The Miami Herald
June 9, 2001

Guatemalan officers guilty in murder of bishop


 GUATEMALA CITY -- Three military officers and a priest were found guilty Friday of orchestrating the murder of Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi, a historic verdict marking the first time that swift and steep sentences have been handed down to ranking members of the Guatemalan military.

 Bishop Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death April 26, 1998, less than two days after he issued a church report blaming the army for the bulk of killings that took place during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. Gerardi was found in his garage, a bloody sweater near his body and a sleeping priest inside his house.

 A series of motives involving vengeance, sex and money -- each more bizarre than the next -- dogged investigators as they probed the case. Two years after the bishop's death, a homeless man came forward saying military officers, including one named in Gerardi's report, were at the murder scene.

 A courtroom packed with human rights observers, journalists -- and for a few hours even the U.S. ambassador, Prudence Bushnell -- waited all night for the highly
 anticipated verdict.

 At 5:30 a.m., Capt. Byron M. Lima Oliva, the chief of security for former President Alvaro Arzú; his father, retired Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, former head of military intelligence; and José Obdulio Villanueva, a former member of Arzú's personal security detail, were found guilty of ``extrajudicial execution'' and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Gerardi's assistant, Rev. Mario Orantes, was sentenced to 20 years.

 Margarita López, rectory cook accused of cleaning up the bloody garage, was exonerated.

 After the sentences were read, people who had waited six hours in the crowded courtroom wept, and others hugged one another. Supporters spelled out the word
 "justice'' in candles on the courthouse concrete steps.

 ``This is really historic,'' said Tracy Ulltveit-Moe, an Amnesty International researcher who attended the reading of the verdict. ``Not only is it the first time high-ranking military officers are sentenced, but Bishop Gerardi was the highest ranking member of the church to be killed in an extrajudicial manner. People here began to lose hope, thinking: If they couldn't get justice in this case, what hope is there?''

 In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher applauded the judges' courage and urged the government to protect them from reprisals.

 ``We encourage the Government of Guatemala to continue its efforts to strengthen the rule of law by addressing impunity in other unresolved human rights cases,'' he

 Confidence in the shaky criminal justice system has been a key issue for Guatemala's post-war peace process. A lack of faith in justice has led to rampant lawlessness, including a rash of lynchings against criminal suspects and judges who free them.

 International human rights groups watched the case closely, causing defense lawyers to say their clients were railroaded in the quest to find someone to blame.

 ``This verdict was political, resulting from pressure from the press and human rights community,'' said Orantes' attorney, José Toledo.

 As Lima Oliva exited the courtroom in his army uniform, he declared: ``I am a good soldier, and I will continue fighting to prove our innocence. We are going to appeal.''

 Col. Lima Estrada was one of the military officials accused of human rights violations in the Recuperation of Historical Memory Project report, relating to cases that took place when he was director of operations in the war-torn Quiché province in central Guatemala.

 Villanueva's personal motive, prosecutors said, was revenge against Gerardi for denouncing the murder of a milkman Villanueva shot six times in 1995. Villanueva, then the president's bodyguard, was hailed as a hero for shooting the milkman who blocked the president's path with his car.

 It was Gerardi who helped investigate and prompted the charges that landed Villanueva in prison for homicide, where he claims he was the night of the crime.

 Among the prosecution's 115 witnesses were inmates who said Villanueva had the freedom to come and go from jail.

 The most controversial witness was Rubén Chanax Sontay, a homeless man who gave crucial testimony declaring that Lima Oliva and Villanueva paid him to watch and report on Gerardi's movements from 1996 to 1998.

 On the night of the murder, Chanax said he helped the officers change the crime scene to destroy the evidence and move the body. Attorneys for the defense denounced him because he came forward late and changed his story several times.

 Taxi driver Diego Méndez said he saw a car by the parish at the time of the crime; the license plates were later traced to the military zone in Chiquimula where Lima
 Estrada was stationed.

 Orantes said he slept through the 10 p.m. murder, despite phone records showing calls were placed to the home. Bloody shoe tracks led to the priest's room and the maid said she saw him, dressed and cleanshaven, at midnight.

 ``His mission was to let them in to alter the crime scene, with the objective of blocking or distracting the investigations,'' church lawyer Mynor Melgar said of the priest.

 Prosecutors never said who bashed Gerardi's head with a cinder block. The three-judge panel recommended prosecutors investigate a list of other suspects, including three more members of the presidential military guard.

 Claudia Samayoa, director of the Rigoberta Menchu Foundation, said the case was historic because other cases involving members of the military ended in manslaughter convictions, vacated or overturned sentences.

 She and other activists applauded the judicial panel's courage, considering a judge, a prosecutor and seven witnesses in the Gerardi case went into exile after reporting death threats.

 The home of sitting judge Iris Yassmín Barrios Aguilar was firebombed on the eve of the trial.

                                    © 2001