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Testimony implicates military in bishop’s murder

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

The trial of five people accused of killing Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera took a dramatic turn April 30 when Rubén Chanax Sontay testified that after months of spying on the bishop on behalf of the army, he was forced by two of the defendants to help move Gerardi’s cadaver and clean up the scene of the murder.

Chanax’s telling of events in the San Sebastian parish house had been presented to the court in writing shortly after the trial began in March. For his own protection, Chanax, who lives outside the country under a witness protection program, was not expected to appear at the trial. Yet defense attorneys demanded an opportunity to cross-examine him, so prosecutors flew him back. Appearing in court wearing a bulletproof vest and guarded by five armed police officers, Chanax went into a lot more detail this time about what happened on April 26, 1998, when Gerardi was bludgeoned to death.

His testimony left defense attorneys sorry they’d demanded his appearance.

Chanax said one of the defendants, retired Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, had employed him for the previous two years to spy on Gerardi, reporting to the Presidential Guard on Gerardi’s movements and visitors. Chanax filed his reports every Saturday, for which he was paid $40 a week. To watch the bishop, Chanax pretended to be a bum and hung out in the park in front of Gerardi’s residence.

“The colonel told me that the vigilance of the bishop was called Operación Pajaro [Operation Bird],” Chanax testified. He said that Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Sergeant Jose Villanueva -- charged along with three others in the Gerardi killing -- approached him the morning of the murder and instructed him to take the day off. He felt obliged to remain at his post, however, and that night about 10 p.m. he witnessed the two, dressed all in black, arrive at the residence shortly after a man without a shirt ran out of the house. Chanax said Oliva and Villanueva soon called him into the garage, where Gerardi’s body lay in a pool of blood.

“Lima [Oliva] told me, ‘You son of a whore, come and help us.’ They gave me a pair of gloves, like those that doctors use, and then we moved the body. While we did this, Villanueva was filming the scene,” Chanax said. He said the officers then told him to fetch some toilet paper and clean up bloody footprints that led into the house. Chanax testified that before departing, Lima Oliva and Villanueva threatened that if he told anyone what he’d seen that the same thing would happen to him as had happened to Gerardi.

Chanax also testified that shortly before these events he had seen Lima Estrada in a neighborhood store across the street. The witness said that after the military officers left the scene, he realized that one of the church doors had been left open. He rang the bell at another door until Fr. Mario Orantes, also accused of murdering Gerardi, answered. When Chanax told Orantes that the other door was open, the priest kicked it closed.

The fifth defendant is Margarita López, the parish housekeeper, who is accused of helping to cover up evidence of the crime because early the following morning she washed the garage where Gerardi’s was found.

The defense attorneys were visibly upset by Chanax’s testimony and tried to repudiate it. “He’s lying, the prosecutor has trained him how to lie. It’s evident that he’s inventing everything,” said Villanueva’s attorney, Roberto Echeverria, who demanded that Chanax be subjected to a lie detector test. Nery Rodenas, an attorney for the archdiocesan human rights office, an official participant in the trial, said Chanax had fared well in a lie detector test administered in 1999.

As Chanax again left the country, the court also heard the testimony of Carlos Chex, a military specialist whose job was to transcribe tape recordings of telephone conversations of Gerardi and other high church leaders.

“They had a wide net of control cast over the bishops and us,” said Rodenas. “This increased when we began to work on Guatemala, Never Again,” the report on war atrocities that Gerardi released two days before his death.

Chanax isn’t the first witness called by the defense whose testimony has helped the prosecution. Gilberto Gómez Limón testified on April 26, called by Villanueva to dispute the prosecution’s allegation that Villanueva, in prison at the time of the killing, regularly left the prison. Gómez Limón, also an inmate at the time, surprisingly agreed with prosecutors and told the court that Villanueva had “special comforts” inside the prison, and that “whoever had money could pay 300 or 400 quetzales [$40 or $50] and leave for a while.” Gómez Limón, who also appeared wearing a bulletproof vest, further embarrassed the defense when, under cross-examination from prosecutors, he claimed that Echeverria had offered him 100,000 quetzales (about $13,000) to change his story.

Orantes’ defense suffered a setback on April 26 when Ronalth Ochaeta, the director of the church rights office at the time of the murder, testified that Orantes was “freshly bathed, well-dressed, and serene” at the crime scene, while others were weeping openly. Ochaeta said Orantes’ recounting of the night was “full of contradictions,” and that the priest “refused to cooperate” with church lawyers looking into the killing, instead hiring an attorney linked to the military. Ochaeta, who is now the Guatemalan ambassador to the Organization of American States, refused to apologize for a public comparison he made between Orantes and Judas.

Ochaeta was with the murdered bishop until less than two hours before he was killed. He recounted for the court how Gerardi was excited about several new projects he had planned in the wake of the historical report, including an acceleration of exhumations of massacre sites and the opening of legal suits against several of the officials responsible for the massacres.

“And he was most concerned about my safety, and that of Edgar Gutierrez,” another church rights activist, Ochaeta told the court. “He wanted us to leave the country for a while for our own good. He said the country had enough martyrs already.”

In a memorial Mass concelebrated by 80 priests and 14 bishops on the three-year anniversary of the bishop’s killing, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, declared that Gerardi was “a grain of wheat that dies in order to give life. His death, joined to the death of our Lord, becomes a seed of hope, peace and justice for Guatemala.”

Speaking before some 5,000 people crowded into the Metropolitan Cathedral, Ramazzini recalled that the military had previously tried twice to kill Gerardi.

“If the church doesn’t suffer persecution, if it isn’t criticized, if it isn’t in danger of death, then it is not being faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Ramazzini said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001