The Miami Herald
March 21, 2001

Bishop's murder case tests democracy in Guatemala


 GUATEMALA CITY -- On the night in April 1998 that someone beat Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi to death, eight homeless men lay drunk
 and asleep in the park just outside the murder scene.

 One of them became the star witness against three army suspects and now lives in hiding. The others? All dead from heart attacks or liver disease.
 Plus a bank robber who was to testify for the defense was found with a bullet in his head -- in jail.

 While most of the would-be witnesses at San Sebastian Park officially died of natural causes, curious coincidences have observers wondering whether the case that has
 rocked Guatemala for nearly three years has claimed more victims.

 Some think a deadly conspiracy by some unknown killer or killers is farfetched, but concede that anything is possible in a case that is widely seen as a test of both
 Guatemala's judiciary and the country's fragile democracy. Already, one judge, a prosecutor and seven witnesses -- targets of anonymous death threats -- have fled to
 three different countries in search of shelter.

 ``It was a little suspicious,'' said prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig, himself a target of death threats. ``But I don't want to speculate.''

 Because the witnesses were not crucial to his case, their deaths appear to be none of his concern.

 On Thursday, three army officers, a priest and his housekeeper will stand trial in the killing of Gerardi, a noted human rights activist whose skull was bashed not two days
 after releasing a report that strongly denounced Guatemala's armed forces. Gerardi's body was found beside his car, along with a bloody sweater, a string of bizarre
 suspects and kooky theories.

 From the start, human rights activists blamed the army, suspecting someone high up ordered Gerardi dead as revenge for detailing abuses during the country's
 decades-long civil war. But oddities abounded, including inconsistent statements by the bishop's own roommate, Father Mario Orantes.

 Orantes was jailed, as was a vagrant who lived outside the priests' home. Charges against the transient were later dropped.

 Orantes still faces trial, as do three military men identified by a homeless man who lived outside the bishop's garage.

 Two years after the bishop's death, the witness came forward with a new account of that night, one that suddenly included seeing military officers at the murder scene
 videotaping the clergyman's lifeless body.

 On trial are Capt. Byron M. Lima Oliva, the chief of security for former President Alvaro Arzu; his father, retired Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, former head of military
 intelligence; and José Obdulio Villanueva, a former member of Arzu's personal security detail.

 They were identified by Rubén Chanax, a homeless man who sought witness protection. The other homeless men present that night told prosecutors that they were fed
 food and liquor by a stranger hours before the murder, and were soundly asleep, perhaps sedated, when it happened.

 ``Of the eight or nine people there that night -- not all of them incredible, enormous witnesses -- maybe two or three are alive,'' Zeissig said. ``Two are protected. One who
 never said anything is still alive. Most of them never even gave us much information -- then they all started dying of cirrhosis and heart attacks.''

 No one doubts that the lifestyle of a homeless drunk is high risk. But human rights activists and attorneys in the case cannot help but wonder if foul play were to blame.

 ``Those could have been our witnesses!'' said defense attorney Julio Cintrón. ``And not one is left.''

 ``It's very suspicious,'' said Arturo Aguilar, an investigator for the archbishop's human rights office. ``They all either died mysteriously, disappeared and we don't know
 where they are, or had cirrhosis. But because nobody has the funds, no deep investigation was done to find out the true causes of death.''

 Marco Tulio Rivera was among two homeless men who said they saw Father Orantes open the parish door minutes after the murder.

 Rivera, an admitted alcoholic who suffered medical ailments, died in 1999. No record exists. Vilma Izaepi, another vagrant who offered prosecutors little, was found dead of
 severe pneumonia.

 Defense attorney Roberto Echeverría is most concerned about the death of Luis García Pontaza, 22, an alleged bank robber who was expected to say he saw who was
 there that night -- and the military men weren't among them. García Pontaza was found dead of a gunshot wound on Jan. 29, when he was jailed in an unrelated case.

 His death is being treated as a suicide.

 ``I never even got a chance to speak to him personally,'' Echeverría said. ``He died like the others. Young people all dying of heart attacks.''

 Special correspondent Julie López contributed to this report.

                                    © 2001