The Miami Herald
December 5, 1999
Guatemalan murder case drags on 18 months after bishop's killing


 GUATEMALA CITY -- It has chewed up eight judges and prosecutors, sent at
 least half a dozen people into exile, triggered the arrests of four people and one
 dog, generated millions of words of news coverage and sucked the spirit out of
 countless Guatemalans.

 Nevertheless, 18 months after the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the official
 investigation into his death seems no closer to a solution.

 ``I don't think you can put a timetable on an investigation like this, but I certainly
 don't expect to make arrests any time soon,'' said Leopoldo Zeissig, the latest
 prosecutor to take over a case that has become the most notorious albatross in
 Guatemala's decrepit legal system.


 Gerardi, an advocate of human rights during the civil war that raged in Guatemala
 for nearly four decades between Marxist guerrillas and military-dominated
 governments, was murdered April 26, 1998, less than 48 hours after he issued a
 report strongly critical of the country's armed forces.

 Someone battered in the bishop's skull as he was getting out of his car in
 downtown Guatemala City.

 The murder was widely assumed to be political, an act of retaliation for the
 bishop's report, and a shaken President Alvaro Arzu -- the president who finally
 negotiated the 1996 accord that brought the civil war to an end -- promised swift
 justice in the case.

 Instead, the case will almost certainly remain unsolved when Arzu leaves office in
 January because, among other obstacles, officials and witnesses associated with
 the case resign or go into hiding with clocklike regularity.


 The latest setback occurred in October when Celvin Galindo, the special
 prosecutor investigating the case, quit and fled to the United States, citing threats
 to his children.

 Indeed, proclaiming your life to be in danger over the Gerardi case seems to have
 become somewhat of a national pastime in Guatemala. The U.N. mission in
 Guatemala has granted protection to more than 80 people -- including judges,
 prosecutors, prospective witnesses and journalists -- who claimed to have
 received threats in connection with the investigation.

 One of the seemingly few people not to be threatened is prosecutor Zeissig, who
 has been on the job since October. He also spent six months on the case as an
 assistant prosecutor last year.

 Zeissig said his main work has been rebuilding the morale of his seven-member
 staff, which was shattered by Galindo's resignation, while systematically
 re-examining the two main avenues the investigation has taken so far:

 The priest. Mario Orantes, a priest who lived in Gerardi's residence, was arrested
 last year in connection with the murder. After he was held several months without
 trial, a judge ordered Orantes' release but allowed the investigation to continue.
 Orantes fled Guatemala for Houston last month after Arzu, during a televised
 interview, said the priest was involved in the murder.

 The original police theory was that Orantes -- perhaps with the help of a lover --
 murdered the bishop after being surprised in a homosexual act. The major
 evidence: A Spanish pathologist said Gerardi's body showed signs of a dog
 attack, including bite marks that matched the teeth of Orantes' German shepherd,

 Other foreign pathologists, though, disputed the findings about the dog, and that
 theory has largely been discounted. Baloo, taken into police custody at the same
 time as Orantes, died in October -- in the same week that the priest fled the
 country. Since then, other, more compelling evidence, has surfaced.

 First, FBI chemical testing found faint traces of bloody footsteps leading to the
 door of Orantes' room. Then, in September, DNA tests conducted by the FBI in
 Washington showed that bloodstains found inside Orantes' room came from not
 only the priest, but two homeless men who lived in the park across the street.

 The DNA tests, coupled with inconsistencies in Orantes' testimony about the
 night of the killing, have kept the priest in the thick of the investigation. He said
 neither he nor his dog heard anything as the bishop was beaten to death, and he
 has never satisfactorily explained why he waited nearly an hour to report
 discovering the body.

 The military. Guatemalan human-rights organizations have said from the first
 hours of the investigation they think Gerardi was murdered by current or retired
 army officers, and their belief grows every day. The killer, they believe, will be
 found inside the army's high command, the presidential general staff (EMP).

 ``That's where everything points,'' said Frank LaRue, head of a human-rights law
 office that works closely with the Roman Catholic Church.

 The human-rights groups make much of the recent testimony of three new
 witnesses who worked at the EMP. One testified that an EMP captain arrived at
 the office much later that night than he had told police, leaving his whereabouts
 unaccounted for around the time of the murder.

 A second witness said he overheard several phone calls inside the EMP office --
 which is less than two blocks from the murder scene -- indicating an unusual
 amount of military activity in the neighborhood that night. And a third testified that
 the EMP had Gerardi under surveillance, including phone taps, for several years.
 But the surveillance ended in 1996, the witness added.

                      Copyright 1999 Miami Herald