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Guatemalan officers found guilty of murder

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

On June 8, three military officers were convicted of the savage beating that left Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera dead in Guatemala City on April 26, 1998. A priest was convicted as an accomplice to the crime.

The convictions were, in an ironic way, a realization of a dream that motivated Gerardi even when he lived in exile during the most brutal years of Guatemala’s civil war.

Gerardi dreamed of truth. He believed that simple truth-telling was fundamental to overcoming the pernicious impunity that governed life in his country and allowed the military to get away with murder every day.

The bishop built his life around that quest. Yet it was in his savage death and the tangled legal and political process that followed that Guatemalans may have finally broken a pernicious pattern of lies.

Gerardi’s report of the “historical memory” project, which he presented two days before his death, gave a detailed accounting of who was responsible for the massacres and disappearances of the civil war that ended in 1996.

In the three years since Gerardi’s death, powerful forces behind the scenes have manipulated the criminal investigation, threatening those who sought the truth. Seven possible witnesses were killed. Six witnesses, a prosecutor and a judge fled the country in fear of their lives. In March, the night before the landmark 46-day trial opened, a judge’s home was bombed.

At 4:30 a.m. on June 8, the three-judge panel returned its verdict. Religious and rights activists had waited all night, and after hearing the judges declare three military officials and a priest guilty, they didn’t cheer or applaud, but simply filed out into the dawn. Yet there was relief and a sense that the political landscape had somehow been permanently transformed.

“Our struggle has borne fruit, our efforts have not been in vain,” Helen Mack tearfully declared. Mack’s sister Myrna, an associate of Gerardi, was assassinated by the military in 1990.

Those convicted included retired Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, a former head of army intelligence; Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, Estrada’s son, and Sergeant Jose Villanueva, a former presidential bodyguard. The three officers received 30-year sentences.

Fr. Mario Orantes, a priest who shared a parish residence with Gerardi, received a 20-year sentence for complicity in the murder. The bishop’s housekeeper, Margarita Lopez, was acquitted of a charge that she helped destroy evidence.

In their 147-page opinion, the judges cited witnesses and evidence important to their deliberations. They noted the testimony of several priests who had worked with Gerardi. The priests had described how Gerardi’s pastoral work had long infuriated military chieftains who wanted no interference in their labor of genocide.

Angry reaction among military

The judges noted testimony describing the military’s angry reaction to Gerardi’s report and the way it had recounted the grisly years of war. Judges also noted fear among top officers that Gerardi would support legal action by victims determined to bring tormentors into court.

The judges singled out the crucial testimony of Ruben Chanax, a street person who had been paid $40 a week by Lima Estrada to spy on Gerardi. Chanax returned from Mexico, where he is living under a witness protection program, to testify about how he had helped Lima Oliva and Villanueva move the bishop’s body and clean blood off the floor leading into the parish residence. Chanax said he saw Lima Estrada supervising the operation from across the street, and also saw Orantes close the door to the garage, where Gerardi’s body lay, after telling Chanax to forget that he had spoken to the priest.

At the end, although the judges recognized that no one had proved who actually killed Gerardi, they nonetheless declared that the three military officers were “co-authors” of the crime, involved in planning and carrying out the murder, as well as altering the crime scene afterward.

The exact charge of which the military officers were convicted -- “extrajudicial execution” -- implies that the three acted as agents of the state in committing the crime. The judges essentially declared the bishop’s killing a political crime, carried out by a military that had long been threatened by Gerardi’s pastoral concern for truth-telling and justice.

The judges denied the prosecutor’s request to similarly convict Orantes, instead ruling that the priest “contributed to planning the crime and, in failing to denounce the deed, permitted alteration of the crime scene.” Those actions, the judges said, “converted him into an accomplice.”

The four convicted men maintained their innocence. Their attorneys said they would appeal, a process that could take over a year. “I hope the appeals judges display the same courage as the three judges who heard the case,” said Bishop Julio Cabrera of the El Quiche diocese.

Many observers were left wondering how defense attorneys might alter their strategies during the appeal process. Ironically, some of the most damning evidence against the four convicted men in the recent trial came from witnesses that their own attorneys called to the stand.

Dennis Smith, a Presbyterian Church (USA) mission worker in Guatemala, said defense attorneys, accustomed to a legal climate where the army is never challenged, “were obviously not used to having to go this far.”

Julio Echeverria, the attorney for Lima Oliva, blamed “international pressure” for the court’s decision. “It’s not normal that so many ambassadors show up in a courtroom,” he said. “Their presence had a message.”

Search continues

The guilty verdict didn’t end the search for who killed Gerardi. The judges ordered prosecutors to investigate 13 others linked to the killing or to the attempted cover-up.

Army leaders were strangely quiet about the verdict. Some observers suggested that a recent increase in the army’s budget, effectively doubling its income, was the price the government paid for convincing army leaders to let the Limas and Villanueva take the rap.

Yet how much acquiescence such hush money can buy will soon be put to the test as other high-profile cases move into the courts. Mack hopes to soon bring to court three high-ranking military officials she claims ordered her sister’s killing. And just two days before the verdict in the Gerardi trial, a Guatemalan rights group representing 12 Mayan villages filed charges of genocide against retired General Efraín Rios Montt. The general, currently serving as president of the Guatemalan Congress, is charged with ordering the deaths of 12,000 highland villagers.

International observers have watched the trial closely and promised to keep up their vigilance during the appeal process. “The church in Guatemala is worried about repercussions for its work against impunity, and people in the archdiocese have asked us to keep pressuring for the safety of all involved,” said Kathy Ogle, a coordinator of the Washington-based Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean.

Barb Bocek, a Guatemala specialist with Amnesty International-USA, told NCR on June 10 that it’s “more crucial than ever to demand that the government of Guatemala guarantee the lives of the judges, prosecutors, attorneys and witnesses in this case.”

A day later, while in Guatemala with two other Amnesty officials, Bocek was attacked in her hotel in Guatemala City. Knocked unconscious, then bound and gagged, she was found in a stairwell.

Amnesty spokesperson Alistair Hodgett said the organzation had filed an official complaint with Guatemalan authorities.

Just as the conviction of the three military officers poses challenges for the larger society, the conviction of a Catholic priest has left church leaders struggling with the implications.

On May 29, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, Mario Rios Montt, announced that Orantes would have to face an ecclesiastical court following the conclusion of his criminal trial. Three weeks later, the Vatican appointed a new archbishop, Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, to succeed Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barria, who had resigned. How the new archbishop will handle the case isn’t clear.

Orantes’ nebulous motive

Neighboring prelates echoed conflicting views. Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, stated, “Justice has to prevail because the father is innocent.” Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle of San Salvador disagreed, calling Orantes’ involvement “shameful” and declaring, “Whoever commits a crime deserves the punishment that’s imposed.”

Orantes’ motive for participating in the crime is even more nebulous than his future in the church. Nery Rodenas, director of archdiocese’s human rights office, which was granted prosecutorial status in the trial, told NCR that Orantes “has always been an enigma” for church investigators. From the beginning of the investigation, conservative Catholics have criticized investigators, regarding their work as an inappropriate lack of support for a priest. Yet investigators, though still unclear about Orantes’ precise role in the crime, were convinced early on that the priest was lying about events the night of the killing.

Orantes’ motive “remains a mystery for many of us,” Bishop Álvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, told NCR. “My personal hypothesis is that any involvement was involuntary. They managed him, manipulated him or threatened him.”

Acknowledging that Orantes’ conviction has caused “deep pain” for the church, Bishop Cabrera said, “It’s still unimaginable to me that a priest could collaborate in a murder.”

Smith, the Presbyterian mission worker, said that Orantes’ conviction will encourage the church to face up to its own complicity in the massive violence this country has lived through. “Catholics are going to have to deal with their own internal issues of impunity, and there are a lot of skeletons in that closet,” Smith said.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001