April 24, 1999
Investigation into bishop's slaying turns into soap opera

                  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 a
                  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 the
                  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 lack
                  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 in
                  mid-April, when President Alvaro Arzu accepted an offer from the United
                  Nations to evaluate the independence of Guatemala's courts and the
                  prosecutor's office.

                  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 for
                  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 to
                  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.