Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 206 | Septiembre 1998



The Circle Closes Around the Gerardi Case

In Guatemala, a country which today is passing through several transitions, governing means creating a state and ordering society. The government of Alvaro Arzú does not measure up to the challenge. The murder of Bishop Gerardi confronts it with the greatest of its dilemmas and limits the space for implementing the peace process.

Edgar Gutiérrez

The relationship between Guatemala's top military brass and the murdered auxiliary bishop of the Archdioceses of Guatemala, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, has a long and tense history. Gerardi was expelled by the military in 1980, when he was president of Guatemala's Bishops' Conference and bishop of El Quiché, then the most politically violent region in the country. On his return he founded the Archbishopric's Office on Human Rights (ODHAG), which has consistently issued stinging charges of the violation of the civilian population's rights.

Just two days before he was killed upon arriving back at the parish house the night of April 26, the prelate had publicly unveiled the most comprehensive report yet issued on the atrocities committed during the 36-year war between the military and the guerrilla movement. That report was the product of a Guatemalan Catholic Church project known as Recovery of the Historic Memory (REMHI), and as such represents a real threat to those responsible for the atrocities. The judicial investigation into Gerardi's assassination has bogged down in maneuvers to deflect the political signs surrounding the case.

Government at a crossroads

The murder has clearly fractured the transition process that began in Guatemala on December 1996 when the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG) signed the "Firm and Lasting Peace Accord." It has also presented the government of President Alvaro Arzú with an inescapable dilemma: whether to abandon the peace agenda's reformist objectives and accept the reduction in its own real power, or break with the parallel power schemes with which the three civilian governments preceding it coexisted. Each of those governments, headed respectively by Vinicio Cerezo, Jorge Serrano and Ramiro de León Carpio, has left its own balance sheet of paradigmatic cases of human rights violations. If the Arzú government chooses the second road, it will have to move to dismantle the apparatus of the powerful death squads.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma. The peace process was born in poor health, and the cover-up of the disappearance of the guerrilla fighter known as "Mincho" just before it was signed was not a good omen. That case involved the Presidential High Command, whose then head, General Marco Tulio Espinoza, is today the most powerful man in the Army. The increasingly widespread lack of public safety and the urgent social and economic expectations that peace brought with it fell into something of a social vacuum since the peace calendar has been subordinated in the two-track program the government party has been following since early 1997.

With the transition process being effectively boycotted, the government, lacking internal allies and facing a skeptical population, was unable to pass the first tough test of the peace reforms in February 1998: the application of a single property tax known as IUSI. This tax was the heart of the first progressive tax reform that the country would have seen in 30 years.

The noose is tightening

The Gerardi case is heightening the Arzú government's isolation by creating a fissure between it and organized civil society and cooling the international community's enthusiasm for the peace process. And President Arzú's reactions have only aggravated this situation. He has so far proved incapable of turning outside criticism and pressure to his advantage to shore up the state agenda and has become involved in a lot of unnecessary fights, especially with the media.

Part of the problem is that his government has had an exaggerated notion of its own strength, which has been a serious strategic error. It has squandered energies, alienated allies and, once Alfredo Moreno, a former civilian collaborator with military intelligence, appeared on the scene, lost momentum in its fight against corruption and military dominance.

Moreno, also a former customs official, was arrested in September 1996 and charged with heading a well-organized contraband network. A select group of top military commanders and retired officers who had played significant roles in the counterinsurgency war in the early 1980s were supposedly involved in this mafia. Moreno has been detained ever since, without being sentenced by the courts. The Arzú administration heralded his arrest as "a smarting blow against organized crime," but then failed to follow up this first step until mid-1998, when it undertook another effort against the "black box" of corruption in the Army, although now in a weaker political position.

Gerardi's murder is not just tightening a noose around the government and the peace process. It is also realigning a series of heretofore dispersed and leaderless political forces around the main figures of the parallel power apparatus and is reopening the kind of Cold War ideological confrontation we thought put to rest. In this context, the apparatus is providing the government a window of opportunity—the "crime of passion" thesis—to make its capitulation honorable. Although this thesis is incredible, it is what some sectors—including a part of the government—need to believe, or at least have "reasonable doubts" about, in order to justify the neutralization of which they themselves are victims, limit the damage to the system and, finally, cover up the crime.

Taking refuge in this thesis is tantamount to activating the death throes of the peace process. It also risks sparking a crisis within the government and its ruling National Advance Party (PAN) as they prepare for an electoral process (1999) over which clouds of violence are already beginning to gather, drawn by the dangerous vacuum of legitimate power. The question is with whom the President will decide to co-govern in the few remaining months of his administration.

Evoking Gerardi

I don't recall exactly how or when I met Monsignor Gerardi. It was about 10 years ago and I wouldn't be surprised if Myrna Mack were the link. Without my realizing it, he became a friend and teacher, a close part of my life and conversations. He was somebody on whom one could count because he would always be there. An absolute sense of loyalty was fundamental to his system of values and relationships. This 75-year-old man who had lived in El Quiché, the heart of the war, during the past decade, would know that.

He was the kind of person who didn't need a lot of words to display feelings, or grandiloquent moral sermons to buttress his causes. But he was also not hard to comprehend, since there was an impeccable coherence between his thoughts and actions. He was a strange case in our midst: his actions spoke louder than his words.

For all that, he wasn't fussy about showing pride in his works. "You didn't expect anything like that, did you?" he repeated to me after the public presentation of the REMHI Report. "The Monsignor is so happy," said one of his closest friends and collaborators; "it's a transcendental moment in his pastoral work." With eyes wide after concluding some address or presenting some proposal, he would always ask: "So what did you think of it?" Then he would fling both arms out and, scrunching his head between his shoulders, would immediately burst out laughing.

He wasn't solemn and always had on hand the antidotes of sarcasm, the exact refrain or the clever joke. He laughed at himself and disdained flattery. He had a sufficiently developed sense of reality and sincerity to know himself inside and out, which is the condition needed to reject social or political lies.

"I'm just an ordinary soldier"

As part of the work of reconstructing memory, some of us from REMHI talked with Gerardi over a two-day period in the remote town of Sololá about his memories of the 36 years of armed conflict and the role played by the Catholic Church. His faithfulness to the facts and the just proportion of his own role in that setting never failed to surprise me.

On that occasion we not only learned enough of the country's history to fill many pages, but he also revealed to us his feelings about trickery and treason, loneliness and powerlessness, and the block that the trauma of violence produced in him. Two of his expressions remain etched in my memory. The first was this: "There was no room for third ways, freedom was annulled, [the contending bands] each wanted us to serve them so they could consider themselves our friends. They didn't understand that we only serve people, not political projects." The second, which came out when he was summarizing that period, was this very hard conclusion: "We have failed as a society."
"What does a man my age expect?" he once wondered aloud. I never heard a direct response; but saw the actions. When his health was threatened, he stopped smoking, changed his culinary habits and took long walks at daybreak, all with a happy discipline. He soon caught a second wind and went on being the voracious reader who was always passing literature around, commenting on new theories, exploring the era of globalization and setting aside a number of hours each week to analyze the country's political situation with us. "What am I?" he answered me once: "Well, I'm an ordinary soldier of the Church." And he began to laugh, celebrating his witticism.

Post-conflict violence

Monsignor Gerardi was not the assassin's only target the night of April 26. If he had been, they would probably have eliminated him in the old manner: sprayed with bullets on the street in broad daylight, the way certain Army officers in San Antonio, Ilotenango, planned it in June 1980.

The twisted scheme cooked up around this case has established the use and scope of political violence in this post-armed conflict period, a stage that some view as one of "low-intensity conflict" and others as "war by other means." They physically killed Bishop Gerardi but they also sought to stamp out the legitimate base of his pastoral work, the Archbishopric's Human Rights Office and the REMHI project. That's why they accused a priest, Father Orantes, of the murder; that's why they dredged up the idea of a "crime of passion," an institutional scandal—murder within the church! This line accomplished the effect of "softening up the enemy," to borrow the language of military strategists. It also attempts to neutralize or manipulate by way of blackmail.

"Crime of passion": A diabolical plan

The selection of the place of death—the parish house—was no accident. Any crime hunter—like certain Spanish military advisers—would diligently look for the alleged perpetrator in Gerardi's own home. Nor was the method chosen at random: using a blunt object to thoroughly smash the victim's face and cranium is a well-known mark of a passionate crime in some first-world cities. Nor was it an afterthought to be sure that a bare-chested man would be seen by the indigents in the San Sebastián Park fronting the parish house at about 10 o'clock at night, the time of the crime.

The aim was to plant suspicion; exploit morbidity; stimulate rumors, which are a rampant form of communication in historically repressed societies like ours; create a soap opera— by installments—through the press. And, in the end, the aim was to go nowhere, offer no conclusion, leave the resolution in limbo and create the impression that there were some shady goings-on. And also let it be understood that there is now a new accomplice to impunity, that there will be no authority tomorrow to raise its voice for justice.

These are the components of the conspiracy against the Church's pastoral work. It is a diabolically brilliant plan; an intrigue worthy of the high cloisters of politics, where democracy's light has never shone.

Destroying Gerardi's face was a symbolic attempt to destroy the face of the Church. The unreasonable way Father Orantes was publicly implicated—including the way the prosecutors handled the evidence and the controlled leaks of data to the media to feed the bad-mouthing—is about damaging the moral authority of the Church because they couldn't align it in any of the political pacts, some of them secret, that opened the way for this post-conflict period.

Somehow Arzú bought part of that story and now the criminals have exploited his anger against the Church, whose pastoral work the President considered close to destabilization. Arzú assured the Spanish newspaper El País last year that the Church opposed the peace process. He confided to a foreign minister early this year that the Church was the only "problem" his government had to deal with. His declaration in Colombia in August during the inauguration of the country's new President insinuated the same line: the Army is faithful to the peace, but the human rights community thrives on the dead. It was a pretty hepatic way for the representative of national unity to refer to the political dynamic in a country that is still governed by impunity but aspires to some form of democratic life.

"Investigate" to throw people off...

When the rule of law is working, investigations are done in a discreet and professional manner as a matter of course, and only by the appropriate agencies. The evidence is objectively analyzed and the prosecutor provides scientific advice. No step is taken without those taking it being fully convinced, among other reasons because an arrest order or the release of names without absolute foundation can cause irreparable damage to the honor and dignity of the individuals involved. This is particularly, but not only, important when the alleged involvement of those individuals—whether priests or military officers—would be scandalous.

When the rule of law is not working, the judicial process is used as a show and the press as a sounding board. This is not about judgments that can be won or lost in public opinion, but about this particular one, in which the investigation is being used as a resource of impunity to confuse public opinion and discredit justice.

Bishop Gerardi's murder is being used for just about every purpose except justice. The resources of justice are being manipulated to undertake what to all appearances seems to be a campaign against the Catholic Church, exploiting the scandal, unleashing rumors and fingering people as suspects without adequate evidence. Just about everything has been done—and especially said—in these four months except genuinely try to solve the case. There has been impunity of words and a vulgarization of justice.

...And "inform" to destroy

In the end, the whole investigation could wind up being nothing more than a game to destroy individuals and institutions, a game that moves Guatemala further away from stable peace with justice. The justice system would be even more degraded and its authorities viewed with even more suspicion and distrust. And the blow against the Church that Monsignor's Gerardi's assassination represents would now be used not to continue destroying it physically, but to damage it morally. Or, as they are saying in many parishes, "to persecute the Church."
An example of this occurred on Saturday, August 15, when several daily newspapers reported that two priests and a monsignor linked to the Gerardi case would be arrested that same afternoon. The journalists surely did not invent the story; they have to have obtained it from an official source: the prosecuting attorney, the judge or the police. That same morning the prosecutor denied having released such information. No one was arrested that day but, once again, the mentioned church members were damaged in the public's eyes. The press, too, was damaged, since it was seen as a rumormonger.

Two major responsibilities

When public opinion starts becoming a prisoner of renewed skepticism toward justice, and when the Gerardi case begins to be used to distract attention from other economic and political issues affecting the citizenry, it is time to reflect on the road we have come down.

There are two main responsibilities in this case. One is that of the attorney general to fairly evaluate the way the special prosecuting attorney is conducting the case. This is pertinent because it is not only the individual who is exposed by a task done poorly, but the Public Ministry itself, an institution that is vital to the installation of the rule of law in Guatemala. The other equally serious responsibility is that of the central government. It is unacceptable for the figure of the President to get mixed up in the game by making cryptic declarations that contribute to the confusion and thus to speculation. It vitally important and still not too late to rescue belief in justice through a serious and professional criminal investigation.

The Army backpedals

What is the army doing in this case? In ideological as well as political terms, the Guatemalan Army has backpedaled in the past year. It has done so even more noticeably since bishop Gerardi's assassination, when even retired officers known for their moderate tendencies adopted a Cold-War style tough line. It has been an institutional characteristic that the inertia of polarization has immediate effects on military cohesion while the force of change loses momentum.

The hardening of the Army's line can be traced back to the departure of General Julio Balconi from the Ministry of Defense and the arrival of General Marco Tulio Espinoza as head of the Defense Chiefs of Staff. These changes in the high command showed that the line favoring military conversion, which had been negotiated in the September 1996 accord to strengthen civilian power, is not yet consolidated, and that the style of the military leadership largely colors the course of the institution. With Espinoza, the Army lost its pro-active project and set its reactive forces in motion. This shift includes the invention of internal enemies to justify their space in internal politics. This largely explains why the peace accords have run into so many difficulties in 1998.

1998: A key year for the Army

This year represents an opportunity for the Army to become more open to society. The military institution's conversion process, for example, has occurred—if it has occurred at all—within headquarters, behind closed doors, behind the back of public opinion. It has been treated as a military secret, without political oversight, exercised with that same autonomy that the Army has enjoyed for the past 40 years.

Another example of that autonomy is that, through its unwillingness to supply substantive information about the plans, operations and structure of the war, the high command has violated the accord that created the Commission of Historic Clarification. The number of officers who have voluntarily gone to testify to the commission can be counted on one hand with a few fingers left over.

If the Arzú government wants to recover the peace process, it should replace the current high command, break with the taboo that democracy and human rights work against the army, open up the debate—and the HQ—to bring the military conversion out of its secrecy and permit substantial reforms to the Constitution's security and intelligence section. Otherwise, Guatemala will continue navigating the waters of a transition that offers no safe port of democracy in which to cast anchor and will end up mourning more deaths, violence and impunity.

Little room for optimism

This is also the key year for the peace process. It only got underway in 1997 and 1999 is an electoral year, which is the same as saying a year of frivolous voices and vacuous promises. As a result, whatever progress is made in fulfilling the substantive agreements in 1998 will be what forges the foundation for the new correlation of forces that emerges from the electoral race.

What happened in the first half of 1998 leaves little room for optimism. The most serious data in the socioeconomic realm as well as the political one are the killing Gerardi and the impunity surrounding the crime five full months afterward.

The peace accords subjected the political class to a test of institutional, legal and cultural transformations that it has yet to pass. Neither the parties nor their leaders nor even organized civil society have had the capacity to head up an orderly transition.

PAN, the governing party, created an exclusive circle of business families with advantageous access to the businesses of economic modernization. This has triggered a feeling of exclusion among the majority of business heads, above all those who aspire to hold on to their profit margins and their privileged entry to political power.

But this is not the most serious thing that has happened. It was just the beginning of the current government's isolation from society as a whole and from the political class in particular. This isolation was dramatically reflected during the first months of 1998 with the rupture between the President and the media and his attempt to subject them to his wishes through financial pressure. Neither the 20-some commissions that grew out of the peace accords nor the two versions of the Updating Meetings called by the government have managed to counteract the government's tendency to make policy without looking to forge a consensus.

Only low-intensity peace?

Any political party that wins the presidency has the full right to do things its own way. But in Guatemala, a country in which several transitions have been set in motion simultaneously and a model of transformation was adopted based on the peace accords, the task of governing acquires another meaning: that of creating a state and organizing society. It is not a mission for ordinary times or for ordinary parties or leaders.

It is a task of historic transcendence that goes way beyond electoral periods. Creating consensus does not necessarily imply that all Guatemalans will be in agreement. It essentially means a basis of political legitimacy that an elite forges through multiple means that converge on a single common objective.

This is what the PAN seems not to have understood, which is why Guatemala is still sailing the waters of political instability and the application of the peace accords is only offering us—in our most optimistic frame of mind—a low-intensity peace. Will the two strongest parties—Alvaro Arzú's PAN and retired General Efraín Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG)—adopt the peace agreement as the basis of their government program in the upcoming electoral campaign?
The reality is that a major gap has opened up between the peace accords and the population's expectations. The accords are not popular because they do not offer effective solutions to the urgent problems of unemployment, the bare-bones survival conditions of the majority and the lack of public safety about which the government is doing nothing.

Great events and enormous tragedies are also opportunities to head things in a better direction. But neither the failure of the IUSI tax, nor the Gerardi case, nor perhaps even the negotiation of the next constitutional reform seem to be events so major or tragedies so sizeable as to open a new horizon. If that is really true, where does it leave us?

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