The auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, Juan Gerardi was murdered in April 1998, just two days after releasing a landmark report on violations of human rights during the country's civil war, which ended in 1996. The report singled out the role of the military in countless atrocities.
The investigation into Bishop Gerardi's murder has at times resembled a television soap opera rather than a serious criminal investigation. But, earlier this year, shortly after the case was handed over to a new prosecutor, five people were arrested for the crime.
Flor de Maria Garcia, one of a series of judges to supervise the investigation, determined on April 1 that there were sufficient grounds for charging Mario Orantes, a priest who lived in Juan Gerardi's house, along with the bishop's housekeeper, Margarita Lopez.
On May 18 the judge ordered three military officers, Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, Captain Byron Lima Oliva, and Sergeant Jose Villanueva, to stand trial with Orantes and Lopez. The priest and the three officers are charged with murder. Lopez is charged with covering up evidence of a crime.
Lopez and the officers are in jail, and Orantes, suffering from chronic health problems, is under police guard at the Hermano Pedro Hospital, in the capital.
All five defendants have declared their innocence.
Shortly after she announced the charges against the three military officials, Judge Garcia received the first of several death threats. A previous judge in charge of the case fled the country in 1999 after similar threats. Several witnesses and a government prosecutor linked to the case have also moved abroad after being threatened.
In ordering the five to stand trial, however, Judge Garcia ended her involvement with the case. In May, the trial was handed to a three-judge panel, but lawyers representing the Catholic Church protested that the head judge, Alexis Calderon, had treated Villanueva too leniently in a 1996 trial. In that trial, as a presidential bodyguard, Villanueva, was convicted of killing a milkman who happened to drive into the path of then President Alvaro Arzu.
In June, Judge Calderon excused himself from the case, complaining that church lawyers had not treated him with proper respect.
Earlier this month, judicial authorities named Eduardo Cojulun, who has a reputation as a fair and efficient judge, as the new head of the panel. But, Cojulun is handling a high-profile trial of several men accused of kidnapping and killing a university student in 1996. Two of the accused in the case have claimed that high-level military officials were also involved.
The Beverly case, as it is known here, will be not be completed until September at the earliest, so the panel cannot begin hearing the Gerardi case until October at the earliest.
And during November and December, the two other judges go on holiday, so the Gerardi trial may not even begin until early next year. It is expected to last four to six weeks.
Lawyers for the Catholic archdiocese will be present at the trial, despite death threats against church investigators in recent weeks. The church's lawyers will have the right to present evidence and witnesses against the three military officers, but will not be allowed to participate in the case against the two civilians.
Nery Rodenas, executive director of the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, which was set up by Bishop Gerardi, said he had doubts about whether the trial would determine who killed the prelate. "Many years will have to pass before we know everything," Rodenas told ENI. "With this trial we're going to resolve just 10 to 20 percent of the question of who was responsible. It's difficult to get to the bottom of this case, because to do so would touch people who still occupy high posts within the army. Going after them would imply very high risks for government investigators. People would have to pay dramatic costs for carrying out such a complete investigation."
A prominent Guatemalan historian agrees. "This will be among the big crimes here that will never be solved," said Celso Lara, a professor of history and anthropology at San Carlos University here. "Because it touches the obscure reaches of the military hierarchy, we won't get to those truly responsible. Instead we'll be served up sacrificial lambs like Orantes and Lopez."
Suggestions that higher-ranking military officers were involved in the case have come from all quarters. President Alfonso Portillo has claimed that 11 military officers were involved in the case, but he has not volunteered their names. On July 13, the government prosecutor, Leopoldo Zeissig, formally requested that President Portillo hand over any information he has.
Earlier this month, one of the accused, Lima Oliva, told "El Dia," a daily newspaper, that prosecutors should investigate two high-ranking officers, one of whom is a former government minister. But on July 21 Lima Oliva said he had been misquoted. He added that prosecutors should, instead, question a senior church official and his niece.
According to several people close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the government's case against the five is centered on the testimony of Ruben Chanax Sontay, a homeless man who often slept in the park in front of the bishop's residence. Chanax has stated that he saw Lima Oliva and Villanueva on the night of the killing, videotaping the crime scene almost two hours before police arrived.
While Guatemalans await the outcome of the trial, it is clear to many observers that the murder of the bishop has brought about what was probably one of the intentions of the murderers: to reduce the impact of the church's political advocacy within Guatemala.
Despite its involvement in the investigation, the church's human rights office now has a much lower profile than in years past. "Killing Gerardi sent a message to people in the church, and they heard it loud and clear," one foreign priest here, who asked not to be named, told ENI.
The rights office is now under the supervision of Auxiliary Bishop Mario Rios Montt, who has cut the influence of lay people within the archdiocese, returning control of church affairs to priests.
Rios is also managing the archdiocese's pastoral programs as the church's head, Archbishop Prospero Penados, who will retire next year, reduced his role in the daily life of the church.
Much conjecture surrounds possible replacements for Archbishop Penados. Many observers expect the Vatican to appoint an outspoken conservative who (in contrast to Penados, who spoke out often on a variety of social issues) will reassert traditional church doctrine in the face of stiff challenges from Evangelicals and Mayan fundamentalists.
* The Rev. Paul Jeffrey, a General Board of Global Ministries missionary serving in Central America, writes about the region for church-based media in the north, including United Methodist publications such as Response and New World Outlook as well as Latinamerica Press, the ChristianCentury, National Catholic Reporter, and Ecumenical News International.
Guatemala Struggles to Find Peace, Paul Jeffrey, New World Outlook, July - August, 1999
Documenting Mayan Women's Struggle for Human Rights, Wendy-Maria Jacques, New World Outlook, September - October, 1999