The New York Times
January 23, 2000

Arrests in Bishop's Killing Follow Guatemalan Pledge

          By JULIA PRESTON

          MEXICO CITY, Jan. 22 -- When Guatemala's new president,
          Alfonso Portillo, took his oath of office on Jan. 14, he pledged to
          solve the murder of a Catholic bishop and vigorous human rights activist
          who was bludgeoned to death in 1998.

          A little more than a week later, Mr. Portillo has moved to make good on
          his promise. On Friday, the police arrested father and son military
          officers, retired Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, 58, and Capt. Byron
          Lima Oliva, 30, and charged them with homicide in the death of Bishop
          Juan José Gerardi.

          The officers' arrest is a victory for human rights groups in Guatemala,
          which conducted their own investigation of the killing and have long
          pointed to the Limas as suspects.

          As he was led away in handcuffs by police officers, Captain Lima Oliva
          said he was innocent and called the evidence against him groundless.

          "I'm a soldier, and I will cooperate with the justice system," he said,
          Reuters news service reported.

          Bishop Gerardi's killing was traumatic for Guatemala. It was the most
          important assassination of a public figure after peace accords in 1996 put
          an end to a ferocious civil war that had gone on for 36 years. The killing
          raised the possibility that Guatemala might return to the political hatred
          and impunity for violence, especially by the military, that marked those

          The bishop, who was 75, was beaten to death in his garage on April 26,
          1998, just two days after he released a huge report that concluded that
          the armed forces and other government bodies were responsible for 80
          percent of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances during the war.

          Colonel Lima Estrada had been in charge of military intelligence, and he
          was a field commander in several strategic rural garrisons during the war.

          Mr. Portillo was once a scholar of Marxist thought, but he is associated
          with the political right in Guatemala that backed the military governments
          that unleashed a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against leftist
          guerrillas in the 1980's.

          By allowing the arrests of the Limas to go forward, Mr. Portillo seemed
          to be seeking to assuage Guatemalans who feared that his rise to power
          would bring new tolerance for military violence. The president has made
          no public comment about the arrests.

          A woman who had been a church cook for the assassinated bishop,
          Margarita López, was also arrested, as a witness.

          From the start, government investigators shied away from charging any
          military officers in the crime. At one point they jailed another priest who
          was Bishop Gerardi's housemate, Mario Orantes Najera, as well as
          Father Orantes's German shepherd dog, Baloo, charging them with

          Deputy Constable Gerson López, the federal police spokesman, said the
          police were also pursuing warrants to re-arrest Father Orantes and to
          arrest Obdulio Villanueva, a former military officer.

          Father Orantes was freed after seven months in jail when forensic
          examiners appointed by human rights groups determined that Bishop
          Gerardi had no dog bite marks on his body.

          They also discovered that a phone call made from the bishop's residence
          right after the killing went to a public phone near a military base, and that
          a car seen near the residence belonged to the military.

          According to press accounts in Guatemala, a new witness who
          connected the Limas with the crime came forward last summer after
          hearing a statement by Mr. Portillo that he would reopen the