Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño of Guatemala City said that he is assured that, eleven years after the still unresolved murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, there are still unhealed wounds in his church and Guatemalan society as a whole. In his homily during a Mass on Sunday April 26 marking the anniversary at the capital's Catholic cathedral, the cardinal recalled Bishop Gerardi as a “notable promoter of peace and human rights and an exemplary pastor of the poorest and most needy.” The bishop’s victimizers, said the cardinal, cannot have the interior peace that is enjoyed by Guatemala’s bishops. Bishop Gerardi’s murder, despite investigations conducted in cooperation with European and U.S. experts, has not yet been clarified.
Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered on the night of April 26, 1998 at his residence in Guatemala City only 300 yards from the presidential palace. He was bludgeoned to death by as yet unknown assailants in his garage. The prelate’s murderers used a concrete slab to smash his head to the extent that his face was unrecognizable. His remains were identified by the episcopal ring on his finger.
Three persons were convicted and sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment for participating in the crime: Colonel Byron Disrael Lima and his son, Captain Byron Lima, and José Obdulio Villanueva. Rev. Mario Orantes was sentenced to twenty years. Villanueva was murdered and decapitated in prison in 2003. The possible role that the priest Orantes played in the murder, who also resided at the bishop’s residence, remains controversial.
Said the cardinal during the homily on the anniversary, “It seems that the process and trial to determine the responsibilities has been characterized more by hampering the investigation rather than seeking the truth” about the murder of Guatemala’s champion of human rights. Cardinal Quezada Toruño recalled that just days before his murder, Bishop Gerardi had published the results of the Catholic Church’s study of officially-sanctioned murders during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war “Guatemala: Never Again”, which detailed the Guatemalan military’s extrajudicial murder and torture of thousands of Guatemalans. The report documented more than 54,000 incidents of human rights violations that occurred from 1960-1996. During that time, it is estimated that 200,000 persons lost their lives in the conflict between the Guatemalan security apparatus and the citizenry.
The cardinal noted “We have always said – the Catholic Church – that we need to know the truth in order to forgive. May they listen, those who authored the crime and who work to confound public opinion. We are ready to forgive those responsible, but we want to whom we should provide forgiveness and why.” He added “I can assure you that, so long as I am the shepherd of the archdiocese, I will not shirk any effort so that justice can be had for a just man despite the pressures being brought to bear to drop the matter.” Emphasizing that he not motivated by revenge, the bishop said he wants “to know the truth about this horrible crime so as to forgive.” Guatemalan investigators are thought to continue to look into at least 13 other persons implicated in Gerardi’s murder.
Author/journalist Francisco Goldman, who wrote “The Art of Political Murder: Who killed the Bishop?” recently published a translation into Spanish of his account of the murder and efforts to investigate its links to the Guatemalan military. The translation by Guatemalan journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza has an epilogue that casts further light on the author’s investigation. The son of an American Jew and a Guatemalan Catholic who was born in Massachusetts, Goldman said while speaking at American University in Washinton D.C. that “The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala can be a great help in continuing with the case.”
In his talk, organized by the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, Goldman added that “Reverend Gerardi’s murder shows that truth is greater than fiction” in reference to the involvement of the highest levels of Guatemala’s military establishment in the murder. “The Art of Political Murder” was chosen in 2007 by the New York Times as one of the most significant books of the year, and had political repercussions in the run-up to the election of the current president Alvaro Colóm. Observers in Guatemala predict that its publication in Spanish will widen the public’s knowledge of Guatemala’s military in not only Gerardi’s murder but in thousands of others.