e-mail us
Guatemalan court overturns convictions in bishop’s killing


In what church leaders described as a setback for justice in Guatemala, on Oct. 8 an appeals court in Guatemala City ordered a new trial for four men convicted of slaying a Roman Catholic bishop in 1998.

“This is disappointing and very frustrating. After all this time, we had hoped that we could move forward toward learning more of the truth. Instead, this is a giant step backwards,” Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos told NCR.

The Fourth Court of Appeals annulled last year’s conviction of three military officers and a Catholic priest for the assassination of Juan Gerardi, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City who headed the feisty archdiocesan human rights office. Gerardi was beaten to death just two days after he released a landmark report that blamed the military for most of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances during the country’s civil war, which ended in 1996.

The appeals court ordered a new trial for Col. Disrael Lima Estrada, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and Sgt. Jose Villanueva, each of whom had received 30-year sentences for the crime, and for Fr. Mario Orantes, a priest who had received a 20-year sentence for complicity in the murder. The three military officers are expected to remain in prison pending a new trial. Orantes remains hospitalized under guard in a Guatemala City clinic.

The appeals court claimed the three judges in last year’s trial had relied uncritically on the testimony of Ruben Chanax, a homeless man whose testimony had placed the defendants at the scene of the crime. Chanax, who testified that he had been paid by Lima Oliva and Lima Estrada to spy on Gerardi, now lives outside the country in a witness protection program.

The appeals court also cancelled the lower court’s order to investigate the involvement of other high-ranking military officials in the assassination, an investigation that never really began because the government failed to dedicate personnel and resources to the task.

Church leaders were not totally surprised by the appellate court decision. The archdiocese had taken out full-page ads in major Guatemalan newspapers the day before, warning that something was afoot.

Auxiliary Bishop Mario Rios Montt called the appeals court ruling “a rash and irresponsible decision that puts at risk the process of consolidating justice in the country. … It’s nothing but a willful concession to the enemies of peace in Guatemala.”

Rios said the church “had never trusted the impartiality” of the head of the three-judge appeals court, Willevaldo Contreras, who was twice removed from proceedings related to the Gerardi case at the request of the church human rights office. Contreras’ presence on the appeals panel was part of what Rios, adopting the title of a Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel, described as “the chronicle of a verdict foretold.”

The church rights office announced it would appeal the decision to the country’s Supreme Court. Should that court refuse to alter the appellate decision, a new trial for the four once-convicted men would take at least three months to prepare.

Capt. Lima Oliva said a new trial would demonstrate his innocence. He claimed he was only implicated in the case because church activists dislike the military. “The army is a target for this bunch of communists, who don’t understand that the war ended and we signed peace accords,” he said.

Like the original trial, the appeal process was closely monitored by international human rights groups. Amnesty International issued a statement claiming the appellate court decision was “typical of past tactics seemingly intended to discourage, exhaust and bankrupt those trying to combat impunity in Guatemala.” The London-based group suggested that one objective of the court decision “may be to allow even more time to intimidate or buy off those whose testimonies were crucial to the initial conviction.”

During the three years between Gerardi’s killing and last year’s trial, seven witnesses were killed. Six witnesses, two prosecutors, and one of the trial judges fled the country in fear of their lives.

The appeals court ruling came less than a week after another high-profile case reached a conclusion. On Oct. 3, Col. Juan Valencia was convicted of ordering the 1990 assassination of Myrna Mack, an anthropologist who worked closely with Gerardi in investigating the lives of indigenous people displaced by the army’s counterinsurgency campaigns. Mack was stabbed 27 times outside her Guatemala City office. In 1993, Noel Beteta, a sergeant in the elite presidential guard, was convicted of her killing. In a jailhouse confession, Beteta claimed he had been ordered by his superiors to carry out the crime.

That the trial of the “intellectual authors” of Mack’s assassination took place at all is due to the dogged persistence of Mack’s sister Helen, a mild-mannered conservative businesswoman who belonged to Opus Dei. Angered by her sister’s killing and the subsequent cover-up, Helen Mack overcame her own shyness and political reluctance to relentlessly push the justice system to give her a chance to finally face in court the men she believes masterminded her sister’s killing.

It was a long road. During the 12 years it took to bring the case to trial, the case passed through the hands of 30 judges; no one wanted to risk handling it. A police investigator and a witness were murdered. The Myrna Mack Foundation, set up by Helen to honor her sister, spent $3 million on the case. In the course of her odyssey, Helen Mack left Opus Dei, started hanging out with Jesuits and Maryknollers, and became an extraordinary symbol of ordinary people standing up to their homicidal government.

When the verdict came down, Helen Mack declared she was “partially satisfied;” although Valencia was convicted, two other officers were found not guilty. Yet even the partial victory was big news. The conviction of Valencia, who was assistant director of the presidential guard when Mack was killed, marked the first time in Guatemalan history that someone was convicted for using their authority to order a murder. Human rights activists celebrated, though not for long. “The verdict in the Mack case was a hard blow to the generals, and there was tremendous pressure on the appeals court judges to set things right by overturning the Gerardi verdict,” said Mario Higueros, dean of Latin American Mennonite Seminary in Guatemala City.

Ramazzini said the decision to overturn the guilty verdicts in the Gerardi case was one of the latest factors contributing to “a renewed environment of terror and fear in Guatemala.” In recent months, Guatemalan human rights activists have endured a steady escalation of threats, murders and other intimidation.

Church workers have been among the targets of harassment. Earlier this year, forensic anthropologists working on several church-sponsored exhumations of mass graves received death threats. On Feb. 21, a suspicious fire in the Catholic church in Nebaj destroyed files containing evidence about 35 war-time massacres in the north of the province of El Quiche. In March, Ramazzini started receiving death threats because of his support for landless peasants; Ramazzini was last threatened in 1996, the year the war ended. In July, Egon Hidalgo, a human rights educator among migrants in Ramazzini’s diocese, was beaten, and since then has received repeated death threats, reportedly from wealthy migrant smugglers upset about the church’s interference with their business.

To many in the church, this is more than mere déjà vu. “Although there is no proof these events originate with the same dark forces as in the past, that’s what we suspect. This is their style. We fear the dark forces are still here, still strong,” said Rodolfo Valenzuela, the bishop of La Verapaz.

Paul Jeffrey is a free-lance writer who lives in Honduras.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002