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Trial heightens tensions

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

After three years of investigations that often resembled comic opera, repeated death threats, exiled witnesses and judges, missing evidence and bizarre political mischief, the trial of five people accused of killing Bishop Juan Gerardi got underway March 23 in a heavily guarded auditorium of the Guatemalan Supreme Court.

Three military officials, a priest and a cook face a three-judge panel in a closely watched trial that is expected to last at least two months. Gerardi, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, headed the archdiocese’s feisty human rights office. On April 26, 1998, just two days after he released a landmark report delineating responsibility for violence during the country’s lengthy civil war, Gerardi was attacked in the garage of the San Sebastian Parish residence where he lived, not far from the presidential palace.

The killer used a large block of concrete to strike the bishop at least 14 times in the head. The judicial proceedings are taking place in an atmosphere of heightened tension. Rumors of a military coup have circulated for weeks.

Newspapers carry lurid details of a scandal linking several bankers and top government officials. And the head of the Guatemalan Congress, retired Gen. Efraín Rios Montt, after avoiding prosecution here and abroad for condoning massacres two decades ago, is defying court orders that he and several other legislators step down to face trial for illegally altering a law raising taxes on alcoholic beverages.

“It’s really democracy that’s on trial here,” Susan Peacock, senior associate for Guatemala at the Washington Office on Latin America, told NCR.

“Guatemala is in the middle of a crisis, a critical moment in which the country’s leaders and institutions have to decide whether they’re going to respect the rule of law or let impunity continue to undermine the construction of a country at peace.”

The five defendants include Col. Disrael Lima Estrada and his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and Sgt. José Villanueva. Lima Estrada is a retired military intelligence official. Lima Oliva and Villanueva are officials of the elite and brutal Presidential Guard. Also charged are Fr. Mario Orantes, a priest who shared the San Sebastian rectory with Gerardi, and Margarita López, the parish housekeeper and cook. The military officials are charged with extrajudicial execution, Orantes with murder, and López with helping to cover up the crime.

The night before the trial’s scheduled March 22 opening, two grenades were tossed at the home of Iris Barrios, one of the three judges hearing the case. The impact shattered windows and burst a water pipe. “It didn’t make me afraid. It made me mad,” she said. All three judges have been provided police protection.

The accused military officers refused to leave their cells on the trial’s opening day. Lima Oliva was finally dragged into the courtroom, hollering about communist conspiracies. His father complained of medical problems that caused the judges to suspend the proceedings for a day.

On March 23, chief prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig laid out his case, arguing that Gerardi’s detailed report on war atrocities “directly caused his death.”

Zeissig claimed that Lima Estrada was terrified that Gerardi might be called into court to testify about atrocities committed by the military.

Edgar Gutiérrez, director of Gerardi’s historical investigation, testified April 4 that Lima Estrada was mentioned several times in the church report. Gutiérrez said the bishop had planned to support war victims in several court cases against army officers responsible for the violence. Gutiérrez claimed that Gerardi’s assassination inhibited such legal action and successfully distracted Guatemalan society form the recommendations of the church report.

Three lawyers from the archdiocesan rights office have been granted official standing in the case and sit at the prosecution table. The prosecution team has no witness to the killing, so it is relying on evidence found at the crime scene, particularly the location of bloodstains inside the residence, as well as the testimony of indigents who slept in a park in front of the parish residence.

One of them, Rubén Chanax Sontay, says he saw Villanueva and Lima Oliva arrive in an official vehicle and run into the garage, where Orantes was waiting.

Chanax Sontay said he later saw Orantes emerge from the garage, look around, and then close the door. The prosecution argues that Lima Estrada directed the killing from a nearby bar, where witnesses said it took him more than two hours to drink a beer because he was constantly talking on a cellular phone.

The testimony of Chanax Sontay was presented to the court in writing. He is one of eight people linked to the case -- including judges, prosecutors and witnesses -- who have been forced to flee the country after being attacked or receiving threats on their lives. Another judge and prosecutor quit after being accused of bias toward the military.

Several Presidential Guard officials testified in the opening days of the trial, but their testimony was often contradictory.

Orantes, who has been hospitalized under police guard, comes to court in a wheelchair, dressed in pajamas, robe and slippers. A nurse sits nearby, giving him pills and keeping an oxygen tank ready. Zeissig suspects it was Orantes who murdered the bishop, and that Villanueva and Lima Oliva arrived to remove incriminating evidence before Orantes called the police.

Supporters of Orantes caution that this scenario could have been created by army intelligence officials, experts in misleading investigators. Orantes’ case wasn’t helped by a police psychiatrist who testified that in an early interview the priest lamented that Gerardi “had died in my room, I mean, in the garage.” At one point in the investigation, Orantes’ dog, Baloo, was actually taken into custody for involvement in the killing. Baloo has since died.

Bishop Mario Rios Montt, the brother of Gen. Rios Montt and the successor to Gerardi as head of the human rights office, took the stand March 30. He told the courtroom that the murder was “delicately prepared, technically executed, and had consequences that were well thought out beforehand.”

Bishop Rios Montt suggested that those who stand accused of the crime are not the ones ultimately responsible for ordering the killing. “The game of chess teaches us that in order to save the king it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice the pawns,” he said.

The prelate shocked the courtroom when he said he was offered a deal by the brother of then President Álvaro Arzú. Bishop Rios Montt said that José Antonio Arzú told him that if the church would sign a statement absolving the military from responsibility for Gerardi’s killing, then the government would in turn abstain from prosecuting Orantes for any possible involvement in the case. The bishop said he turned down the deal.

Orantes has always maintained his innocence and says he doesn’t know who killed Gerardi. Yet many observers suspect Orantes knows more than he’s let on and hope he’ll open up when called to testify. “I hope that when he finally gives his declaration, he will say all that he can,” said Álvaro Ramazzini, the bishop of San Marcos. “Until now, there has been no judicial obligation under which he could be punished for not telling the truth, so he’s had the right to withhold whatever he wanted.”

The possible involvement of Orantes in the killing is not the only embarrassing element of the trial for church leaders. That became evident on March 29 when Fr. Efraín Hernández and his niece, Ana Lucia Escobar, were called to testify. Hernández was chancellor of the archdiocese at the time of the killing, and Escobar is a leader of the Valle De Sol criminal gang, a group that specializes in kidnapping, drug trafficking, car theft and the robbery of religious icons. Escobar has long used the prominence of her uncle to gain introductions to wealthy people who later get robbed or kidnapped.

Both Hernández and Escobar, who were among the first to arrive on the scene of the crime, were called before the court March 29, yet their testimony conflicted with each other and with that of Dagoberto Escobar, Ana Lucia’s cousin, who also testified. Among other things, they disagreed about who called to advise them of the killing, who answered the phone, and what they knew before driving together to San Sebastian.

Such contradictions will play into defense strategies to raise other theories about who killed Gerardi. Lima Oliva has long complained that government investigators refused to pursue alternate hypotheses, particularly that a member of the Valle del Sol gang was in the house to rob icons, having been provided with duplicate keys by Escobar, when Gerardi arrived home unexpectedly.

Luis Carlos García, a member of the gang who some believed could link the gang to the Gerardi case, was shot in the head on Jan. 29 while serving a sentence in a Guatemala City prison. His killer remains unidentified.

Lima Oliva argues that ideology and institutional survival have motivated prosecutors to ignore his hypothesis of the crime. “They look for military culprits as a way to maintain the funding of the church’s human rights office,” Lima Oliva said. “Along with other nongovernmental organizations, rather than trying to project a dignified image of our country in the world, they want to denigrate it.”

It’s true that Guatemala’s image is at stake these days. As the trial moves slowly through the list of 209 witnesses expected to testify, the proceedings are expected to reveal a lot about Guatemala’s tenuous democracy and the forces that continue to block its flowering in the wake of the war.

“Democracy has always been fragile here,” Ramazzini, the San Marcos bishop, told NCR. “We haven’t yet managed to establish firm foundations for democratic practice.”

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001