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Controversy, confusion reign in investigation of bishop’s murder

By Paul Jeffrey
Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

Six months after Bishop Juan Gerardi was brutally murdered, controversy and confusion continue to characterize the government’s investigation of the crime.

On Oct. 21, Fr. Mario Orantes, a priest who shared living quarters with Gerardi at the inner-city San Sebastian parish, was formally charged with the prelate’s April 26 slaying.

Orantes maintains he is innocent, and church leaders have publicly supported him. “If they let him go, the government couldn’t claim, at an international level, that there is justice in Guatemala, even if all they have is a scapegoat,” declared Auxiliary Bishop Mario Rios Montt, Gerardi’s replacement as head of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office.

“The last thing the government wants to do is have a real investigation,” commented Jack Palladino, a San Francisco private investigator who witnessed a second autopsy of Gerardi’s body in September. “All they want is a fall guy. If he’s a priest, so much the better.”

French diplomat Jean Arnault, head of the United Nations contingent charged with verifying Guatemala’s peace accords, said the widespread perception that the murder was politically motivated remains “fully justified.”

“We know that groups exist which have the capacity of executing a political crime and making it look like common crime,” Arnault said. “Monseñor Gerardi’s murder remains a thick shadow across the administration of justice.”

Government prosecutor Otto Ardón has built a case against Orantes based on the allegedly homosexual priest’s committing “a crime of passion.” Contradictions in Orantes’ testimony about what happened the night of the killing have fueled speculation. While church leaders cautiously maintain Orantes’ innocence, they’re also uneasy with publicly discussing his sexual orientation. Privately, some even worry that Orantes was blackmailed into assuming some role in the killing or its aftermath.

The main evidence against Orantes appears to be the testimony of José Reverte, a Spanish forensic specialist who, after examining photos of Gerardi’s body, claimed he found evidence of dog bites. If true, that would contradict Orantes’ testimony that his aging German shepherd, Baloo, was locked away the night of the killing. Yet Mario Guerra, the physician who performed the original autopsy, vehemently denied evidence of any animal bites.

No agreement at autopsy

To put the controversy to rest, church officials pushed to exhume Gerardi’s body from the crypts below the Metropolitan Cathedral. When an international team of 11 forensic specialists finally gathered around the episcopal cadaver on Sept. 17 and 18, the group failed to come to an agreement on what caused Gerardi’s death.

As autopsies go, it was rather impassioned. Before the examination began, Ardón challenged the right of three U.S. specialists invited by church authorities to assist in the autopsy. The group argued for two hours before Judge Isaias Figueroa agreed to let them remain, but without the right to actually touch the cadaver.

Church officials claimed Reverte cut off one of Gerardi’s fingers and tried to take it away for an exhibit in a criminology museum in Madrid. Reverte, for his part, claimed the church-sponsored experts destroyed one suspicious wound by scraping it with a scalpel, allegedly to clean it.

According to the three U.S. experts invited by Catholic officials to participate, the second autopsy showed that the prelate had been struck by two objects, a large block of cement and a long cylindrical object, perhaps a pipe, a fact that suggests two murderers.

One of the three U.S. experts, forensic dentist Norman Sperber, founder of the FBI’s canine evidence lab, declared that the bishop’s body presented no signs of animal bites. Sperber suggested that Reverte had been mislead by the photographs he examined, which Sperber said had been slightly enlarged without Reverte’s knowledge.

Other participants also ruled out evidence of animal bites, though both a hospital report on x-rays of the body and the report of one specialist, ironically hired by Orantes’ attorney, did leave open the possibility of animal bites.

Reverte emerged from the autopsy to claim that the evidence fully bolstered his theory that a dog was involved and that the dog in question had to be Baloo. Reverte described Baloo as a “ferocious animal and trained to attack.” He described the assault: “The bishop enters his house by the garage and surprises the priest in some abnormal activity, for which he reprimands him. The priest, infuriated, orders the dog to attack the bishop.” Reverte claimed Orantes gave the order to attack in German.

Reverte’s public condemnation of Orantes provoked widespread criticism here. Julio Cesar Barreno, president of the Guatemalan Association of Physicians and Surgeons, said his group would make a formal complaint to its Spanish counterpart, charging Reverte with violating medical ethics and judicial process. He said Reverte made comments about what happened at the crime scene without ever visiting it or talking to anyone who did.

It’s not the first time Reverte has caused a controversy in Central America. In 1993, he was invited by Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani to assist the U.N. Truth Commission in investigating wartime massacres. After U.N. officials exhumed 300 bodies at El Mozote, Reverte argued against the overwhelming evidence that the 1981 massacre had been committed by government troops. He became such a pain in the side of serious investigators that the head of the truth commission, former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, asked Felipe Gonzalez, then president of Spain, to withdraw Reverte from the country.

Several here have suggested that Reverte is playing the same role in the Gerardi case: On behalf of the government, he produces pseudoscientific arguments that divert attention from the true authors of the violence, the military.

“The government and the army have masterfully kept things foggy, murky and unclear, throwing curve balls at every opportune moment,” said Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian church (USA) missionary here.

Church officials reported early in the case that they had evidence linking two high-ranking military officials to the killing. They complained that Ardón was so focused on proving a case against Orantes that he let slip the opportunity to follow leads implicating the armed forces. The Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, which had been made a plaintiff in the case, filed a petition in September asking that Ardón, who once worked for the air force, be removed from the case. When the petition was denied by the Public Ministry, the church appealed to Guatemala’s Supreme Court.

With pressure building at home and abroad to investigate military involvement in the murder, Ardón finally went through the motions in early October of interviewing six military officials who have been linked to the case by church authorities or human rights activists. All came in voluntarily to Ardón’s office to present prepared statements denying any involvement. Yet reportedly none were interrogated by Ardón or his assistants, an uncommon concession to possible suspects in a murder case.

One of the officials linked to the case is Col. Juan Oliva Carrera, who is awaiting trial for his role in the 1990 assassination of anthropologist Myrna Mack, a close associate of Gerardi. Oliva’s name and phone number were found in the possessions of Margarita López, the San Sebastian parish housekeeper who was arrested with Orantes on July 22 but who was released in August. Oliva, a top official of the Presidential Guard, was discharged unexpectedly by the army in early October, just days before he testified. Also discharged with Oliva were three other officers linked to a high-profile corruption and smuggling investigation.

Falling behind on reforms

Rios said he believes the military’s alleged role in the killing could have been motivated not only by anger over the scalding condemnation of military abuses contained in “Guatemala, Never Again!” the human rights report Gerardi released two days before he was killed, but also to hush up the church in the face of the government’s failures to live up to the terms of the 1996 peace accords. The government is falling further and further behind on the dramatic land and tax reforms called for by the accords. President Alvaro Arz long ago grew weary of Guatemala’s bishops nagging him about justice and peace.

In an Oct. 26 communiqué commemorating the six-month anniversary of the killing, the episcopal conference declared the killing “a premeditated blow to the Guatemalan Catholic church,” designed to “limit our pastoral action and remind us that the most fearful forces in the country are still intact and possess enormous power.” The bishops said there was “a campaign underway to discredit our church.”

Asked who is attacking the church, Rios refused to name names, instead stating, “Some pull the trigger, others give the order to do so, while still others inspire the actions or cover up evidence of the crime.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998