When we began this project, we were interested in discovering the truth in order to share it. We were interested in reconstructing the history of pain and death, understanding the reasons for it, the why and the how. We sought to show the human drama and to share with others the sorrow and anguish of the thousands of dead, disappeared, and tortured. We sought to look at the roots of injustice and the absence of values
"They deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth."
Guatemala: Never Again!
In 1996, the peace accords were signed that "officially" ended the 36 year civil war in Guatemala. Two years later, the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (ODHAG, Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala) released the "Recovery of Historical Memory" project (REMHI, Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica): Guatemala: Nunca Más. It was a four volume work of well over 1000 pages, detailing the human rights violations (murders, massacres, rapes, torture, disappearances, general repression) that took place during the years of "la violencia." It included hundreds of testimonies from victims and their friends and relatives and looked at the background, causes, and methodology of the abuses.
The biggest "shock" was the findings1 that around 90% of the over 200,000 killed during the civil war were killed by the government's military, security forces, or paramilitaries created by the government.2 It took a great deal of courage to release such a bombshell, especially in a country where the security forces were still killing, disappearing, and torturing people it felt were a threat. High on the list of state enemies were human rights workers and members of the Catholic Church who felt it necessary to pander to dangerous things like human dignity and justice for the poor. This report was an extreme threat to the government3 and put everyone involved at risk.
Juan José Gerardi Conedera was the Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala City and the General Coordinator of ODHAG. On 24 April 1998, Gerardi gave a speech at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guatemala City to officially present the report. Two days later he was bludgeoned to death in his own garage.
The road to REMHI
A native-born Guatemalan, Gerardi led a long life of service to his fellow Guatemalans. Ordained into the priesthood in 1946, he became Bishop of Vera Paz in 1967. He would later move to Santa Cruz del Quiche in 1974 but was forced to leave in 1980 after the diocese closed because of the danger from the violence. In fact, he was nearly killed by an ambush (along with the other priests and nuns who were traveling with him) and had live in exile in Costa Rica for two years. In 1984, he returned as the Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala (the Guatemalan government tried to deny him entry after a visit to Rome that year). There he became involved in monitoring the peace process and helped found and coordinate the Human Rights Office of the Archbishopric of Guatemala and worked on the REMHI project.
We are collecting the people's memories because we want to contribute to the construction of a different country. This path was and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Kingdom of God entails risks, and only those who have the strength to confront those risks can be its builders.
The report was issued on Friday. That Sunday evening, Gerardi returned home after having dinner with family and friends. It appears that he was attacked as he was getting out of his carthe shattered pieces of his eyeglasses were found there. The attack, swift and deadly, gave Gerardi little time to feebly attempt to defend himself as wounds on his hand showed. He ended up on the floor of his garage where a large chunk of concrete was used to obliterate the face of the 75 year old clergyman. It crushed his skull causing 17 fractures and leaving him identifiable to colleagues only by a ring on one of his fingers. Additional evidence that later came to light suggested he was also hit with a crowbar by a second assailant.
The body was left pooled in blood, a drenched sweater next to him.
The death of the Bishop shocked the community. Thousands visited the casket at the Metropolitan Cathedral to pay their respects. Many added their names to a petition that demanded the assassins be hunted down and brought to justice.
Given Gerardi's position and his outspoken criticism and condemnation of the government for past and present human rights abuses, many suspected that the killer or killers to be agents of the security forces. That would turn out to be correct but prosecuting those responsible would be a difficult and dangerous task. It would take years to get the slightest bit of justice in a land where state murderers walk and act with near impunity.
The very beginning of the "investigation" suggested that there was either no concern to find the killers or that it was merely an act to cover up what had happened. The crime scene was not roped/taped off and video footage showed that investigators and friends and family walked freely through it, in some cases through the blood, itself, tracking around the premises. Investigators didn't use gloves when examining the scene or evidence and some of the blood was actually scrubbed up during the process.
Though some witnesses claimed seeing a car with obvious government plates at the scene during the key timeline and that two agents were filming the scene even before the police arrived (when confronted, they fled), it would be a year before there would be an admission that agents of the government were even there. And then they claimed the men had been there at the request of another human rights activist (a claim she denied). For obvious reasons, the authorities refused to follow a line of inquiry that Gerardi's human rights activities might have been a motive.
The first "official" theory of the crime was that he had been killed by one or more of the homeless people who often slept near the home. A perfect scapegoat because even if they weren't drunk or under the influence of drugs, it could be claimed they were at the time and no one would question it. Several were arrested and held briefly before being released. As the case proceeded, six of them would end up murderednot the first or the last to be harassed, threatened, forced into leaving the country, or killed. Meanwhile ODHAG, through a confidential source, was informed that it was, indeed, an act of government security forces. Information was turned over to the police who chose to look in different directions.
The next "official" theory of the crime was also an attempt to slander and discredit the victim. The investigators claimed Gerardi was killed because of a homosexual relationship. The story went that another priest, Mario Orantes Nájera, who shared the residence with him, killed Gerardi after he discovered Orantes with a lover. The police surrounded the church with about 100 heavily armed men and arrested both Orantes and the housekeeper, Margarita Lopez. She would be accused to destroying evidence for having washed away some of the bloodat the orders of Orantes, as the story went. They would be jailed, though Orantes, who was old and sick spent part of the time under police guard at a hospital. Another version of the same theme had that Gerardi, Orantes, and Lopez were in some sort of bisexual triangle.
Later, a third possible "official" theory of the crime would be suggested (conveniently by a relative of one of the men who were later implicated in the murder). In this one, Gerardi had become aware of church officials trafficking in stolen church property on the international market. It seems to have gone nowhere. Unsurprisingly.
Perhaps the most bizarre theory involved the Orantes' eleven year old German Shepherd, Baloo. This element was concocted by a Spanish forensic doctor (more below) who saw the autopsy photosnote: photos, he did not attend the autopsyand concluded that there were dog bites on the victim's head. This new arc of the "official" theory of the crime held that Orantes had concealed himself and the vicious dog in the garage and waited for the Bishop to arrive home. Then the animal was unleashed on the unsuspecting Gerardi with Orantes finishing up with the block of concrete. Again, this was related to the alleged homosexual triangle.
That story fell apart as the fiction it was. There were no bloody paw prints anywhere near the body or in the garage. At eleven years old, the dog was hardly in his primein fact, the poor dog had a spinal condition that made it difficult to walk. Video taken at the crime scene showed the supposedly brutal attack dog dragging his legs. It also clearly showed the dog as docile and well-behaved around the crowd, many of whom were strangers, even when they were moving him around. Baloo didn't even bark or growl. None of that helped the animal, who was taken into custody where he later died of old age.
That wasn't all. In order to make an accurate determination, a second autopsy was performedat the request of ODHAG, which had filed for "co-complaintant" status.4 By then it was about five months after the crime. There were US experts along with two experts provided by ODHAG as well as the Spanish "expert." The US experts were not allowed to participate and only allowed to observe. It was soon clear that the dog bite story was nonsense. The marks did not match the mold that had been made of the dog's teeth. Other problems were also found. If a dog had made the marks with its middle teeth as was claimed, the canines would have had to puncture the skull. No evidence of that. Perhaps more inane was that to make the marks on the head, the dog would have had to clamp down with only one jaw, as there was only one "arc" of "bite marks," not two.
Then it turns out that the Spanish expert was a forensic anthropologist. His actual level of expertise aside, that would make him more of an expert with bones, not flesh injuries (especially those determined from looking at photos). But he stood fast to his conclusion that they were dog bites. He also tried stealing a bone from the body. Apparently a souvenir. It also turned out that he had been used to try covering up the horrible massacre at El Mozote (El Salvador), claiming the children's bodies that were found were "the remains of malnourished teenagers who were shot in combat" (www.globalexchange.org).
Years of terror and death have displaced and reduced the majority of Guatemalans to fear and silence. Truth is the primary word, the serious and mature action that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all.
Slow road to justice
The following month, it was determined by a former attorney general who had been hired by the Church to evaluate the investigation and legalities surrounding it that the murder clearly looked like an extrajudicial execution and that Orantes was probably innocent (of the murder, at least). Pressure from ODHAG and other organizations, including European Parliament and (in a rare occurrence of concern) the US government. It did manage to get the original prosecutor taken off the case; a man who the Human Rights Office had accused of "incompetence, partiality and conflict of interest because of his links to the military" (Guatemala's Lethal Legacy...). That would lead to the slow grind of attempted justice in Guatemala.
The prosecutor who took over the case was forced into exile in December after repeated death threats. Not long after, the judge in the case withdrew. In February 1999, the government contacted the Church and offered to have Orantes released in exchange for the Church to remain silent in the matter of the murder. When the Church made the offer public, the government quickly denied the allegation. March 1999. One year after Gerardi was killed, the prosecutor announced he would look into political connections with the case. The next day, the judge withdrew due to threats to him and his family. By October the prosecutor, harried by continual threats, left the country.
Harassment and threats continued to plague anyone involved with the case. In April 2000, three men forced their way into the home of the director of ODHAG. His domestic and his four year old son were threatened. To make clear the seriousness of the threat, the men left behind a cement block as a reminder of what happened to the Bishop. About the same time, the successor to Gerardi's position in the Human Rights Office, Auxiliary Bishop Mario Ríos Montt5 was also threatened with death. Fortunately, the people at ODHAG and those who supported them pressed on.
In May, the judge in the case determined to go ahead to trial against three suspects. A member of military intelligence and his son and a member of the EMP (Estado Mayor Presidencial, Presidential High Command)all three were suspected by the Human Rights Office from the beginning. This drew more threats against members of ODHAG as well as the judge who was also followed by persons unknown. One staff member at ODHAG was telephoned and informed he was on a "black list" of people under investigation by the government (he received 20 calls in a single day). A legal adviser on the case was called at his place of work, including one call where a song "El Desaparecido" ("The Disappeared") was played.
The men were: Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada (former head of military intelligence), his son Captain Byron Lima Oliva (chief of security for President Álvaro Enrique Arzú Irigoyen), and José Obdulio Villanueva (former member of the same president's personal security detail). In addition to what everyone suspected, Villanueva was thought to have a personal motive: revenge for having been imprisoned for shooting a milkman (six times) who had blocked the president's path with his car. Gerardi had denounced the action and aided the investigation that landed Villanueva in prison. Villanueva claimed that was where he was at the time of the murder. The alibi was doubtful after it was found that prison records had been altered and a cellmate testified to his absence. He was threatened and feared for his life. Another witness was murdered in prison.
They weren't the only ones. By the time the case proceeded in spring 2001, there had been more threats and witnesses who fled the country. Three people had been killed (not counting the homeless people). One of the prosecutors had his house staked out by the police and the day before the trial reopened in March (three years after Gerardi's murder), a grenade was thrown at the judge's house. These actions continued throughout the trial, including Bishop Montt who had the audacity to denounce the threats to the Church's Human Rights Office and an Amnesty International member who had written (published in the US) about the threats and harassment those involved in the case were suffering.
In June, a verdict was reached. All three men were found guilty of the "extrajudicial execution" of Bishop Gerardi. They were sentenced to 30 years in prison. There were 115 brave people who came out and testified for the prosecution. It included inmates that established Villanueva could basically come and go as he pleased from jail. A taxi driver that had seen the car at the time of the murder with license plates for the military zone where Lima Estrada was stationed. There was a homeless manprobably the key witnesswho said Lima Oliva and Villanueva paid him to spy on Gerardi between 1996 and 1998 and report back to them. He also claimed he helped the men move the body and destroy evidence. The defense found him less than credible, pointing out that he had changed his story and come forward late in the investigation (2000). The men asserted their innocence and pledged to appeal.
The rest of the verdict cleared Lopez of any wrongdoing but did implicate Orantes as an accessory who helped the men with access and information. He received 20 years. There were some odd facts regarding Orantes. He claimed to have slept through the whole thing but there were phone calls that came earlier than the 10 PM murder, bloody footprints leading to his room, and Lopez claimed she saw Orantes already dressed and clean-shaven at midnight. It isn't entirely clear if he is guilty or just how guilty he is if involved.
Regardless, it was considered a triumph for justice given that most people figured there would only be scapegoats offered up like Lopez and Orantes. This was of historical importancefairly high-ranking members of the military were implicated and sentenced for murder. All despite a system that works against justice and an atmosphere that can be deadly to those who try to accomplish it.
Outside on the courthouse steps, those holding vigil while awaiting the verdict spelled out the word "justice" with candles.
But these stories are never complete. Four men were found guilty of the murder, itself, but it is an open secret that other "intellectual authors" of the murder are much higher on the political-military food chain. In the course of the trial names of a number of other military and EMP personnel came up and were to be objects of further investigation. No progress in that direction has been made. ODHAG even requested former President Arzú be further questioned. He had already avoided testifying in the case under parliamentary immunity. He'll probably continue to hide behind his immunity in the future. It is likely the investigation will remain stalled with the four. More than scapegoats but not alone in responsibility.
It was even possible the appeal would succeed. In October 2002, the verdict was annulled (primarily because of the testimony of the key witness). The Guatemalan Supreme Court held a hearing on whether to dismiss the annulment or to order a new trial. Fortunately, the court decided to uphold the convictionwhich the defense, of course, planned to appeal.
Nor was it over for those who helped the prosecution. Threats continued, leading others to flee the country. The judge reported helicopters flying over her housesomething that sometimes foreshadows visits from people like the ones who called upon Juan Gerardi. In December 2002, one of the homeless witnesses was murdered (the brother of the key witness mentioned above). In February 2003, there was a riot at the prison where Villanueva was being held. He was one of seven killed during the uprising. It was claimed that street gang members bribed guards to let them out and attack the area of the prison where military and police criminals were held.
While it could be a matter of revenge and anger at the privileges those inmates received, human rights groups questioned it, wondering if it wasn't an attempt to keep those who had been incarcerated for the murder (or others, there were also two inmates from the Myrna Mack murder case) from speaking up in order to get lighter sentences or other considerations. Villanueva was the lowest ranking member of the three who killed Gerardi and the most likely to talk, presumably. It also occurred right after the Supreme Court dismissed the annulment.
If the new appeal succeeds, there may not be enough witnesses left who are willing or able (whether dead or exiled) to convict the murderers in a new trial.
After all of the covering up, threats, and murders, no one really knows which man took it upon himself to end the life of Juan Gerardi. But a small amount of justice was meted out. A candle in a dark room. Little by little the silence must end.
Peace is possiblea peace that is born from the truth that comes from each one of us and from all of us. It is a painful truth, full of memories of this country's deep and bloody wounds. It is a liberating and humanizing truth that makes it possible for men and women to come to terms with themselves and their life stories. It is truth that challenges each one of us to recognize our individual and collective responsibility and to commit ourselves to action so that those abominable acts never happen again.
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act."
1Something hardly surprising or unknown to the victims, the church, or human rights workerspeople who don't count and aren't allowed make the foreign policies that affect them.
2The following year, the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission (CEH, Comisión de Esclarecimiento Histórico) released its own report Guatemala: Memoria del Silencio ("Guatemala: Memory of Silence") in which it found strikingly similar numbers. The numbers for each report are 89.7% government and 4.8% guerillas (REMHI) and 93% government and 3% guerilla (CEH). In addition to the 200,000 dead, there were an estimated 50,000 disappearences.
3Though it seems to have only had a marginal effect since things went on pretty much as usual (though the massacres dwindled to next to nothing and there was some drop off in the sheer number of instances of violations) and the governments who had supported the various military or militarized governments over the decades and continued to support the post war government took little or no notice. First and foremost among the supporters was the United States which fomented the coup that toppled the democratically elected, popular government in 1954, leading to the repressive, brutal regimes. Unsurprisingly the repression and brutality led to rebel groups which led, inevitably, to the civil war.
4"Guatemalan law authorizes the victim (or persons harmed) to initiate criminal proceedings or join those already initiated by the Public Prosecutor's Office, as "querellante adhesivo" or co-complaintant. Any citizen or association of citizens can exercise this role when public officials or employees are accused of human rights violations or have committed crimes abusing their office" (Guatemala's Lethal Legacy...)
5In a strange twist of fate, Mario Ríos Montt's brother was the notorious General Efrain Ríos Montt, who was "president" (the result of a coup) for 18 months during 1982 and 1983. It was during the General's regime that the worst of the violence during the civil war took place (possibly as much as one-fourth or more of the total deaths).
- "Guatemala: Death of army intelligence official implicated in Gerardi-murder must be investigated" 13 February 2003 Amnesty International Press Release (AI INDEX: AMR 34/007/2003)
- "Guatemala Day of Action: Catholic Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi (1923-1998)" www.amnestyusa.org/countries/guatemala/actions/peace_accords/gerardi.html
- "Guatemalan officers guilty in murder of bishop" 9 June 2001 The Miami Herald www.rose-hulman.edu/~delacova/guatemala/Gerardi-verdicts.htm
- Guatemala's Lethal Legacy: Past Impunity and Renewed Human Rights Violations February 2002 Amnesty International
- "Juan José Gerardi Conedera, Auxiliary Archbishop of Guatemala (1922-1998)" www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/Anthro/GSN/gerardi
- "The Murder Case of Bishop Gerardi" www.globalexchange.org/countries/guatemala/hr/gerardi.html
- "3 officers, priest guilty in bishop's slaying" (AP) 8 June 2001 Houston Chronicle www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/world/935737
- "The truth about bishop's murder is a dangerous case to investigate: Guatemalan assassination probe called 'a soap opera'" 27 July 2000 Ecumenical News International http://gbgm-umc.org/latinam-caribbean/guatemala/eni072700pjsc.stm
- The italicised quotes are from Juan Gerardi's speech on the occasion of the presentation of the REMHI report, two days before he died. The speech is reprinted in Guatemala: Never Again! 1999 Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (abridged English translation)