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New Gerardi report termed inadequate

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

After months of delays, Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo finally released a report on Oct. 14 detailing what he knows about who killed Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in 1998. Like many of the developments in this murder turned soap opera, it was one step forward, two steps back.

Portillo had said in his inaugural speech in January, and reaffirmed several times since, that he knew something about who was responsible for the assassination of Gerardi, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City. Gerardi had led a “Historic Memory” project that documented atrocities committed primarily by the military against civilians. Human rights advocates believe his murder was retribution for that work.

Portillo said he would share twhat he knew with prosecutors. Yet the report, a scant two pages, states that the government knew nothing, and claims the military didn’t even investigate the case.

“In relation to the ordered investigation, the minister of National Defense has manifested that the armed forces does not possess reports about the case of the assassination of Monseñor Gerardi because the matter does not correspond to its mandate,” the document stated. Church officials and human rights activists called foul.

“The report has nothing. It clearly demonstrates that there is no political will to cooperate with the investigation. The government just did it to comply with the requirement that it do so,” Nery Rodenas, director of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, told NCR. “This action by the government only benefits impunity.”

(At press time NCR learned that -- apparently because of public outcry against the flimsy report -- Portillo scheduled a meeting with Leopoldo Zeissig, the head prosecutor on the case. According to reports, Portillo’s secretary for strategic analysis, Edgar Gutierrez, a former associate of Gerardi and coordinator of the Historic Memory Project, said he had found information that could help.

(In the meantime, the trial was officially suspended while the courts consider a motion by the lawyer for the military personnel indicted. Some say this latest legal maneuver could delay the trial into next year.)

Marco Antonio Aguilar, an assistant government human rights prosecutor, said he wasn’t surprised at Portillo’s report. “No one investigates themselves. If there are no results, it’s because the state refuses to blame its own agents, and they know that those responsible for the crime are in the military,” he said.

Karen Fischer, coordinator of the Alliance Against Impunity, also railed against Estrada. “There’s sufficient evidence demonstrating that Monseñor Gerardi was killed for political reasons,” she said. “Yet each time a political crime is committed in this country, they try to blame it on common delinquents.”

The government’s statement about the murder comes as Portillo passes through a major crisis in his young presidency. His political godfather, Congress President Efraín Rios Montt, is under fire for allegedly lowering the percentage of tax to be paid by beverage makers in a legislative bill already approved by Congress. Opinion polls show a vast majority of Guatemalans want Rios Montt to stand trial. Hardliners in the military are upset by the former dictator’s problems, and Portillo has been navigating through coup rumors for several weeks. Had Portillo released a report on the Gerardi case that pushed the generals even further, he could have paid a heavy political price. Many believe Portillo knows more, yet if he wants to keep his job he’s got to keep his mouth shut.

In April, Judge Flor de Maria Garcia determined that sufficient grounds existed for charging Mario Orantes, a priest who lived in Gerardi’s house, as well as the bishop’s housekeeper, Margarita López. In May, the judge ordered three military officers -- Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and Sgt. José Villanueva -- to stand trial along with Orantes and López. The priest and the three officers are charged with murder. López is charged with covering up evidence of a crime. All five claim they are innocent.

In July, judicial authorities named Eduardo Cojulun to head the three-judge panel. Cojulun has a reputation as a fair and efficient judge, yet he’s been busy handling a high-profile trial of several people who kidnapped and killed a university student in 1996. He’s almost finished with that case, but his two associate judges have vacations scheduled between mid-November and mid-January. This would probably put off the beginning of the trial of the five until early next year.

The delays seem typical to many. “They kill someone as important as Monseñor Gerardi and they can’t clear it up. So what can we hope for from the infinite number of cases in our communities?” said Juana Vasquez, coordinator of Uk’ U’x Mayab, an organization dedicated to the rescue of Maya culture.

While Guatemalans await the trial, if it comes, it’s clear to many observers that the killing of Gerardi achieved one of its probable objectives: to lessen the impact of the church’s political advocacy within Guatemala. Despite its involvement in the investigation of who killed Gerardi, the rights office that Gerardi founded has assumed a much lower profile today than in years past.

“The tactic of killing Gerardi worked,” Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian missionary from the United States, told NCR. “It did a lot to neutralize the Catholic church in Guatemala as a force for social change and battling impunity.”

The rights office is now under the supervision of Auxiliary Bishop Mario Rios Montt, the brother of Efraín. The bishop has lessened the influence of lay people within the archdiocese in favor of returning control of church affairs to priests. Bishop Rios Montt is busy managing much of the archdiocese’s pastoral programs. Archbishop Próspero Penados, scheduled to retire next year, has shown less and less interest in the daily life of his episcopal area.

To succeed Penados, many observers expect the Vatican to appoint an outspoken conservative who, in contrast to Penados who spoke out often on a variety of social issues, will reassert traditional church doctrine in the face of stiff challenges from aggressive evangelical Christians and Mayan fundamentalists.

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000