Arrests in Bishop's Killing Follow Guatemalan Pledge
By JULIA PRESTON
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.
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.
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.
Estrada had been in charge of military intelligence, and he
was a field commander in several strategic rural garrisons during the war.
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
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.
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.
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