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Bishop’s death probe broadens, entangles military, fellow priest

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

In a case in which dramatic revelations have become routine, the latest twist in the investigation of the murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was an Aug. 5 announcement that the probe will include the possible involvement of military officers.

The broadening of the inquest to include military personnel is considered a victory for the Guatemalan Catholic church, which for several weeks has demanded investigation of two officers. But it came only after a former close associate of Gerardi voiced public agreement with a theory that Gerardi was killed by a priest in a fit of passion. The church’s human rights leader, Ronalth Ochaeta, rocked the nation with his comparison of the priest, Fr. Mario Orantes, to Judas.

Orantes, a longtime friend who lived at the parish residence where Gerardi was bludgeoned to death last April 26, is still imprisoned in a Guatemala City detention facility after having been formally charged with the murder in late July (NCR, July 31).

In the latest development, six career military men, including one retired and four active duty army officers along with an air force officer, were named by Guatemalan press sources as subjects of the investigation.

Most church and human rights activists presume that Gerardi was killed by the military because of his work on a project that documented the details of violence against civilians during Guatemala’s civil war (NCR, May 8).

The names of Army Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and his father, retired Army Col. Byron Lima Estrada, were delivered to investigators by the archdiocesan office of human rights in mid-July. When no investigation ensued, statements by human rights office officials to the Guatemalan news media turned up the heat on the government agency responsible for the investigation, the Ministerio Publico.

Meanwhile, articles published in Guatemalan dailies reflect a public relations struggle between the army and the church. Expressing the viewpoint of reactionary army officers, the younger Lima, whom Guatemalan dailies have referred to as “the presumed author of the crime,” told reporters that Guatemalans “are tired of the political manipulation of groups that supposedly work in defense of human rights and that people like Ronalth Ochaeta [director of the church’s human rights office] use to defame the army as an institution and its members in particular.”

On occasion, Guatemalan prelates have taken the case directly to the pulpit, most recently on Aug. 9, when a letter from the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference was read at Masses across Guatemala.

In the letter the bishops “once again” voiced an “energetic protest” of the arrest of Orantes for the murder. The prelates also noted the investigators’ reluctance “to take into account the political connotations of the case, as well as to investigate a background of army officials and ex-officials who are presumed to be implicated.”

The political rhetoric surrounding the investigation was fostered first by statements made by Ochaeta of the human rights office. Throughout May and June, Ochaeta repeatedly criticized official insistence that an alcoholic indigent who often slept in the plaza in front of San Sebastian Parish committed the murder and the refusal of investigators to consider a political motivation for the crime.

On July 13, Ochaeta chose the international forum of a meeting in Madrid, Spain, to announce that his organization was in possession of evidence indicating two army officers were involved in the Gerardi murder. He said the evidence included the license plate number of an army vehicle seen the night of the murder in the vicinity of San Sebastian Parish, and telephone records showing that close to the time of the murder, telephone calls were made from a pay phone in front of San Sebastian to the headquarters of the national security forces and to a suburban home occupied by army personnel.

Ochaeta said the names and evidence had been turned over to the presidentially appointed “high level commission” for delivery to the Ministerio Publico.

In the Guatemalan news media, various church officials lined up in support of Ochaeta. The episcopal coordinator of the human rights office, Bishop Mario Rios Montt, expressed agreement with Ochaeta about the necessity of investigating the two officers.

The president of the Guatemalan Episcopal Conference, Bishop Victor Hugo Martínez, said the murder was political in nature and “was a perfect, calculated crime, that only with difficulty will reveal its authors.”

The following day, a news release issued by Guatemala Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barrio blasted Guatemalan security forces for wiretapping phones and opening the mail of archdiocesan offices, including his own.

On July 16, three days after Ochaeta’s Madrid announcement, church human rights officials released a statement saying that the high level commission had failed to deliver the names of the army officers to investigators.

The statement indicated that the human rights office would denounce the failure of investigators to examine valid evidence, and the names of the officers would be turned over to Edgar Gutiérrez, the director of the Interdiocesan Project to Recover the Historic Memory, sponsored by the church’s human rights office.

Gutiérrez, in turn, told reporters that if an adequate official investigation was not forthcoming, he would make the names and evidence public.

A week later, however, on July 22, Orantes and Margarita López, the San Sebastian parish residence cook, were arrested as suspects in the murder.

Although Guatemalan human rights groups and the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Guatemala were stunned by the arrests, church leaders did not immediately condemn the action, saying only that they had faith that Orantes would be cleared.

Then, the day after the arrest, Ochaeta dropped a bombshell by saying he was convinced that the evidence against Orantes was “overwhelming.”

In an interview with the Prensa Libre, Guatemala’s largest newspaper, the director of the human rights office said that despite the difficulty in acknowledging the possible guilt of “a member of Bishop Gerardi’s own ecclesiastical organization,” what was most important was to “be faithful to the truth and demonstrate that the church does not have [legal] impunity.”

Making a statement that was immediately picked up by journalists and other Guatemalan news publishers, Ochaeta said, “The history of the church, since the days of Jesus Christ, demonstrates that there will always be a Judas.”

The impact of Ochaeta’s statement in diminishing immediate criticism of the government was profound. The human rights office, for which Gerardi served as episcopal coordinator until he was murdered, is historically Guatemala’s most reliable and important human rights organization.

Guatemalan military leaders criticized the historic memory project that Gerardi oversaw as counterproductive to the peace process. They reportedly feared documentation of their roles in massacres during the violent years between about 1978 and 1985. Gerardi was assassinated just two days after publicly releasing the report of the project.

Because of the great credibility of the human rights office, Ochaeta’s interview threw normally staunch critics of the government into a tailspin.

A lonely protest was filed by the official human rights watchdog for the Guatemalan government, Procurator General of Human Rights Julio Arango, who immediately challenged Orantes’ arrest on technical grounds, asserting that the evidence did not satisfy due process. But important human rights groups issued statements reserving judgment in the case, while progressive journalists complained not so much about the arrest itself as about a court- imposed gag order that prevents investigators, witnesses and even lawyers from commenting publicly on the case.

Orantes’ most visible support came from the family of Bishop Gerardi, which has expressed absolute confidence in the priest’s innocence.

The day after Ochaeta’s interview, Guatemalan dailies proclaimed a “180 degree turnaround in the case.” But several days later, the turnaround began to look more like 360 degrees as editorialists attacked Ochaeta for his comments, particularly the one comparing Orantes to Judas. The comment was described variously as “unfortunate,” “indiscreet,” and “presumptuous.” One critic said the human rights worker “had a long history of talking too much.”

Archdiocesan officials declined to comment on Ochaeta, but on Aug. 2 a Guatemala City theologian, Jesuit Fr. Carlos Amann, said of the comment: “Many people believe it was a very grave error.” Since the interview, Ochaeta has been notably absent from the media.

Meanwhile, church leaders and human rights activists began demanding that evidence against military officers be investigated. When powerful members of the Guatemalan legislature took up the cause in early August, the government finally capitulated and initiated the investigation.

Government investigators have acknowledged that the evidence against six military officers is substantial enough to warrant investigation. But spokesmen for the special investigator’s office continue to insist that Orantes is guilty or was in some way connected to the plot against Gerardi. Orantes remains in jail.

Margarita Lopez, the parish cook who was arrested along with Orantes, was released on Aug. 31. Remarking to reporters that Orantes was not guilty, she returned to her room in the San Sebastian parish residence. Within minutes, police arrived to tell her the residence was to be sealed off for collection of further evidence.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998