GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- In the year since Bishop Juan Gerardi was
bludgeoned to death in a church garage, two judges and a prosecutor have
been hounded off the case and a key witness has fled for his life.
Officialdom's chief suspects -- a parish priest and his German shepherd
have been released. Signs pointing to possible military involvement in the
killing of the human rights crusader have largely been ignored until lately.
For many Guatemalans, the case has become a sort of Kennedy
assassination and O.J. Simpson trial rolled into one.
Gerardi was slain on April 26, 1998, two days after he presented a major
Roman Catholic Church report blaming the army for most human rights
violations during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.
Many people immediately suspected the military.
But within days, contradictory -- and often bizarre -- theories began to
surface, from common robbery to a homosexual crime of passion.
Investigators focused on the parish cook, then Gerardi's assistant and even
the assistant's dog, a crippled German shepherd named Balu.
The church, international human rights groups and even some municipal
officials expressed skepticism.
"You have too many theories, false information and threats for it to be
common crime," said Helen Mack, a human rights lawyer whose own sister
was murdered by a member of the Presidential Guard.
Public prosecutor Otto Ardon, who has family and professional ties to the
military, refused to investigate the possibility of military involvement. He
focused on Gerardi's assistant, the Rev. Mario Orantes, and an alleged band
of thieves who specialize in stealing religious relics.
Judge Isaias Figueroa also ignored the political allegations, prompting
proliferation of "Save Balu" bumper stickers -- and the forced resignations of
both Ardon and Figueroa last fall.
The new judge, Henry Monroy, offered new hope to human rights activists
in February when he freed Orantes from jail and Balu from a cage in a
veterinarian's office and began to investigate political motives.
But a month later, a shaken Monroy resigned, citing death threats and a
of institutional support for his investigation.
"Monroy came up against the system's limits pretty quickly," said Edgar
Gutierrez, a political analyst who helped coordinate the church's report on
human rights abuses during the civil war.
The government responded publicly to the controversy for the first time
mid-April, when President Alvaro Arzu accepted an offer from the United
Nations to evaluate the independence of Guatemala's courts and the
Threats have not been limited to Monroy. Taxi driver Jorge Mendez
Perussina became a witness after he noted the license plate of a car parked
outside the church around the time of Gerardi's murder and saw a man
running from the scene without a shirt.
The car turned out to belong to the Presidential Guard, a unit infamous
political kidnappings and torture during the war. A shirt also was found at
the scene of the crime.
Days after Mendez gave the information to his priest, a co-worker driving
Mendez's taxi was shot to death. A second substitute driving the same taxi
was also attacked.
Mendez says two armed men tried to kidnap him a day before he testified
the public prosecutor. After giving his testimony, he immediately fled to
Two homeless men who testified they, too, saw a shirtless man are now part
of a witness-protection program. Other homeless men who sleep in front of
the church have said that on the night of the murder a newcomer gave them
alcohol spiked with a sleeping drug.
A videotape taken at the crime scene shows police walking around the
bishop's body before investigators cordoned off the area, making footprints
and DNA samples almost useless.
And while Defense Minister Hector Barrios denied members of the
Presidential Guard visited the crime scene, at least eight witnesses testified
they saw several agents there even before police arrived.
Soon after Mack publicly called Barrios a liar for denying the guards'
presence, an anonymous letter was sent to newspapers linking her, without
evidence, to drug traffickers.
On Friday, new prosecutor Celvin Galindo asked a judge to order DNA
testing of 12 soldiers, four army employees and civilians including Orantes,
apparently to determine if any were linked to the crime scene.
In recent weeks, church lawyers and officials have reported receiving death
threats. "When the theory was common crime, there were no threats," said
Nerry Rodenas, a lawyer for the church's human rights office.
Copyright 1999 The Associated Press.