The Miami Herald
March 7, 1999
The `Kennedy case of Guatemala': Murder of bishop baffles the country
Church blames the military; others offer multiple theories

             GLENN GARVIN
             Herald Staff Writer

             GUATEMALA CITY -- Like a journey into a wilderness of mirrors, where every
             step deepens the confusion between reality and illusion, the investigation of last
             year's murder of a Catholic bishop is more bewildering than ever as it rolls into its
             11th month with no end in sight.

             The murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a respected human-rights advocate, has
             driven a deep political wedge into a country that was struggling to close the many
             wounds of a 36-year civil war.

             And the tangled investigation of the killing has raised more questions than it's
             answered. Was Gerardi the prey of ominous, unseen political forces? Was he the
             unlucky victim of the common criminal violence that careens wildly through
             Guatemala City's streets every night? Was he cut down by a dark conspiracy that
             originated within his own church?

             You can find plenty of Guatemalans to argue any one of those theories. And an
             increasing number believe that whatever happened, it will never be known -- that
             the truth is not out there.

             ``I think this is going to be the Kennedy case of Guatemala,'' said Julie Lopez, an
             investigative reporter for the Guatemala City daily Siglo Veintiuno, who has
             covered the Gerardi story since the bishop was found beaten to death in his garage
             last April 26, less than 48 hours after he issued a human-rights report strongly
             critical of the country's armed forces.

             ``They might, they might, get the man who hit Gerardi in the head, but that's as
             good as it's going to get. Years from now, they'll still be arguing about whether he
             did it, and if so, who ordered it. I think that's the reality of the situation,

             It is a judgment shared by many diplomats and foreign law enforcement veterans
             here, who say that sloppy police work coupled with open hostility between cops
             and prosecutors on one hand and Catholic

             Church and human-rights officials on the other has hopelessly crippled the

             ``I have serious doubts that they're ever going to establish who did it with any
             certainty,'' said one diplomat, ``and even if they did, no one will believe it. I think
             the Kennedy analogy is very, very apt.''

             Gerardi, 75, was a respected advocate of human rights during the bloody civil war
             that raged here for nearly four decades between Marxist guerrillas and
             military-dominated governments. His criticism of the army grew so pointed that he
             was exiled to Costa Rica for several years -- though he could also be quite critical
             of the guerrillas.

             When he was found dead in the garage of his church residence last year, it seemed
             obvious to many that his old enemies in the military had finally caught up to
             Gerardi. Just two days before, he had unveiled a study that accused the
             Guatemalan army of killing more than 100,000 civilians during the civil war.

             But there were peculiar anomalies in the killing. Political assassins in Guatemala
             rarely take the time or trouble to disguise their work. But whoever crushed
             Gerardi's skull -- apparently as the cleric got out of his car -- used a cylindrical
             object like a pipe or a baseball bat, then tried to disguise the nature of the wound
             by hitting him again with a chunk of concrete.

             Wandered into house

             The killer also wandered into the house, entering the kitchen and looking through
             cabinets there, tracking blood all the way. Police found a half-eaten sandwich
             discarded in a hallway. Would a professional killer really have stopped for a
             snack, knowing that a priest and a housekeeper were in their bedrooms a few feet
             away and might come out at any moment?

             (And maybe the correct word is killers, plural. During a recent hearing,
             prosecutors said a report from FBI agents called in after the murder shows that at
             least four types of blood were found in the church residence after the murder.)

             Government investigators chose to concentrate on the oddities in the murder and
             have pursued leads that point toward a crime committed for money, personal
             jealousy, or both. Church and human-rights investigators, transfixed by the timing
             of the murder, insist it was an act of revenge by the Guatemalan army.

             Their parallel investigations have often veered off into unsubstantiated accusations
             that have not only fractured Guatemala's first, tentative efforts to heal itself after
             four decades of civil war, but have shattered a number of individual lives as well.
             Three men arrested

             Three different men have been arrested and accused of the murder, each under a
             different theory of what happened. A prosecutor angrily resigned after being
             accused of rigging the investigation. A church official quit his post after his family
             was indirectly linked to the murder. A prominent priest languished in jail for seven
             months, ill and suicidal after charges that he had killed the bishop for fear of being
             exposed as a gay.

             No one even tries to hide the fact that the schism between law enforcement and
             the church and human-rights activists has become personal and ugly. ``They see us
             as enemies ... traitors,'' said Mynor Melgar, an attorney with the church's human
             rights office, describing the government's attitude. Replies former prosecutor Otto
             Ardon, who recently refused to attend a mass for his late mother because it was
             held in a Catholic church: ``I don't believe much in those people.''

             Church-robber theory

             It may be that the dispute is about to turn uglier. The Herald has learned that
             prosecutors are interviewing the sister of a former senior church official at her
             home in Canada. She has reportedly told them that she warned Gerardi shortly
             before his death that he was in danger from a gang with intimate connections into
             the Catholic hierarchy here that plundered religious antiquities from churches.

             The church-robber theory is at least the fourth offered up by government
             investigators. Within days of Gerardi's murder, police arrested a drunk who hung
             out in a seedy park near the bishop's residence and was identified by at least one
             eyewitness who claimed to have seen him leaving the building shortly after the
             murder. He was released several weeks later, and another man with a long rap
             sheet -- including an assault on a priest -- was arrested. He, too, was let go after a
             few weeks.

             The third arrest was the most startling. In July, police jailed Mario Orantes, a
             priest who had a room in the bishop's residence. Either Orantes or his unidentified
             lover had killed Gerardi, the police theorized, after the bishop caught them in the

             The key piece of evidence: A Spanish pathologist who examined the bishop's
             autopsy photos and said there were dog bites and paw prints on the body. The
             only dog in the house was a German shepherd named Baloo, who belonged to
             Orantes and obeyed only his commands.

             No dog bites

             But when the bishop's body was exhumed two months later for another
             examination, half a dozen pathologists who examined it said there was no evidence
             of dog bites (although the Spaniard stuck to his guns).

             A judge finally released Orantes from custody last month after seven months in jail.
             But prosecutors persuaded the judge not to close the investigation of the priest by
             revealing an FBI report that chemical tests revealed traces of blood in Orantes'
             room after the murder.

             During the custody hearing on Orantes, prosecutors argued strenuously that he
             was involved in the murder. But it is not clear how he fits into the newest
             government theory.

             That theory revolves around a criminal band known as the Valle del Sol Gang,
             after the Guatemala City neighborhood where several of its members were
             arrested on kidnapping and bank-robbery charges after a November 1997
             shootout with police.

             Gang members still at large are suspected in numerous unsolved crimes here --
             including a wave of break-ins at churches, where colonial-era icons and religious
             artwork were stolen for resale to collectors, who will pay tens of thousands of
             dollars for especially sought-after pieces.

             Inside connections

             Police believe the gang has inside connections that have helped them stage the
             robberies. And last month, Guatemalan newspapers printed stories suggesting one
             possibility: a young woman named Ana Lucia Escobar, the socially prominent
             niece of a high church official.

             Escobar was arrested just a few blocks from the site of the Valle del Sol shootout
             the same night it occurred. Escobar, who had a previous arrest for car theft, was
             accused of kidnapping and illegal possession of firearms -- though the charges, like
             the earlier car theft count, were eventually dropped.

             Her uncle is Efrain Hernandez, a Catholic priest who until recently was the
             church's chancellor in Guatemala. Escobar and Hernandez are very close and
             often appear together. On the night Gerardi was murdered, Escobar drove
             Hernandez to the bishop's residence a few minutes after the body was discovered.
             They were among the first to arrive. She was seen making numerous phone calls
             from the residence.

             At a press conference shortly after the stories appeared linking her to the church
             break-ins, Escobar denied any role in the thefts. Since then, she had refused to
             speak with reporters. But Hernandez resigned his post as church chancellor.

             Warning letters

             It is Hernandez's sister, The Herald has learned, who is cooperating with
             Guatemalan law enforcement from her Canadian home. She has told prosecutors
             that she wrote several letters to Gerardi in the weeks before his death, warning him
             that the Valle del Sol gang had infiltrated the church and his life was in danger.

             Church and human-rights officials, meanwhile, are no more impressed by the
             newest government theory than they were by the earlier ones. They remain
             convinced that the murder was ordered by the high command of the Guatemalan

             ``I don't see any seriousness in any of these theories,'' said Frank La Rue, who
             runs a human-rights legal office that works closely with the church. ``What's
             happening here is that someone in military intelligence with some knowledge of
             petty scandals in the church is throwing out these nuggets of information and
             suggesting they have something to do with the Gerardi murder.

             ``But it's really nothing more than an attack on the church by the military.''

             Church and human rights officials have their own new witness: a cab driver who
             saw unusual activity around the bishop's residence by men with close-cropped
             military-style hair the night of the murder and took down the license plate of one of
             their vehicles. It was registered to the army, church officials say.

             But church officials, too, have had some of their theories fizzle out like wet
             firecrackers. For a time, they made much of a ``mysterious'' Mercedes Benz seen
             near the crime scene. But they stopped talking about it after a registration check
             showed the car belonged to a priest. Another vehicle in the area that supposedly
             belonged to the army turned out to have been sold months earlier.


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