Bishop's Murder Remains Unsolved

The Christian Century, November 11, 1998 | Go to article overview

Bishop's Murder Remains Unsolved


Exactly six months after the brutal murder of Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, more than a thousand people marched through Guatemala City October 26 in memory of the respected champion of human rights. The marchers also demanded that the Guatemalan authorities take action to find the murderer. The procession began at the city's cathedral and ended with a mass at the Church of San Sebastian, where Bishop Gerardi was killed on April 26, just two days after releasing a report blaming the country's military for most of the violence during Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

In a communique released for the six-month anniversary of Gerardi's death, the Guatemalan Bishops' Conference described the investigation of the murder as "totally inadequate." The bishops declared that the murder was "a premeditated blow to the Guatemalan Catholic Church" designed to "limit our pastoral action and remind us that the most fearful forces in the country are still intact and possess enormous power."

Although prosecutors have charged a Catholic priest, Mario Orantes, with the killing, most of the march participants believe that Orantes, who is in prison awaiting trial, is a scapegoat. Orantes, who shared living quarters with Bishop Gerardi in the parish of San Sebastian, was formally charged with murder on October 21. He denies the charge. A trial date is expected to be announced before the end of the year.

Many Guatemalans believe the nation's military forces are linked to the murder of Bishop Gerardi. Despite this, the prosecutors waited five months before investigating claims by the church and human rights groups that several military, officers were involved in the death. In early October prosecutors called six military officers to testify before the official investigation; all of them attended voluntarily and read prepped statements denying any involvement. But in an unusual concession, none was questioned by chief prosecutor Otto Ardon or his assistants.

The decision to investigate the military officers came after weeks of criticism at home and abroad. Expressing its "concern for unresolved crimes, in particular the murder of Auxiliary Bishop Gerardi," the European Union's presidential office recently called for a "full investigation" of the bishop's death. The statement was made during a meeting in Brussels of the Consultative Group on Guatemala, a coalition of countries and international agencies involved in binding the peace process in Guatemala. Diplomats warned privately that further funding could be at risk if the criminal investigation continued to be mismanaged.

Jean Arnault, a French diplomat in charge of the United Nations delegation overseeing Guatemala's peace accords, said that people were "fully justified" in assuming that the murder was politically motivated.

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