Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 214 | Mayo 1999



A Year after Gerardi: Memory and Disillusion

It was not a mistake to sign the peace accords. The mistake lies in the government's incoherent policies and the economic inequalities created by bankers and businesspeople with the government's blessing. And it lies in failing to confront the real powers that still decide things in Guatemala and their impunity. Without that, the murder of Monsignor Juan Gerardi cannot be explained.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

"100,000 acclaim him" was the headline in Prensa Libre, Guatemala's leading newspaper, on Monday April 26, describing the huge crowd that gathered in Constitution Plaza, between the Cathedral and the National Palace, on the first anniversary of Gerardi's assassination. It was much larger than the crowd that gathered when the peace accords were signed on December 29, 1996.

A bishop asked me, "How many people do you think were there?" Accustomed to exaggerations on the size of crowds, I ventured, "Perhaps 30,000." "No way!" I thought I had exaggerated. "No," he said, "between 50,000 and 70,000." A lot of people, surely. I gave communion in the plaza and had a very hard time getting through the dense crowd to the center. Most were poor people, for the most part indigenous; there were many young people, and the whole community that is fighting against impunity and for human rights and real peace—in society and not just on paper. All cried out with one voice: "Guatemala, never again!" Unlike last year, at Monsignor Gerardi's funeral, not a single member of the Guatemalan government was officially present. It was striking to see that there was no one in the National Palace, no one watching at the windows, or on the roof.

A single open-air mass

Mass was held at 10:00 in the morning, presided over by Archbishop Próspero Penados, accompanied by Archbishop of Tegucigalpa Andrés Rodríguez, president of the Latin American Bishop's Conference (CELAM), and by CELAM's general secretary. Many other bishops came, including all the bishops of El Salvador, and over 300 priests. The day before, on Sunday morning, April 25, one single mass was held in the city. This event, unprecedented in Guatemala, recalled the gesture of Monsignor Romero the day after the assassination of Rutilio Grande in March 1977.

Beginning at 8:00 in the morning, four processions came in from the four cardinal points of the capital. Four rivers of people, including many, many women. Some say that such a concentration of people has not been seen since the funeral of Manuel Colom Argueta, the former mayor of Guatemala who was assassinated 20 years ago. Something new is happening in Guatemala. Some analysts commented that civil society, including non-religious sectors, took advantage of the Catholic Church's call in order to demonstrate their positions. It is also true that the Catholic Church is the institution in Guatemala that inspires the most trust, according to polls, followed by the media, especially the written press.

Speaking openly and out loud

In 1998, at Monsignor Gerardi's funeral service inside the Cathedral, the voice of Bishop Gerardo Flores of Las Verapaces rose with prophetic force. This year what was striking was not so much his words as the words of the people, with their insistent "Guatemala, never again!" Flores described the convocation as a religious celebration, not a protest, but the place and crowd suggested otherwise.

People celebrated. The feeling before the mass was one of great happiness and determination. All said and done, the people were also there to make their demands, perhaps because they realized that things have changed. If we go, they may have thought, it's not going to be like before; they're not going to send out the riot police; there'll be no bullets or tear gas; we'll have our say, and there won't be any reprisals later. This is one benefit, at least, of the peace accords, in a country where people have seen no other real fruits, where most people continue to scrape by with very little indeed.

Was it a mistake to sign the accords?

A week after the big religious and popular gathering to commemorate Gerardi and demand a real investigation into his assassination, the end of impunity, an end to the Guatemala of the past, Siglo XXI—another of Guatemala's leading papers—published the headline, "Zelaya: it was a mistake to sign the peace accords." Raquel Zelaya is a noted economist who represented Arzú's government in the peace negotiations and is now head of the government's Peace Secretariat and co-president of the Accompaniment Commission to ensure that the accords are fulfilled.

What happened to make her express such an opinion to the press? She had unofficially learned of the results of a public opinion poll carried out by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on the peace process. The survey, according to Siglo XXI, "revealed that 32% of those interviewed feel that ending the armed conflict brought no important change to their community, while another 27% felt that, in general, the accords have had a negative impact on them." The newspaper also explained some of the reasons people thought this way: "Everything's the same, the crime rate hasn't changed, the accords were just politics, they haven't created jobs."
In the article Zelaya confessed, "I have to admit that there's no way people would appreciate the benefits, perhaps because they don't exist, so it is fair to wonder if it was a mistake to have signed the peace accords, if things were better before." She emphasized that she wasn't speaking ironically, although her own perception was different, as a person who "dedicates 24 hours a day to my job." Zelaya continued, "If the survey shows that the effort has been in vain, we have no choice but to admit it. I'm saying this without irony and with great sadness: I think we made a mistake in signing the peace accords."
Several days later, in Prensa Libre, Zelaya said that the headline in Siglo XXI was missing the question mark, and that she couldn't have possibly said such a thing working where she does. She added, however, that under the circumstances anyone might express such an opinion.

"There is a parallel power"

Hers is not the only pessimistic opinion marked by disillusion. In an interview on April 18 in El Periódico, Nineth Montenegro, a founder of the Mutual Support Group (GAM) in the 1980s and currently a congressional representative for the New Guatemala Democratic Front, was asked why Arzú's government had not accepted the Historical Clarification Commission's recommendation to clean out the army. Montenegro replied, "Because this country is still run by other real powers. There is a parallel power that has subjugated the rule of law and retains its impunity. If this were not so, the Gerardi case would never have happened."
Ana María Rodas, one of Guatemala's best contemporary poets, writes a weekly column in El Periódico. In her column on the same day, titled "Because of Pinochet," Rodas laments that the "ominous general" still has a good part of the Chilean population divided over him "a quarter century after the coup." Referring to her own country, she continues, "It's the same thing: all Guatemalans are still victims of the terrifying brutality with which we have been killing each other since 1954. And let's not kid ourselves: the fortunate signing of the peace accords in 1996 has not led to any relief, because it is clear that death—not the normal death that comes to all at the end of life—is running crazed and loose on the streets, cities, towns and villages of this country, and there seems to be no interest in stopping it." And then: "I admire those who are struggling to build a peaceful future in this country. But today, seeing national leaders and politicians spending their time navel-gazing, justifying their extreme conservatism by citing `tradition' and seeking personal gain—which is the real Guatemalan tradition—I have no hope."

Many things are going wrong

This bitter disillusionment is the air we're breathing in Guatemala on the first anniversary of the crime that robbed us of Gerardi. Or is it perhaps some kind of acid rain created by all the things that that are going wrong and contaminating the atmosphere? Many things are going wrong. One is the persistence of the army as a special state power, an army that sees itself as the victor in the war—despite the peace accords—and is surrounded by a wall that guarantees its impunity and allows it to keep its businesses. Another is revealed by the questions increasingly being voiced about the honesty and transparency of the sale of TELGUA, the state communications company. The concern is that some top government officials in the ruling National Advancement Party have used their positions to increase their personal fortunes. Up until recently, only Ríos Montt's Guatemalan Republican Front and some media that also oppose Arzú's government had been talking about that. On this issue, the problem is not only whether or not Caesar is honest but that, if he is, he must appear to be.

There is also the enormous delay in drafting the constitutional reforms, needed to fulfill the peace accords and create the possibility of a true democratic transition. The consequences of this delay are that the reforms will be put to a vote in the May 16 referendum without allowing the time necessary for a debate that would inform the population and help overcome the traditionally high abstention rate.

On top of all this is the inability of the parties in Congress to come to an agreement on reforms to the electoral law, also required by the peace accords. Once again, there will be no supervision of campaign budgets, the parties and not the electoral tribunal will be in charge of transport for the voters, electoral commissions and voting booths will be established only in municipal seats and not in small towns, and the election date will not be changed to ensure that it not coincide with the coffee harvest or to avoid a vacuum of power caused by the proximity of a second round to the date of taking office, if the results are challenged.

Long list of disappointments

There are more problems. The price of fuel is sky high and the cost of living has gone up with it.

The congressional representatives voted themselves an $800 a month raise, while the minimum wage covers barely a quarter of the cost of a basket of basic goods, and only half that of basic food.

Insecurity and impunity continue: judges absolved a former Civil Defense Patrol member, a ladino accused by indigenous witnesses of horrendous crimes during the armed conflict; and 12 other former patrol members, also ladinos, condemned last year to over 20 years, were freed from prison by a mob of 400 other former members.

Rigoberta Menchú gave up her role as joint plaintiff in the process against the soldiers and one officer charged in the Xamán massacre because the continual delays make it impossible for her foundation to continue covering the costs.

Helen Mack has been trying for nine years now to get the courts to bring the case against high officials accused of masterminding the assassination of her sister, the anthropologist Myrna Mack.

And these are just some examples in a long list of motives for disillusionment.

Peace: A long way to go

Obviously the peace accords were not "a mistake." But this is only clear to someone who has the time to read them, analyze them and follow the arduous path to implementing them, trying to do so not as a spectator but as a participant who demands coherence from the authorities who also must fulfill them.

The contradictions are rife. One example: the huge body of work produced by the Commission to Strengthen Justice is now in government hands. A large part of its content is included in the congressionally approved constitutional reforms that will be presented in the referendum. Nonetheless, the government has not yet increased the budget for the country's judicial system, which is essential if these changes are to be put into effect. Another: work has begun to do a national cadastral study, which could completely shake up the rural and urban property system and make important changes in the property taxes paid to the state. Doing this study requires a good deal of time, money and political will. But no sooner did a pilot project get underway in the capital than the army raised its hand to block aerial photographs of its military installations.

There is still more. The Land Bank provided for in the accords has been delayed time and again. The Historical Clarification Commission's important report, Memory of Silence, which goes into the historical roots of the conflict, reveals the tremendous cruelty of the state's repression and its constant exaggerations of the size of the guerrilla forces, points out serious ethical failings among the insurgents, and makes profound, humane recommendations to the various state branches. But the government has ignored the majority of these recommendations, thus demonstrating that it has definitively lost the authority it exercised in its first year to subordinate the military to civilian power.

And more: the government has restructured tax collection, creating the Tax Administration Secretariat, with new methods to avoid tax evasion. But caught up in the election year possibilities, the government is also on the verge of injecting an enormous money supply into the market for quickly-drafted projects, which is likely to trigger high inflation and leave the next government with empty coffers.

The government's dual morality

On May 3, the day after Zelaya's retraction, El Periódico editor Edgar Gutiérrez expressed a different opinion. He pointed out "the dual morality of this government: it claims to be building peace while at the same time it allows for an obscene accumulation of wealth through the giveaway of public goods. It talks of peace when the cost of the financial crisis, created by the clumsy inefficiency of businesspeople and bankers, is breaking the backs of eight million Guatemalans who nonetheless stoically survive without subsidized mergers, or gifts of credit, or influence peddling, or tax breaks. It proclaims peace and shelters impunity." Gutiérrez's conclusion is one we can agree with: "It was not a mistake to sign the peace accords, as Raquel Zelaya suggested. The mistake lies in political incoherence."
And it is political incoherence that can lead to failure on the arduous path that Guatemala has begun to take towards a democratic transition.

Enthusiasm over the transition?

In Guatemala today, unprecedented opportunities exist for the participation of organized civil society, the expression of political tendencies and the presentation of various national projects.

This is shown by the huge response to the Catholic Church's call to commemorate the assassination of Monsignor Gerardi. It is shown by the presence of the Historical Clarification Commission's report for over a month in the pages of the newspapers, the free play of different opinions on the report, and the distribution of attractive summaries of the report in special supplements produced by these papers on different dates. It is shown by the search for ways to include the report in the country's educational institutions, which suggests that the curtain of fear is being lifted.

Despite all these positive signs, however, the UNDP survey shows that little if any enthusiasm can be generated for a political transition unaccompanied by firm and constant steps towards the democratization of credit, creation of jobs, just remuneration of work, access to services at a reasonable price, better health care, education and housing to make life more dignified and the future more secure.

May 16 referendum

The first anniversary of Gerardi's assassination makes it impossible to forget the forces that have taken refuge in darkness and impunity, rejecting any interpretation of the past other than the official story. This rejection threatens the new confidence to speak out and express opinions that is beginning to break through the silence of fear. As a result, the path toward transition may be so unstable that the minority who vote in the May 16 referendum on the constitutional reforms may identify the reforms with the resurgence of war, an increase in insecurity and an increase in taxes, and vote no.

If the no vote wins, approval will not be given to the constitutional recognition of Guatemala's multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual character. Nor to the demilitarization of the state, nor to civilian control over the military intelligence forces, nor to efforts to strip these forces of their ability to provide the army with instruments for the total surveillance of the citizenry, nor to the transformation of the judicial branch, nor to the strengthening of justice. We would lose the whole constitutional basis for changing Guatemala from a racist, uncompassionate, intolerant, unjust, authoritarian society into a respectful, caring, tolerant, just and democratic society.

Chronology of the Gerardi Case

It is in this context that we can evaluate the course of the investigation into Gerardi's assassination. First, a brief chronology.

April 24: In the capital's cathedral, Guatemala's Catholic Church presents the report of the Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory, Guatemala, never again! Bishop Gerardi, the most active member of the project, is the main presenter.

April 26:<&n> Two days later, Gerardi is killed in the garage of the parish house. His skull and face are crushed by a concrete block and other heavy objects. His vicar, Father Mario Orantes, finds his body after midnight and calls Gerardi's family, Monsignor Efraín Hernández, chancellor of the archbishop's offices, and the fire department. The first investigations are carried out by the district attorney on duty, Otto Ardón, who is related to military officials. Throughout the early hours of the 27, the scene of the crime is contaminated and objects and evidence begin to disappear.
April 28: President Arzú names a high-level commission and asked the bishops to join it. The bishops refuse.

April 30: The police arrest Carlos Enrique Vielman, a shoemaker and drunkard, based on descriptions given by some homeless people in the neighborhood. On May 5, Judge Isaías Figueroa officially charges Vielman with murder. The accused declares his innocence.

May 1: FBI experts investigate the crime scene.

May 11: The Archbishop's Human Rights Office (ODHA), through its legal representative Ronalth Ochaeta, joins the process as a joint plaintiff.

June 6: The police pick up Iván Alexander Hernández as a suspect while he is selling drugs, but never press charges against him.

July 13: While in Madrid, Ochaeta states that two soldiers, Byron Lima Oliva, a member of the Presidential General Staff, and his father, Byron Lima Estrada, are the intellectual authors of the crime.

July 22: Father Mario Orantes and Margarita López, the cook in the parish house where Gerardi lived, are arrested with an excessive use of force and a great deal of publicity. Orantes' dog Balú is also taken in.

July 27: Judge Figueroa orders Orantes to be held without bail and tried for murder. He also orders the commutable detention of Margarita López as an accomplice in the crime. That same day, Vielman is freed.

July 28: Margarita López is conditionally released.

August 6: Orantes is transferred to a hospital for health problems. This is to happen several times until his release in February 1999.

August 17: Mandate of the high-level commission ends.

September 1: Orantes affirms his innocence in a public letter.

September 17: After several requests from the ODHA and the Church, District Attorney Ardón orders Gerardi's body exhumed.
September 18: Spanish forensic expert José Reverte examines Gerardi's body and reports that, in his opinion, the bishop was attacked by the dog Balú. The Guatemalan forensic expert that had examined the body in April and several other experts strongly disagree with this opinion. The body is reburied that same day. The following day, Orantes' defense attorney challenges Reverte for having publicly offered opinions on the cause of Gerardi's death.

December 2: District Attorney Ardón resigns from the case, after being accused innumerable times of partiality.

January 4: A former judge, related to the military officials suspected in the case, claims to have seen a military intelligence report that coincides with his own conclusions: Gerardi was killed by the Valle del Sol band, dedicated to the theft of sacred images, in which a niece of chancellor Hernández is supposedly involved. That same day, District Attorney Celvin Galindo takes on the case and begins by stating that he will investigate all hypotheses. In January, Judge Figueroa is challenged. Although the Supreme Court supports him, he resigns.

January 30: The case is taken by Judge Henry Monroy, the judge who ordered the prosecution of the three-high level military officials accused by Helen Mack of having planned the assassination of her sister Myrna.

February 17: Judge Monroy provisionally closes the case against Father Orantes and frees him. The same day, he takes the testimony of a witness, Diego Méndez Perussina—nephew of a former defense minister—who claims to have noted down the license plate of a vehicle parked near the scene of the crime that night. The license plate belongs to a vehicle owned by the Ministry of Defense, and previously to a vehicle from the military base of Chiquimula, commanded by Colonel Byron Lima Estrada. The witness leaves the country a few days later, under the protection of the UN Mission for Guatemala (MINUGUA) and the ODHA.

March 18: The defense minister affirms that military officers in the Presidential General Staff would have been at the scene of the crime because Helen Mack requested it through her friend Raquel Zelaya, who in turn had asked presidential staff manager Mariano Rayo to see to the request. On several previous occasions, the minister had denied any presence of military officers at the scene. The following day, Helen Mack accuses the minister of lying and cowardice and challenges him to a confrontation. She says she has a tape of the minister's press conference and will not accept his excuse that he was misinterpreted by journalists. Finally, Zelaya takes full responsibility for the incident.

March 23: District Attorney Galindo announces that he will investigate the hypothesis that there was a political motive for Gerardi's assassination.

March 24: Judge Henry Monroy resigns because of lack of support for his work. He will later state that the executive branch had put pressure on him and that he received no support from the Supreme Court when told of this pressure.

March 25: The Supreme Court appoints Judge Flor de María García to the case.

April 13: Two officials in the Presidential General Staff testify before Judge García to determine the presence of General Staff military personnel on the scene of the crime in the early hours of April 27, 1998.

April 16: Three unidentified men search the home of Ronalth Ochaeta, insulting the domestic employee, messing everything up in front of Ronalth's young son and leaving a box in the house containing a block like the one used to kill Gerardi. At around the same time, President Arzú states that he will ask the UN to verify the transparency of his government's investigation of the Gerardi case, and will ask the accused military officers to submit to a DNA test, expecting that they would agree.
April 22: Juan Pablo II receives President Arzú in the Vatican. The Vatican's statement on the private meeting reaffirms "the need to shed light on the painful case of the assassination as soon as possible." It also reports that Arzú and the Pope spoke about the "reconciliation process begun in Guatemala and the current relations between the government and the Church in this country."
The same day, Galindo asks 17 people to submit to DNA tests, including 12 military officers, 3 homeless people, 1 civilian linked to the Valle del Sol band—the companion of chancellor Hernández's niece—and Father Orantes. The state's forensic expert Mario Guerra would take the blood extracted to the FBI laboratories in Washington to be compared with blood found on a raincoat left next to Gerardi's body and in other places in the parish house. The forensic expert guarantees the chain of custody of these blood samples.

Six theories on the case

In the April 24 edition, El Periódico editor Edgar Gutiérrez discussed the architecture of this "perfect crime" in his article, "Six theories of a crime."
First theory: a common crime. This theory centers on the drunkard Carlos Vielman, who was reportedly tortured to make him confess. The homeless witnesses could not confidently identify him in a police lineup. The FBI found no signs of his involvement. When he was freed in July, Father Orantes was arrested and charged.

Second theory: a crime of passion. The motive in this theory involved an alleged homosexual relationship. An article in The New Yorker claimed that military intelligence offered this hypothesis to Arzú's Cabinet in the days immediately after the assassination, and rumors about it were heard in the Cathedral during the ninth day mass. Several newspapers have said that Deputy Minister of Government Gándara spread it in diplomatic circles, though he denies this. Vielman's defense attorney Mario Menchú claimed in June that the assassination was a crime of passion and Linares Beltranena, a lawyer, seconded this theory in his opinion column. The supposition is that Gerardi discovered a compromising scene in the parish house and was attacked by the dog Balú on Orantes' orders and then assassinated. This hypothesis was never proven. The ODHA rejected it and the government dismissed it.

Third theory: a domestic crime. For some still unknown motive, this theory implicates Father Orantes and his arthritic dog Balú as well as Margarita López, who supposedly covered up the crime. This hypothesis is based on Revente's "expert" testimony on the purported dog bites on Gerardi's face and head, as well as the presumption that the blood found in the parish house belongs to Orantes. The dog hypothesis has been rejected. The presumption has not been demonstrated but Orantes remains linked to the case.

Fourth theory: organized crime. In this theory the assassination is attributed to the Valle del Sol band. It is based on the denunciation of a Guatemalan residing in Canada, who some say is chancellor Hernández's former sister-in-law. The woman supposedly wrote to Gerardi revealing the involvement of Orantes, Hernández and his niece Lucía Escobar in the religious artifact-stealing band. Monsignor Hernández resigned from the chancery in February because of his upcoming retirement at the age of 65, and is currently resting outside of the country. A former judge related to military officers suspected in the case says that he received the basic information in this hypothesis from prosecutor Ardón, carried out his own investigation and reached this conclusion, which he shared with military intelligence and specifically with Colonels Pozuelos and Villagrán, the two top Presidential General Staff members, and that military intelligence had come to the same conclusion. A day after the former judge presented these charges to the Public Ministry on January 5, one member of the Valle del Sol band was killed. Two days later, police captured two others. The investigation of this hypothesis continues. District Attorney Galindo has not rejected it, although the Church has.

Fifth theory: drug- trafficking. On June 5, Iván Alexander Hernández was arrested selling drugs. The homeless people in the park near the scene of the crime who had testified against him did not recognize him and he was freed, although investigations were launched into a "Satanic" gang linked to drug-trafficking that operates in the area. Insufficient evidence was found to continue this line of investigation.

Sixth theory: a political crime. This is the hypothesis favored by the ODHA, the Bishops' Conference, human rights groups, MINUGUA, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, US congresspeople interested in the case and sectors of the international community. It is based on the role Gerardi played in Quiché in the 1970s and the military's attempts to assassinate him at that time, in his role as the inspirational force behind the Project for the Recuperation of Historical Memory, in the fact that he had presented the project's report two days earlier, in testimonies that implicate military officials, in the reinforcing testimony of one witness, in all of the Public Ministry's efforts to avoid investigating this hypothesis and in the threats received by the joint plaintiffs, the witnesses, a judge and a prosecutor. Perhaps the most important grounds for this theory is the reiterated denial that members of the Presidential General Staff were at the scene of the crime the night of the assassination, which was later admitted only when the defense minister tried to make none other than Helen Mack responsible for their presence. As though someone who had accused former members of the Presidential General Staff of assassinating her sister would have called them to investigate the crime against Gerardi!
It is important to note that Captain Byron Lima Oliva's alibi for the hours in which Gerardi was killed proved to be false. It has also been proven that the license plate of a vehicle seen near the scene of the crime belongs to the defense ministry, evidence that had been denied by the minister.

The theory that the assassination was a political crime has barely been explored and is only now is being admitted by the Public Ministry as worthy of investigation.

The Gerardi case: A touchstone

In May, the President's public relations spokesperson Yolanda Bollat denied that the Pope had asked President Arzú to resolve the case "as soon as possible." It was a sad postscript for such an important visit, and an even worse diplomatic move. It shows once again that the photo, the image, is too often worth more than reality for this government. That wasn't the case during the government's first year, when it quickly carried out the peace negotiations. And it's a serious trend today, when fulfilling the accords and achieving peace is no longer a priority on the agenda.
The Gerardi case remains open on many people's agendas, however. It is a touchstone that will prove, among many other things, whether or not the political will exists to subordinate military power to civilian authority.

Note: In the last Guatemala analysis (envío no. 212, April 1999) there was an error in the list of those who attended the presentation of the report Memory of Silence. The paragraph should read: "Alvaro de Soto, UN undersecretary for political affairs, shared the stage with the three commission members on behalf of UN Secretary General Koffi Annan. Also there to officially receive the report were Jorge Soto (known as Pablo Monsanto during his years as a URNG comandante), general secretary of the officially recognized political party URNG since the death of Ricardo Ramírez (Rolando Morán), and Raquel Zelaya, head of the government's Peace Secretariat."

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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