who lauded The Family’s “private” work, famously declared that Ríos Montt got a “bum rap” on human rights.)
The Family typically invites national leaders to the National Prayer Breakfast, but it maintained its ties with Rios Montt even after his ouster in 1983. And despite his army carrying out genocidal attacks on indigenous Mayans.
Even out of office, Ríos Montt would remain a political force in Guatemala, starting his own party and stewarding the rise of his allies – some of whom also had ties with The Family. His daughter became a Guatemalan politician but never renounced his actions. In 2006, she married then-Rep. Jerry Weller (R-IL).
Two years after losing power, according to Turek’s research, Ríos Montt attended the 1985 National Prayer Breakfast. Archival Family documents show that The Family’s then-leader Doug Coe maintained a correspondence with Ríos Montt. And not just Ríos Montt.
The same year that Ríos Montt came to Washington for the prayer breakfast, Coe was also in touch with Harris H. Whitbeck Piñol, a Ríos Montt ally who eventually joined Ríos Montt’s new party. A letter from Coe to Whitbeck suggests that they had an ongoing relationship.
Coe’s letter to Whitbeck also refers to inviting another Ríos Montt ally to the 1986 breakfast. That second ally was Jorge Serrano Elías, also evangelical. Before his ouster, Ríos Montt had appointed Serrano to lead the Council of State. In 1991, Serrano ran for president as a sequel to Rios Montt and won.
An October 1985 letter from then-Family leader Doug Coe pursuing connections with Guatemalan leaders affiliated with Gen. Rios Montt.
Two years into office, Serrano decided the courts and legislature had too much power. So he tried to take it. When Serrano’s self-coup failed, he fled the country, leaving his vice president, Gustavo Espina, in charge.
Espina was also evangelical. A neo-Pentecostal, Espina was active in organizations that wedded religion with money and political power. Espina and Serrano, for instance, both belonged to the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International, which has ties to The Family. Espina’s church was the evangelical La Fraternidad Christiana.
After Serrano fled, Espina served as president – for four whole days. Then Espina, too, fled Guatemala when it was revealed that he had participated in Serrano’s failed plan to seize power.
Espina later returned – paying a small fine for his sins and reportedly staying active politically, behind the scenes. That activity, according to one report, included working to get his son, also a neo-Pentecostal, in a powerful position as ambassador to the U.S.
Related: How The Family Won Guatemala
From Wiley in the 1950s on down through Ríos Montt and Espina, evangelical efforts in Guatemala have not always succeeded. But the trend line is moving their way.
Today, Guatemala has another conservative Christian president, another opponent of LGBTQ and reproductive rights. And there’s little sign that will change soon. By one count, evangelicals last year made up 41.3 percent of the population in Guatemala. After decades of growth, evangelicals are now the majority in Guatemala.
Today, a new generation of American evangelicals is pushing their worldview on the world, but without some of the restraints their forebears observed. Graham’s son, Franklin, the National Prayer Breakfast’s secret financial backer, has been identified by an EU parliamentary report as a wellspring of resources for global anti-LGBTQ movements.
Espina’s son has closer ties to The Family than his Guatemalan predecessors did. As ambassador to the U.S., the son would help another evangelical president escape prosecutors, and help then-Pres. Donald Trump pursue global evangelical goals.
Ironically, Espina’s power grab had made him a political outcast among Guatemala’s elite. To escape social exile and achieve power of his own, Espina’s son would need the help of The Family. Thanks to several sources and internal Family documents, TYT has pieced together the story of how The Family did it, as detailed in the next installment of this series.