Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 239 | Junio 2001



Gerardi Case: Justice for a Just Man

The prosecutor has asked for thirty years of prison for three military officers and a priest found guilty of assassinating Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala. Here are the main pieces in this historic trial.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Justice for a just man was the motto at the commemoration of the third anniversary of the murder of 75-year-old Bishop Juan Gerardi, held on April 26-28. This year, the anniversary coincided with the trial for the crime.

The defendants include three military officers accused of "extra-judicial execution": retired Colonel Byron Disraeli Lima Estrada; his son, Captain Byron Miguel Lima Oliva, a member of the military’s presidential bodyguard unit (the EMP); and military specialist Obdulio Villanueva, also a member of that unit. Father Mario Orantes Nájera, a priest who lived in the house with Gerardi, is also accused of assassination. And Margarita López, the cook in the parish house where the crime occurred, is accused of covering it up. After over two months of testimonies in the trial, the general impression is that the killing was politically motivated and that neither the crime’s material author/authors nor all of the intellectual authors are among the accused.

The trial is taking place in a country indignant over government incompetence, the corruption in various crucial state offices, a deteriorating economy accompanied by deteriorated living and working conditions and ever-increasing crime and lack of public safety. The indignation is especially rife in the capital.

The current situation has also been marked by sharp controversies over changes to the Labor Code, the new tax bill and the replacement of the director of the President’s Human Rights Commission at the time of Guatemala’s vote against Cuba in Geneva. These controversies have obscured the resolution against the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front deputies for illegally altering the tax law on alcoholic beverages and prompted demonstrations that could help either consolidate or destabilize the democratic rule of law; it is not yet clear which. Instability has reached such heights that people are beginning to suggest that the "solution" is to transform the presidential system into a parliamentary one. This is the extremely agitated context in which the trial over Monsignor Gerardi’s assassination is taking place.

Chanax: Star witness

The Public Ministry’s case hinges largely on the testimony of Rúben Chanax Sontay, one of the homeless people who regularly slept in the San Sebastián Park alongside the parish house where the crime occurred. Chanax testified for the first time the day after the assassination, on April 27, 1998. He testified twice more over the course of the next year, then, on March 17, 1999, during the reconstruction of the events, gave a statement to be introduced as future evidence before the court. The fifth time he testified, on January 17, 2000, in another statement to be introduced as evidence, he laced in new information that led to the detention of the three military officers and re-arrest of Father Orantes and Margarita López. Since then, Chanax has lived in exile under a witness protection program. He testified for the final time on Monday, April 30, 2001, before the court hearing the case, and again contributed new information.

Psychiatrist Juan Jacobo Muñoz, with 21 years of experience, 5 of them working for the Public Ministry assesses Chanax as "stable, coherent and credible," and believes the witness probably omitted some important details in his earlier testimonies out of fear for his life. "If [these blocks are] included, his testimony is coherent, orderly and logical," Muñoz said. The defense argued that the psychiatrist is employed by the Public Ministry and charged that his evaluation of the witness plays into the prosecutor’s hands by minimizing the differences between his various statements. The lawyer for the Catholic Church’s Human Rights Office in Guatemala (ODHAG) noted that Chanax had satisfactorily passed the polygraph test given by the National Civil Police, while one of his companions in San Sebastián Park the night of the crime, Iván "El Chino" Aguilar Higueros, did not.

Chanax stated that he had joined the army engineer corps, where he was offered a post in military intelligence but did not pass the tests. Once his tour of duty was over, he earned his living watching cars in the parking lots around the San Sebastián Park. He testified that while doing this, Colonel Lima Estrada recruited him as an informant: "I want you to work as an informant on what goes on here," Lima Estrada reportedly told him. "Your name won’t be on a payroll or anything, just cash." He was paid 300 quetzals a week, the equivalent of US$44 in 1998. Lima Estrada gave him a telephone number to call every Saturday. After three months, the colonel went to see him in person and told him to watch Gerardi especially: "Who he goes out with, who he comes back with, what car he takes, what time he comes home, what time he leaves, and who visits him." The colonel said the surveillance of the bishop "was called Operation Pájaro" (songbird).

The night of the crime

Chanax testified that the morning of the crime two people came by: "one was Villanueva, the other a young man they called Quezén," of whom he said very little more. They told him, "Stay away from here at 10:00 tonight because someone’s going to die. I’m telling you this because I have pity on you and don’t want to kill you." Chanax commented, "I didn’t pay much attention to him."
That night, when Chanax went to the store on the corner of 6th Avenue and 3rd Street to get some juice, Lima Estrada arrived with some other people and had some beer. Chanax testified that the colonel kept going in and out of the store. Close to 10:00 that night, Chanax was getting ready to spread out his blanket alongside the parish house to sleep "when suddenly the door of the house opened and a person appeared who I know worked for the Presidential General Staff," that is, the bodyguard unit. He was shirtless, between 5’10" and 6’ tall and very robust. He passed by Chanax, who pretended not to recognize him, then turned the corner of the house onto 2nd Street and disappeared, only to return sometime later with a clean shirt. One of Chanax’s companions, "El Chino" Aguilar Higueros, who slept next to him that night, testified that the now fully dressed man asked him for a cigarette when "Chino" was on his way back from the store where he’d gone to get a bag he’d forgotten. He sold the man two cigarettes for a quetzal, but said he didn’t see his face. The police investigated the fingerprints on the bill, but could not determine who they belonged to.

"A moment later," Chanax continued, "a black Cherokee appeared. Two people got out, stopped on each side of me and said, ‘You bastard piece of shit, come over here and help us.’ They grabbed me by the arm and shoved me along. They gave me a pair of white gloves. They were Lima [the captain] and Villanueva. They said, ‘There are some newspapers, go get them and spread them around.’ Villanueva came in with a piece of concrete… and put it where the blood was. Then Lima Oliva said, ‘Help me move him.’ We pulled him and he told me, ‘If you talk, you’re going to end up just like him.’ I was scared. Then they filmed everything. Villanueva was the one who used the camera the most. I gave them the gloves. I know they’re capable of doing what they threatened, which is why I didn’t say anything that next day."
Chanax’s testimony continues, "A moment later they left and I rang the bell but no one answered. Then I saw Father Orantes go out to the gate. I told him, ‘Father, they left the door open.’ He said, ‘Thanks, Curly,’ then kicked the door closed… At around 12:00 at night, the door opened and Father Orantes came out and asked, ‘You didn’t see who came out?’ I said, ‘Father, the only one who came out was a young guy, but that was a while ago.’ He didn’t say anything. A little later he came out again and said, ‘Hey buddy, they killed Monsignor.’ Then he asked us to call a radio patrol car. Jorge, who they call El Monstruo, went to get the police."

Exile and a bullet-proof vest

Chanax testified in a bulletproof vest and a suit and returned to exile after his testimony, subject to recall by the court. The key points of his testimony were that retired Colonel Byron Lima Estrada recruited him as an informant. According to Chanax, Aguilar Higueros was also an informant. The night of the crime he saw the colonel in the store very near the scene of the crime, as though supervising everything.

Around 10:00 at night he saw the presumed killer come out of the parish house, the tall, strong young man without a shirt who is still unidentified. Very shortly after, the black Cherokee bearing Captain Byron Lima Oliva and specialist Obdulio Villanueva arrived. They forced Chanax to alter the scene of the crime, covering up the floor with newspapers, using gloves so as not to leave prints, dragging Gerardi’s body and placing a piece of concrete at the scene as a murder weapon. Right afterward, Chanax saw Father Orantes come out of the house for the first time and talked with him. Finally, over an hour and a half later, he saw Father Orantes come out two more times and talked with him again.

Clue: A car license plate

Other witnesses corroborate Chanax’s testimony. "Chino" Aguilar testified that he saw the presumed author of the crime for the second time when the man asked him for a cigarette in the San Sebastián Park. He was wearing a shirt by then and walking toward the store where Colonel Lima Estrada presumably was, because that’s where "Chino" was coming from when they ran into each other.
A taxi driver named Jorge Diego Méndez Perussina also provided a statement in February 1999 that was later read as evidence to the court. He declared that he passed by the parish house on the night of the crime and saw a white four-door Toyota Corolla parked on 2nd Street at the corner the parish house. "The doors were open and a man with no shirt was stretched out in it, talking with someone." According to the taxi driver, the license plate number was P-3201. That plate was assigned in 1988 to the Chiquimula military zone, where Lima Estrada served as commander.

Although the army has repeatedly maintained that the car bearing that license plate was sold some time ago, the army apparently does not sell the plates, but uses them on other cars for military intelligence operations. The Public Ministry proved that plate number 3201 was still in the army’s possession in 1998. Méndez Perussina testified that he had been subject to attempted bribes and threats from an uncle, retired General Jorge Perussina, former defense minister under President Ramiro de León Carpio. He also testified that he was kidnapped and escaped by jumping out of the car. Father Gabriel Vargas Quiróz and René Ajvij Vargas have testified that Méndez Perussina told them his version of the events immediately after the crime. He also went into exile as a protected witness.

First defendant:
Captain Lima Oliva

It should have been possible to check the story of the license plate of the while Toyota Corolla by consulting the book recording the comings and goings of the presidential bodyguard unit. The book was initially reported missing, however, then later shown to have been altered. This is important, because Captain Lima Oliva said he came to sleep at EMP headquarters at 11:30 the night of the crime. In testimony given before the oral arguments began, however, Major Andrés Villagrán said he saw Lima come in between 8:00 and 8:30 that night, although during the oral arguments he said he had confused the dates and his earlier statement referred not to April but to August.

The court also read the statement provided earlier by EMP specialist Jorge Aguilar Martínez, who swore that he was on duty in the EMP the night of the crime. He testified that around 10:20, he saw a black Isuzu Trooper vehicle enter the compound, driven by Captain Byron Lima Oliva accompanied by three other people, one of them identified as "Hugo," whose physical characteristics match those of the shirtless man that Chanax and "El Chino" Aguilar had seen coming out of the parish house twenty minutes earlier. The defense, however, argued that it had not been demonstrated that this specialist was anything more than a simple cook off the EMP personnel records. The book of comings and goings could have corroborated his statement had it not been altered. Carmelo Estrada Pérez, the EMP officer on watch the night of the crime, testified that Captain Lima Oliva arrived between 10:00 and 11:00 that night, sat down with him, ate a piece of cake and read the newspaper, then went to his room to sleep. Estrada Pérez also said that there were no incoming phone calls that night, which contradicts the officers who were then heads of the EMP, who testified that they learned of the crime by phone.

Second defendant:
Colonel Lima Estrada

Retired Colonel Edgar Carrillo Grajeda, a personal friend and colleague of Colonel Byron Disraeli Lima Estrada from the Gumarkaaf Task Force when they fought the guerrilla forces in Chimantenango and Quiché in late 1982, testified on behalf of his friend. He said that he visited Lima Estrada at 8:00 on the night of the crime and stayed with him for two hours, until 10:00. Carrillo, a neighbor of Lima Estrada’s, said he has not worn a watch since he retired from active service and judges the time by the sun and the weather. When one of the prosecutors asked him how he told time inside a house, he answered that he had not gone inside but had stayed in the driveway. The prosecutor observed that Carrillo initially stated that he learned of the crime on the news, and later said that Lima Estrada told him about it. Besides Carrillo’s testimony, one of Lima Estrada’s sons declared that his father had not left home that night and spent the time watching television with his mother.

The defense asked the court to go to the store where Lima Estrada had supposedly supervised the crime to determine whether the parish house was visible from there. Although they saw that all that can be seen from the store are "the sidewalk, a corner and some trees in San Sebastián Park," the three judges who make up the court found that "by walking a few steps from the store towards the corner"—as the colonel did repeatedly that night, according to Chanax—"one can see the businesses in the park, the trees and the church and parish house."

Third defendant:
Specialist Villanueva

Specialist Obdulio Villanueva’s alibi was based on the fact that he was in prison on the date of the crime, completing a sentence for the murder of Pedro Sas Rompich. Villanueva killed Sas while he was working as one of President Arzú’s bodyguards, shortly into Arzú’s term in office and Sas appeared to be trying to crash his pickup truck into Arzú.

Villanueva’s wife and father declared that they saw him in prison in Antigua during visiting hours on April 26. However, in a surprising turn of events given that he had been called as a witness for the defense, Gilberto Gómez Limón, who was imprisoned with Villanueva in Antigua, declared—also wearing a bullet-proof vest—that he saw Villanueva leave prison the day of the crime. "You pay 200 or 300 quetzales to the director and head of the prison and you can go out for a while," Gómez testified. "That’s how Villanueva got out that day. He was there for roll call at 6:00 in the morning and returned before roll call at 5:00 at night, then went out again a little later.

This statement corroborates Chanax’s story of the two times he saw Villanueva in San Sebastián the day of the crime, at 9:00 in the morning and 10:00 at night. The head of the Antigua prison said he was not on duty that Sunday, but the former deputy director of the prison declared that they had cross checked the roll calls that day, while several guards declared that "it was impossible" to leave the prison. Gómez Limón denounced that Lima Oliva’s lawyer had offered him money to shut up. The lawyer denied it, but one of Gómez Limón’s brothers corroborated that the lawyer came to the maximum security prison of Escuintla, where he, too, was in prison, to offer him $12,000 for his brother’s silence. In any case, when Gómez Limón was returned to the Pavón prison, where he is now, he discovered that his belongings had been stolen. The defense has asked the court to go to the Antigua prison to determine if it would be possible to see someone leave prison from the block where Gómez Limón said he saw Villanueva do so.

Fourth defendant:
Father Mario Orantes

The administrator of the San Sebastián parish house, Juana del Carmen Sanabria, testified that she usually called Monsignor Gerardi by phone to ensure that he had reached home safe and sound. The night of the crime she called Gerardi’s private line every 15 minutes from 9:30 until 11:30, but no one ever answered. The sacristan, Antonio Izaguirre, said that the phone could be heard all over the house, but Father Orantes maintained that it could only be heard in Gerardi’s room and study and in another office on the second floor, since Gerardi kept the volume down low. He also wondered why Sanabria didn’t call on another line if she "was so concerned about Monsignor?" Orantes was the one who called her to tell her of the crime. Sanabria also declared that the cook told her the next day that "when Father [Orantes] informed me, he had recently bathed and changed."
The psychiatrist Muñoz Lemus described Padre Orantes in court as an "infantile, very anxious and dependent" person. This description was based mainly on things found in his room: photographs of his dog revealing the dog’s genitals and an erect penis, a variety of lotions, brand-name clothes and shoes, a pistol and what the psychiatrist considered to be a collection of violent and pornographic videos. All this led the psychiatrist to conclude that Orantes is "clinically a person more interested in his physical appearance and entertainment than in reflection."
Orantes explained that the videos are quality films, many of them award-winning, that he used in his work with youth; that the canine poses are typical of German shepherds in exhibitions; that the pistol is a "collector’s piece someone gave me as a gift and I was going to sell to make some money"; and that he is a diocesan priest without a vow of poverty. "It’s better to be a sweet-smelling priest than a unkempt, smelly one," he said. The 200 books of theology found in his room, which the psychiatrist ignored, do not suggest a lack of reflection, unless he had them only for show. Those who know Orantes speak of his sharp intelligence and love of reading.

"An attack on Arzú’s government"

Two of Orantes’ friends from high school spoke on his behalf. They said that he came into his vocation as a priest very early and spoke of it often. They also said that they were taught to enjoy and analyze films in school. Orantes’ mother declared that her son was restless and studious, and had been sickly ever since he was very young. In fact, Orantes has spent most of his detention in a hospital rather than in prison and until the trial was well underway typically arrived in pajamas and slippers in a wheelchair, assisted by a nurse. His mother added that she had not come "to ask for clemency but rather for justice," since her son is innocent.

Among the facts that raise doubts about whether Orantes has been justly accused, perhaps the most important is the testimony of Bishop Mario Ríos Montt, Gerardi’s successor in the Church’s human rights commission. In one of the trial’s biggest surprises, he declared that Antonio Arzú, brother of the then-President, asked him to come to his office after Orantes was arrested. He offered the bishop a deal: if the Church authorities would exonerate the government and army of responsibility in Gerardi’s assassination, they would take care of Father Orantes’ situation. The bishop said that Arzú assured him that "my brother knows of this meeting." The bishop added that he discussed the proposal with Archbishop Penados and they rejected it. Ronalth Ochaeta, now Guatemala’s ambassador to the OAS and at the time of the crime Gerardi’s closest assistant in the human rights commission, confirmed Ríos Montt’s testimony. In a newspaper interview, Antonio Arzú denied Ríos Montt’s entire testimony and claimed that the whole thing is an attack on his brother’s government.

Orantes knows more than he says

Father Orantes testified that he heard nothing of the crime from his room, absorbed as he was first in his computer, then in TV, with the air conditioning on. He said he fell asleep around 10:20 and was awakened at midnight by a light in the garage shining in his face, so he went down to turn it off. He said he forgot his glasses, which was why he didn’t immediately recognize the body he found there as Gerardi’s. He later recognized him, however, and began to give the pertinent notices. More than a few people believe that the priest knows more than he has said and is perhaps under some kind of blackmail or extortion. In his testimony, Ambassador Ochaeta explained that he called Orantes "Judas" because he felt the priest has not cooperated in clearing up the crime by revealing everything he knows. Orantes replied that he is the one who has been accused and is in jail and that Ochaeta, who earns thousands of dollars a month as an ambassador, is the true Judas. The possibility cannot be dismissed that the Public Ministry has accused Orantes of assassination to intimidate him and gain his cooperation. If this is true, the plan backfired. Since the scene of the crime was so contaminated, it is unlikely that the traces of blood leading from the garage to Orantes’ room will be seen as convincing evidence against him.

Fifth defendant:
Margarita López, the cook

The parish house live-in cook, Margarita López, who has worked there for many years, is accused of covering up the crime. Her room is not far from the garage where the crime was committed. Father Antonio Izaguirre declared that before going home the night of the crime, he sat down to accompany her while she ate, around 8:00 at night. In the reconstruction of the events he said that "she looked well," although during the trial itself he said she looked "worn out." López herself declared that she had a cold and went to bed shortly after taking a cold medication that, as is often the case with such medications, contained something to help her sleep.

She declared that it was after midnight when Orantes woke her up and told her about the assassination. She said that at 6:00 in the morning, after Gerardi’s body had been taken to the morgue, Orantes asked her to clean up the blood in the garage, assuring that he had consulted with a member of the Public Ministry who authorized the clean-up. One curious piece of information that casts a shadow of suspicion is that López’s address book contained the telephone number of Colonel Juan Oliva Carrera, one of the three top military commanders accused of being the intellectual authors of the assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990.

An institutional crime

Claudia Méndez Arriaza, a talented and courageous journalist, has done excellent interviews with nearly all the accused for El Periódico. In her interview with Captain Lima Oliva, he virtually accused the army’s top command of involvement in Gerardi’s assassination. He even claimed that it wasn’t the result of individual decisions but of institutional plans: "What I want to say is that this is a problem that begins at one point and is going to end up exploding under someone’s desk… It might be in the Defense Ministry or the presidential bodyguard. This is an IN-STI-TU-TION-AL problem, not a personal problem. Its name is EMP. Its name is the National Army."
Lima Oliva insinuated that he is where he is because he has too much incriminating information about what happened: "The more you know, the more danger you’re in, and I know a lot." This is why "the string broke at the thinnest point." His reasoning is that they would have killed him or made him disappear.

The interview with his father, Colonel Lima Estrada, is perhaps even more revealing. The colonel tried to brush off Chanax’s testimony and couldn’t even keep Chanax’s last name straight, sometimes referring to the witness as "Chonay" or as "Chonax or Chantay" as if indigenous surnames were too much for him. When referring to Chanax’s testimony, his wounded pride frequently leapt out: "They say that Colonel Lima was drinking beer while controlling the operation. Colonel Lima? Colonel Lima studied military intelligence, he was not a police officer to be investigating or doing stupid things." And he extended this sentiment to his son: "My son was selected to guard and accompany Presidents, not to be killing bishops." He also said that "Colonel Lima is Colonel Lima and Captain Lima is Captain Lima. We’re individuals."
About Chanax he said, "Colonel Lima doesn’t go looking for idiots of that class. And if he does use them, he prepares them well. How could he say that he called by phone? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t know what an informant is. He says they paid him 200 or 300 quetzales a week, 1,200 a month, that’s not for an informant."
This defense of his military dignity at times blinds and betrays him. For example, the journalist told him his that people "within his institution" commented that in a meeting with top officials a day before the crime, one had said to Lima, "Don’t back down! Lima, don’t back down!" Colonel Lima didn’t think to deny the involvement in the crime these comments implied and instead answered, "Who would tell Colonel Lima not to back down? I don’t work for anyone! I’m a leader! No one’s going to say ‘don’t back down!’ to me in my own house!" That was also a curious lapse, since the journalist didn’t say the meeting took place in his house. "No one handles me! I make my own decisions… I’m no fool… Who would say that to me? Active-duty officers?… They were babies when I was a commander."

"That little group of young kids"

It’s clear to anyone who reads between the lines that the conspiracy to assassinate Gerardi might well have started not with active-duty army officers but rather with retired officers, with the shadowy organization known as "The Brotherhood" or some other behind-the-scenes power structure of that kind. Given the plausible motives, this would seem a reasonable hypothesis.

Colonel Lima made it quite clear that he does not sympathize with the new army that supposedly came out of the peace accords. He accused Edgar Gutiérrez, Gerardi’s main collaborator in preparing the REMHI report, as well as Ronalth Ochaeta and unnamed officers, of cooking up the plan to involve him: "Don’t ask me for names because I’ll refer to active-duty colonels…" He would later call them "officers from Cobán" and say that "this message" is for them. "This new current," he went on, "subservient to the Constitution and obedient to civilian power, respectful of human rights, this little group of kids, now colonels, got together with that little group of lawyers at ODHAG and got me messed up in this problem."

"The war continues!"

Colonel Lima also spoke of what went on in the war and of the REMHI report, the Catholic Church’s report on the atrocities committed during the war that Gerardi presented just before his death. "What crimes against humanity? There was a war going on here! Wars are fought with bullets, not candies." When he was asked if REMHI could damage him—his name appears in the report linked to atrocities—he answered, "How? Those testimonies are lies. The army never committed the lies reported in REMHI! They set up the testimonies. The Catholic Church is the only one making these accusations. Why isn’t the Protestant church making them? Because it wants unity and reconciliation. This little group of people influenced by liberation theology is the group that doesn’t want reconciliation or forgetting… REMHI is extremely inflated."
For Colonel Lima, "The war is still going on!… The war continues as long as there is no true coexistence between men. As long as there is no respect for their ideas. As long as there are people like Miguel Angel Albizúrez [a journalist], Mario Polancos [of the Mutual Support Group, to fight against forced disappearances] and other men and women who want to keep using that weapon they call the pen, bending readers’ minds, the war will continue."
The colonel feels free. "Do you think that because I’m behind these bars I’m not free? My thinking will never be imprisoned. Never!" Given this vehemence, it is not surprising that the start of the trial had to be postponed because Colonel Lima suffered from a "nervous attack" and according to the court doctor, had to rest because "his nerves were shaken."
Nor is it surprising that documents declassified by the United States government, turned over by the State Department to the court responsible for the Gerardi case in 2000 and read into the record as documentary evidence, describe the colonel as "a danger in a budding democracy." They identify him as one of the brains behind the attempted coup against President Cerezo in May 1988, and of working with two other military officers to swindle the army out of some $200,000 by assigning salaries to nonexistent soldiers between 1983-1988, when he commanded the base in El Quiché. Times change: the State Department considered military officers of his ilk as valuable allies during the cold war…

The political motive

One of the main concerns of the Public Ministry as well as of ODHAG as a joint plaintiff has been to clearly determine the motive for Gerardi’s assassination. Prosecutor Zeissig has maintained that the motive was political. He believes, however, that it was not so much an angry reaction to the publication of the REHMI report as fear that people affected by the crimes against humanity, whether victims or their surviving relatives, would find the courage to file suit against military commanders and the state itself based on the testimonies collected in REHMI and would receive ample legal council from the human rights commission Monsignor Gerardi directed.

In his testimony, REHMI editorial assistant Edgar Gutiérrez added another layer to the political motive. He felt that the aim of the assassination was to overshadow the report itself: "No one talks about REMHI now, just about Gerardi’s assassination." This opinion, however, clearly does not do justice to REHMI’s influence on the Historical Clarification Commission’s report and the Catholic Church’s pastoral work in disseminating REMHI back to those who made it possible through their testimonies.

Chronicle of an
assassination foretold

Sacred Heart missionaries Joaquín Herrera and Jesús Lada, who worked in the diocese of El Quiché when Gerardi was its bishop, referred to his death as "the chronicle of an assassination foretold." They recalled in their testimonies that as early as July 19, 1980, there was an assassination attempt against him on the road leading from Santa Cruz del Quiché, the seat of the bishopric, to San Antonio Ilotenango, a parish under the bishop’s responsibility. On that occasion, a young man who warned that gunmen were waiting for him to pass saved his life. The frustrated attempt followed the assassination of three parish priests in the same congregation, and moved the bishop and his clergy to temporarily close the diocese.

The two priests described what they see as four aspects to the political motive that led to that first attempt against Gerardi. The first was a tendency to see the Catholic Church as "communist" since Vatican II, the Populorum Progressio Encyclical and the Medellín Conference, which culminated in the national security doctrine contained in the Santa Fé document, drafted in 1980 during Ronald Reagan’s electoral campaign. Second, Church members were being persecuted for their socio-political authority and for serving as the voice of those who had no voice in the country. Third, the bishop’s denunciations in his role as pastor bothered those who had no ability to look at themselves self-critically. Fourth was the Church’s capacity to serve as a channel to the outside world on the savagery taking place in Guatemala.

According to the testimony of Oscar Chex López, a military intelligence specialist in the army from 1992 to 1996 responsible for analyzing information obtained from phone taps, the information and his analysis went into a "profile" of suspicious people containing personal information, daily activities and national and international contacts. Chex handled information not only on Monsignor Gerardi, but on other bishops as well: Quezada Toruño of Zacapa, Penados del Barrio of Guatemala, Cabrera of El Quiché and Ramazzini of San Marcos.

The army’s response

General Héctor Barrios Celada, defense minister at the time of the assassination, declared that no army personnel were at the scene of the crime on the night of April 26. Confronted with the declarations of other witnesses testifying to the presence of EMP personnel, he replied that he was only transmitting the information that reached his desk. Both he and then head of the Army General Staff, General Marco Tulio Espinosa, declared that they did not learn of the crime until the following day.

This is not a credible declaration, since even the foreign minister learned of it at 4:00 in the morning from phone calls from ambassadors. The presidential chief of staff, Mariano Rayo, stated that he spoke with EMP head General Rudy Pozuelos at the same hour to confirm the findings of EMP officers at San Sebastián, and told him he would notify President Arzú. These declarations from top military officers suggest their nervousness that the crime would be seen as political and attributed to the military.

The possibility that it was a crime of passion was eliminated (no traces of alcohol were found in Gerardi’s blood and urine or of semen in his rectum) as was the involvement of organized crime (no fingerprints of members of the Banda del Valle del Sol, which steal religious images among other crimes, match those found at the scene). The reasonable probability of a political motive thus makes a coherent argument against the military officers accused, but does not take the place of the evidence of their presence at the scene of the crime, which will have to be weighed by the court. At one point, for example, the defense lawyer said, "It seems we’re in a history class, not a court investigating the causes of his death." And both Limas claim that the testimony of the two priests is simply an attack on the army: "They want more officers in jail," said one; "Why don’t they accuse Cuba or Russia and not just the army?" asked the other.

Justice: Open eyes
and wounded feet

After nearly two and a half months, the trial will probably conclude and the verdict be reached in June. Whatever the verdict, it will most certainly be appealed, which will prolong the trial for quite some time.

The same court now hearing the Gerardi case will also hear the case regarding the assassination of activist anthropologist Myrna Mack, in which the defendants include a general and two colonels. Since March 1999, when the hearings on that case began, the defense attorneys have presented one appeal after another. At the end of April, two years later, the Constitutional Court finally decided against the appeal filed by the defendants asking that they be tried in military court. It seems improbable that they will find any more ways to delay the trial. It was recently announced, however, that the court itself has lost some of the principle evidence. This includes audio and video tapes in which the material author of the crime, sentenced several years ago, declared that he had received the order to assassinate Myrna Mack from the top military officers now accused.

In Guatemala, not only are justice’s eyes often not blindfolded to ensure impartiality, but her feet are nearly always lacerated from trudging through so many obstacles. Helen Mack has presented her sister’s case for the crimes of assassination and denied justice to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. And in April, she and Carmen Aida Ibarra of the Myrna Mack Foundation and Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini called on the United Nations in Geneva to send its special representative on judicial independence, Dato Param Cumaraswamy, to Guatemala again.

The representative came in May and noted that very little has been done to follow up on the recommendations made in his previous visit. He also deplored the increasing violence against judicial authorities and others involved in trials, since this contributes to impunity and undermines the principle of judicial independence. When he visited the court hearing Gerardi’s case, he was told that the members of the court feel no security with the police who guard them.

Insecurity reigns

The surveys indicate that the country’s situation is critical and the air feels thin. But seven of ten Guatemalans feel that there is still time for President Portillo to correct his course and run a good government.

Still, the facts revealed every day are quite troubling. The national budget has grown, almost clandestinely, by over US$250 million, of which more than $35 million has gone to the Defense Ministry in violation of the peace accords. Furthermore, when called before Congress, the defense minister gave no explanation about these funds. The Government Ministry and the National Civil Police recently went to great lengths to rescue a kidnapped member of one of Guatemala’s most prominent business families, Andrés Torrebiarte Novella. They have done virtually nothing, however, to respond to the insecurity hounding small businesspeople in both rural and urban areas or the small banks where people deposit their meager savings, both targets of assaults week after week.

More room for
"behind-the-scenes powers"

Even the head of MINUGUA, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala, publicly admits that the government needs an action plan based on the peace accords. Portillo had assured that the accords would be "state policy," but now they are in quarantine. The most dangerous thing in Guatemala today is that while President Portillo and his government appear to be growing ever weaker and, even worse, ever less transparent, this leaves more room for the armed forces, which are always disciplined, and the "hidden powers" that are still very present.

Guatemala is going through a critical moment at this very moment that the effort is being made to clear up the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Only the imagination and proposals of civil society, engaged in a clear, firm dialogue with the state, can begin to pave the path to justice and create just men and women.

NOTE: On June 8, as this issue of envío was going to press, the three-judge court panel announced its verdict. The three military officers were found guilty of Gerardi’s murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison without parole. Father Orantes was found guilty of covering up the crime and sentenced to 20 years, while Margarita López was acquitted of the charges against her. The justices also decided that the investigation should continue into other high-ranking officers to determine their possible involvement. Several human rights organizations praised the verdict as an important step forward in the fight against impunity.

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