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Killing draws notice to violent history

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

The bishop’s broken body lay in the front of the Metropolitan Cathedral as a river of people flowed by, their tears falling on his casket. Most of the mourners were indigenous women -- K’iche’, Mam, Q’eqchi, Kaqchikel -- and as they moved silently past the body of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, their brightly embroidered blouses formed a brilliant rainbow, a hint of hope for a land so long plagued by torture and killing.

“He was a shepherd who gave his life for his people,” said Juana Ixcoy, a K’iche’ woman who traveled 10 hours by crowded bus to line up to say goodbye to Gerardi. “He loved us so much, he ended up suffering our fate,” Ixcoy said.

Gerardi, the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala, was a church leader who championed the rights of victims and ended up a victim himself.

Just two days before he was killed, he had stood in the front of the same cathedral and, perhaps prophetically, warned that the church’s mission was a dangerous undertaking. “We want to contribute to the construction of a country that’s different. That’s why we are recovering the memory of the people,” Gerardi declared on April 24. “This path has been and continues being full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God is a risky task.”

Gerardi spoke those words when he presented the final report of a church-sponsored, three-year “Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory,” known widely here as REHMI. Titled “Guatemala: Never Again,” the report blamed the military for the bulk of the violence that reigned here for 36 years until the December 1996 peace accords put an end to the war. (The Historic Memory Project was covered extensively in the Feb. 13 issue of NCR

At press time, the investigation had established no firm link between Gerardi’s killing and the government or military. But the presumption of such a connection was widespread in Guatemala, where political retribution and the killing of human rights workers, medical personnel who work with the indigenous, catechists, priests, nuns, union organizers and others has been commonplace for more than 30 years.

Late on the night of April 26, just 55 hours after presenting “Guatemala: Never Again,” at least one unidentified assailant surprised Gerardi as he returned to his quarters in the Church of San Sebastian, located in a gritty neighborhood in downtown Guatemala City. Gerardi was putting his car in the garage when the killer or killers surprised the 75-year-old prelate and struck him 14 times in the head with a chunk of cement, according to investigators and a forensic report.

At least one assassin was seen leaving the church and fleeing in one of two waiting cars, according to investigators. A witness who said he saw one of the alleged killers leaving the bishop’s garage was taken into protective custody by United Nations officials.

“The bishop uncovered the truth, and they couldn’t stand it, just as they couldn’t stand it when Jesus spoke the truth,” said Rigoberto Pérez, a priest in Santa Cruz del Quiché who coordinated the Historic Memory Project in the diocese of El Quiché. “Because Monseor Gerardi presented the truth about Guatemala, he is now a victim among the victims he loved so much.’

Pérez told NCR that Gerardi would be welcomed into heaven by the “thousands of martyred catechists and religious who went before him. They are welcoming him now with love, their martyred bishop of Guatemala.

Malcolm Bell, a U.S. peace activist and Quaker, said, It was pretty clear that the truth commissions report wasnt going to have enough teeth, referring to a United Nations report expected out in a few weeks. Bell, who is writing a book on the U.S. sanctuary movement, was in Guatemala as part of an ecumenical delegation witnessing the presentation of the Historic Memory report. “One of the reasons I believe Bishop Gerardi was killed is because the REMHI report names some of the perpetrators involved in these crimes. They didnt try to name every one, but when certain names showed up time and time again, they included them, he said. He said the U.N. report would not name names.

Gerardis killing came as a shock to many Guatemalans who believed -- or attempted fervently to believe -- that such incidents belonged in the past. After all, the war ended 16 months ago and the peace process has been limping slowly forward. Although common crime has grown rampant, political violence has seemed an anachronism. On April 14 the United Nations Human Rights Commission removed Guatemala from its list of persistent human rights violators.

Gerardis killing graphically belied such illusions of peace.

The big question was who killed him. Before the bishops bloodied body had been removed from his garage, the rush to judgment began. Government officials lamely suggested it was common delinquency and warned it would be hard to catch those responsible. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack, said President Alvaro Arz.

Most believed the killing was politically motivated. Gerardi “was assassinated by the death squads that want to finish off the peace process, declared Nobel laureate Rigoberta Mench. “This assassination was designed to intimidate all the victims that spoke of their history for the [church] report.

Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos called Gerardis killing a “natural consequence of the evangelical attitude he maintained his whole life.

The countrys largest newspaper, Prensa Libre, called the killing a stab in the back of the peace process.

Archbishop Prspero Penados del Barrio, who himself received death threats in the wake of the Historic Memory report, expressed his doubts that police would solve the case. “When a crime is paid for from on high, they never find out anything, he said. Archdiocesan officials demanded that the government clear up the case within 72 hours. A group of church activists stood vigil outside the cathedral where a giant banner counted down the hours remaining for the government to solve the case. The deadline came and went without any arrests.

Arz complained about the churchs ultimatum but met briefly with the episcopal conference and declared three days of national mourning.

Several human rights activists and church leaders, accustomed to years of dirty tricks in the administration of justice, warned the government that they wanted the intellectual authors of the crime, not just the person or persons who actually killed the bishop.

On April 28, after 36 hours of making no visible headway in the case, frustrated police officials announced they were accepting an offer of assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

At the same time, the police turned down an offer from Guatemala’s military to help in the investigation. Thats not surprising, given that many here believe the army is somehow behind the assassination. The generals are reportedly unhappy with constitutional reforms mandated by the peace accords, reforms that would limit their role to national defense and would install a civilian as defense minister.

Perhaps more important for this case, some in the military remain unrepentant about their behavior in years past. They simply wont tolerate any suggestion that they erred in what they believed to be a holy war against communist subversion. Church appeals for confession and repentance fall on ears deafened by years of tuning out the screams of torture victims.

The generals have had problems with Gerardi for some time. While bishop of El Quiché, after dozens of his pastoral agents were assassinated, Gerardi told army officers, You are assassins. You are enemies of the people. We have to be on the side of the people; therefore were on the other side from you. As long as you do not change, there can be no agreement between you and us.”

The generals didnt like such talk, and Gerardi escaped two attempts on his life before taking the unprecedented step in 1980 of withdrawing almost all pastoral personnel, literally closing the diocese. Gerardi went to the Vatican to brief the pope, who ordered him back to Guatemala. Yet immigration authorities wouldnt let Gerardi enter the country, probably saving him from an ambush the army had prepared just outside the airport. A group of waiting nuns pooled their money and bought Gerardi a one-way ticket to Costa Rica, where he lived in exile until 1984.

With movement toward democratization in the mid-80s, Gerardi returned home but remained in the capital. He helped mediate budding peace talks. In 1990 he founded the archdiocesan human rights office, a feisty group of church lawyers and investigators that quickly became a thorn in the side of a military trying hard to project a new image. The human rights office provided legal services to the victims of government repression and solved cases of kidnappings, car theft and killings that the police seemed clueless about resolving. Military officials were often behind the crimes that the church investigated.

Although some critics of the church labeled Gerardi a leftist sympathizer, the bishops social activism wasnt the product of any ideological option. Instead, Gerardis progressive posture grew out of an openness to the poor whom he saw suffer from decades of repression and racism. Gerardi, like Archbishop Oscar Romero in neighboring El Salvador, was first and foremost a pastor, not a politician.

In 1995, when the country’s Catholic bishops created the Historic Memory Project (known by its Spanish acronym REMHI), Gerardi was a natural to coordinate it. Under his supervision, over the next three years pastoral agents recorded more than 6,500 interviews, almost two-thirds of which were in one of 15 Mayan languages.

If the government or military was involved in the killing, the Historic Memory Projects report may well have been the final straw. The 1,400-page, four-volume document provides the first detailed analysis of the long, bloody struggle between leftist guerrillas and a series of U.S.-backed military governments. It documents 14,291 separate acts of violence that produced 55,021 victims. Church leaders pointed out that the report described only part of the violence. The violence included killings, disappearances, torture, rape, threats and illegal detention.

Government soldiers and paramilitary squads were responsible for 85.43 percent of the violence reported in the study. Guerrilla insurgents got blamed for 9.3 percent of the violence, according to the report. Responsibility for the remaining 5.27 percent of the violence could not be determined.

The report included the description of 422 massacres, 401 of which were committed by the army or paramilitary death squads. The church said guerrilla forces carried out 16 of the massacres. Church investigators couldnt establish responsibility for five of the massacres contained in the report.

In addition to presenting data on who was responsible for what, the final report included selected portions of transcribed interviews. One survivor of a 1983 army massacre in the north of El Quich is quoted in the report: What we witnessed was horrible, the bodies were burned, the women stuck through with poles as if they were animals ready to be cooked as roast meat, everyone bent double, the children chopped up in little pieces with machetes.

In a section of the report titled “The Road to Social Reconstruction, church leaders made a series of recommendations on how the Guatemalan government could help rebuild this war-torn country. These included indemnification for victims and a school curriculum that honestly describes what happened during the war.

The report also called for government and guerrilla leaders to admit their responsibility for the violence. It recommended that those responsible for human rights violations be purged from the military and not be allowed to run for public office. It suggested that streets and parks named after military officials be renamed and statues of generals be taken down. The report called for the closing of the Kaibil counterinsurgency school in the Petn jungle, as well as the elimination of the notorious Presidential Guard.

Such recommendations may seem a bit tame in a democracy. Here in Guatemala, however, they amounted to a serious provocation. Before REMHI could even get all four volumes back from the printer, Gerardi was dead.

If his killers wanted to discourage an honest look at the past, they may have misjudged how Guatemalans would respond. Instead of silencing the church, the killing of Monseor Gerardi will have the opposite effect, Pérez predicted. “It is going to make people even more curious about what was in the REMHI report.

Gerardis killing also increases the expectations of the U.N.-sponsored Commission for Historical Clarification -- the truth commission -- which will present its findings in three months. The U.N. commission, established by the two sides of the conflict during final peace negotiations, will not be allowed to state publicly who was responsible for what, however.

Alfredo Balsells, one of three members of the U.N. group, called Gerardis slaying an incentive for the work of the commission.” Balsells said the truth commissions final report will be an homage in memory of Monseor Gerardi.

Catholic activists here have already characterized Gerardis death as a martyrdom, and they said it will breathe new life into a church that’s still rebuilding from the persecution of recent decades. The bishops assassination was a gift of God to the church in Guatemala, said Prez. “Just as the blood that Jesus shed created a community of faith that was a problem for the Pilates of the world, so will the blood of Monseor Gerardi bless us and give us strength in our struggle for life.”

On April 29, during a funeral Mass for Gerardi in the Metropolitan Cathedral, the faithful gathered to mourn but also to take strength from each other and their martyred bishop. In the homily, Bishop Gerardo Flores Reyes of La Vera Paz declared that Gerardi struggled for an authentic peace, not based on lies but rather founded on justice and truth. Thats why he gave his life, and thats why they wanted to quiet his voice. But today his voice sounds louder than ever before.

As shouts of Justice! Justice!” echoed through the packed cathedral, Flores recalled the title of REMHIs final report, Guatemala: Never Again, a title Gerardi had chosen himself. Someday soon, Flores said, “we hope that this countrys people can sing, can cry out wholeheartedly: Guatemala! Guatemala! Never again! ”

Following the Mass, Guatemalas bishops and some 400 priests led a procession that carried Gerardis coffin around the central plaza. Thousands of Guatemalans stood weeping, many throwing red carnations onto Gerardi’s coffin as church leaders carried it past them. Many shouted Nunca Mas! -- “Never again! Before the procession returned to the cathedral, where the murdered bishop was buried in a crypt below the altar, the sky turned gray and it began to rain for the first time in weeks.

Archbishop's Office of Guatemala's REMHI information page. http://www.guateconnect.com/odhagua/remhii.htm

National Catholic Reporter, May 8, 1998