He has been called ''an enigma,'' even ''a kook.''
He is also known here as ''an honest, strict, sincere, family man.''
Brig. Gen. Efrain Rios Montt is definitely ''not your average banana republic military general,'' notes one diplomat. ''He's a complex man. He believes in discipline, and military hierarchy. But he's neither a figurehead nor a manipulator of the coup.''
The general's speeches are described as mesmeric. A graduate of a Dale Carnegie course in human relations, he holds his audience with his well-modulated, mellifluous voice and sweeping gestures of the arms and hands.
''Hear me. Listen to me. Understand me,'' General Rios Montt exhorted Guatemalan citizens in a recent Sunday speech. He spoke from the palm-filled courtyard of the National Palace. The videotaped speech about God, love, and patriotism, was interspersed with segments showing Guatemalan children eating papaya slices, and wind-rippled wheatfields.
He was called to the National Palace over the state radio network March 23 by the six junior officers who staged the coup. He drove to the palace in a Volkswagen, wearing civilian clothes. He emerged later that evening on television wearing a camouflage outfit.
When one Guatemalan returned home late and saw him halfway through his first televised address, he ''thought he was a comedian doing a parody of General Rios Montt.'' The general has toned down since. Some Guatamalans hope he'll tone down even more.
Many foreign officials here say they can't figure the general out; that they must wait to see what concrete steps he takes to improve the economy or deal with the leftist guerrilla threat.
Is he in control of the junta?
To give one clue, a businessman recounted how the general picked three Cabinet ministers:
''The nation's business community was asked to submit names for various posts including the minister of the economy. General Rios Montt looked at the long list of possible names and took the first three on the list. Then he turned to look at the young officers standing behind him and received their nod of approval.''
The junior officers are always in attendance, though discreetly in the background. Bit by bit, General Rios Montt seems to be consolidating his power.
His supporters say he is honest, forthright, decent. His detractors assert he is vain.
He has slicked back, jet-black hair, a bristly, walrus-like mustache. Big toothy smile. He appears in a wide variety of dress: smart uniform, camouflage outfit, business suit, sport coat, military khakis. Sometimes he seems to go through the entire wardrobe in one day.
In person he looks shorter than in pictures. He has taller-than-average Guatemalans as bodyguards. At official receptions, his comments are barely audible, as though he doesn't want to be overheard.
Born in the western department of Huehuetenango, he joined the Army in 1943 and graduated from Guatemala's Polytechnic Institute in 1950. He also passed a course in counterguerrilla operations at Fort Bragg, N.C. He has held various posts such as chief of staff and director of the polytechnic school, and taught at Guatemala's military academy. He was sent to Washington as head of the Inter-American Defense College in 1973.
Eight years ago he ran as presidential candidate of National Opposition Front , a party organized by the Christian Democrats. General Rios Montt thought he had won but the government said Gen. Kjell Eugenio Laugerud Garcia had beaten him. The opposition parties called the 1974 election a fraud (as they did the 1978 election, and the March 7, 1982 election).
General Rios Montt asked his supporters to be peaceful. But the reaction in the streets was violent. Eventually he conceded defeat.
He was offered a post as ambassador to Spain, but he went as military attache in order to stay in the Army. He has been in the Army for 39 years. He came back from Spain in 1976, and shortly thereafter converted from Roman Catholicism to join an evangelical church group.
The evangelical church he attends is located in a bougainvillea-draped upper-class suburb of the capital, under a large yellow- and green-striped tent. Each Sunday, the exuberant sound of its singing and its musical ensemble echoes through the neighborhood.
The general's brother is a Roman Catholic archbishop. His wife, Maria Teresa, is a member of the right-wing National Liberation Movement. One diplomat thinks this is the reason for Rios Montt's ''gradual slipping to the right.'' Others think he's further to the left. Some say he is locked in the center.