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Defending Human Rights
The overall conditions for human rights monitors in Guatemala remained precarious. The June MINUGUA report noted “an increase in threats and intimidations against individuals and entities working for the protection of human rights....” The most dramatic of these was the assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, the director of the Archbishop of Guatemala’s Human Rights Office (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala, ODHAG).

On April 24, 1998, before the eyes of the nation, Bishop Gerardi presented Guatemala: Never Again, a four-volume work documenting the human rights abuses committed by state agents and the insurgency during thirty-six years of civil war. The report—the culmination of three years of research involving nearly 600 investigators—found the military, other official forces, state-sponsored civil patrols, and clandestine death squads responsible for 90 percent of the grave human rights violations committed during the conflict, while the remaining 10 percent of the abuses were attributed to the URNG guerrilla alliance.
Just two days after the public presentation of the report, on the evening of April 26, Monsignor Gerardi was bludgeoned to death by a cinderblock while entering his house in the parish of San Sebastián in Guatemala City. Although several people were detained and subsequently released, and one remained in detention, the crime was not solved as of late 1998 and its political impact continued to reverberate. On October 21, the government’s prosecutor formally charged a priest who resided in the same parish house as Bishop Gerardi, Rev. Mario Orantes in the slaying, despite an absence of evidence implicating him.

Throughout the investigation, the government went to great lengths to dismiss the notion that the assassination was politically motivated. On April 30, an indigent, Carlos Enrique Vielman Viani, was arrested and charged with the killing. Interior Minister Rodolfo Mendoza announced that the murder was almost solved, implying that the motive was one of common crime. Nearly three months later, Vielman was released as both church authorities and the government agreed that he had not been involved in the crime. On July 22, authorities arrested Father Mario Orantes, the priest who also lived in the San Sebastián house, along with the parish cook, Juana Margarita López. The state’s main evidence against the pair rested on enlarged photographs of the corpse, which according to some experts revealed a dog bite that went unnoticed during the autopsy; the teeth marks purportedly matched those of Orantes’s German shepherd. Although the corpse of Bishop Gerardi was exhumed in September, and Guatemalan and U.S. forensic specialists present concluded that there were no traces of a dog bite, the priest was subsequently charged with the murder and remained in jail. (A Spanish specialist present reportedly did not concur with his colleagues’ views.)

Errors and negligence in the investigation by Guatemalan authorities began at the crime scene, which the public prosecutor failed to properly secure. Despite years of training in crime scene preservation from the United States Justice Department and the Spanish Civil Guard, authorities permitted onlookers to roam freely around the site, including two who allegedly worked for the EMP. Videotapes from the night of the crime show prosecutor Otto Ardón and his investigator examining the presumed murder weapon without latex gloves and traipsing through the pools of blood surrounding the bishop’s corpse. Few efforts were made to sustain the chain of custody as forensic samples were sent to the PNC and to the public prosecutor’s crime lab in unsealed vials.

Shortly after the murder, the government established a High-Level Commission (Comisión de Alto Nivel) to support the investigation and facilitate communication between the church and the public prosecutor’s office. The commission was composed of government officials with justice and human rights-related expertise. Its work proved disappointing however; in May and June, it rejected or ignored a series of requests from the church, including that the commission ask the British government to send a Scotland Yard investigator and that commission replace the public prosecutor, Otto Ardón, because of his prior links to the military.

In late May, the ODHAG provided a license plate number of a vehicle registered to a military base seen circling the parish the night of the crime as well as the names of Gen. (r) Byron Disrael Lima Estrada and his son, Capt. Byron Miguel Lima Oliva of the EMP, both of whom the office believed to be linked to the crime. The commission reportedly responded by providing publicly available information from the vehicle’s registration card, denying the retired general had anything to do with the crime, and declining to investigate Captain Lima Oliva. The government disbanded the commission in July.

In late July, after ODHAG coordinator Ronalth Ochaeta mentioned the two men at a press conference in Madrid, the government announced that both officers would be investigated. Following the murder of Monsignor Gerardi, members of the ODHAG were subjected to sporadic surveillance by unknown individuals and received anonymous threatening phone calls. The week following the bishop’s death, Carlos Federico Reyes López, coordinator of the ODHAG forensic anthropology team, received several anonymous threatening telephone calls in his office. Reyes López was closely involved in the initial stages of the Gerardi investigation and testified before the U.S. Congress about the case.

Catholic priest Pedro Nota, who worked closely on the preparation and dissemination of the Guatemala: Never Again report, also received serious threats. During the day on April 28, 1998, a double-cab pick-up truck circled his house for thirty minutes. On May 4, a white sedan with polarized windows and no license plates arrived outside his house. A man exited the vehicle, furtively took some photographs, and then drove away. Six days later, as the wife of a worker in Father Nota’s parish left to go grocery shopping, she noticed two individuals behind her who were accompanied by the same white sedan. As she turned to cross the street, the two men blocked her path and told her to tell the priest to flee the country because they had him under surveillance ( lo tenían controlado) and they were going to kill him if he did not leave. Father Nota left Guatemala on May 24.
On July 12, a member of the ODHAG received a telephone call in which a male caller said: “We’ve got you under surveillance ( controlado), you son of a bitch. We’re going to kill you and you won’t even realize it.” This individual, accompanied by other members of the ODHAG and representatives of MINUGUA, had gone the day before to the El Salvador-Guatemala border to pick up a shipment of copies of the Guatemala: Never Again report.
On August 16, El Estor, Izabal parish priest Dan Vogt was warned by a friend who had recently overheard individuals discussing a plan to murder Vogt in a feigned robbery. Another informant told the priest he had been questioned about Vogt’s comings and goings by individuals who did not identify themselves. Vogt has been the subject of numerous death threats related to his human rights work in El Estor.













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Human RIghts Watch