Juan Gerardi

Juan Gerardi

Juan José Gerardi Conedera was born in Guatemala City on 27th December 1922. He won a scholarship to study theology in the United States and after the Second World War returned to Guatemala where he was ordained as a priest.

In May 1967 Gerardi Conedera was appointed as Bishop of Verapaz. He developed a reputation for being deeply concerned about the indigenous communities in Guatemala. For example, he played an important role in securing authorisation for two radio stations to broadcast in Mayan languages.

In August 1974, Gerardi Conedera was appointed Bishop of Quiché. General Fernando Romeo Lucas García was elected President of Guatemala in 1978. Over the next few years the government resorted to political repression and assassinations of major progressive opposition figures. Conedera led the protests against the military government. While serving as president of the Guatemalan Conference of Bishops, he spoke out openly about the 31st January 1980 Spanish embassy fire in which 39 people lost their lives and in which government instigation was widely suspected. In June 1980 there was an attempt to kill Gerardi Conedera.

Soon afterwards the Bishop Gerardi was called to the Vatican to attend a synod. General Lucas García ordered that he should not be allowed to return to Guatemala. He travelled to neighbouring El Salvador, which refused to grant him right of asylum. Bishop Gerardi eventually settled in Costa Rica.

On 23rd March, 1982, General Fernando Romeo Lucas García was ousted from power by General José Efraín Ríos Montt. Condedera was now allowed to return to Guatemala. However, the new military government continued to persecute the indigenous Mayans, who were suspected of supporting the left-wing guerrilla movement in Guatemala.

In 1988 the Conference of Bishops assigned Juan José Gerardi Conedera to serve on the National Reconciliation Commission. Later he was appointed as Coordinator of the Human Rights Office for the Archdiocese of Guatemala and director of the Interdiocesan Historical Memory Recovery Project (REMHI).

On 24th April, 1988, Bishop Gerardi released a REMHI report entitled "Guatemala: Never Again." According to this report, 150,000 civilians had been killed and another 50,000 "disappeared" during the internal armed conflict. More than 400 villages were erased from the landscape as homes were burned, crops destroyed and the inhabitants cruelly massacred. The victims, for the most part, were Mayan peasant farmers from poor and isolated villages throughout the western highlands. And 90% of the time the perpetrators, REMHI confirmed, were members of the Armed Forces or the army-commissioned Civil Defense Patrols.

Two nights after Bishop Gerardi released his report he was attacked in his garage as he got out of his car. Gerardi was battered him to death with concrete slabs.

The Catholic Church in Guatemala, realizing that it could not rely on the legal system to look into the bishop's murder, took the controversial decision to form an investigative team of young men who called themselves Los Intocables (the Untouchables) to find the killers.

On 8th June 2001 three army officers: Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, Byron Lima Oliva and José Obdulio Villanueva, were convicted of his murder and sentenced to 30-year prison terms. A priest, Mario Orantes, was sentenced to 20 years for the crime.

Primary Sources

(1) Patrick Leahy, statement (28th April, 1998)

Mr. President, in one of the most outrageous, cold-blooded killings I can recall in a region where such despicable acts have been commonplace, Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi was murdered this past Sunday when his assailant crushed his skull with a cement block.

The way he died is horrifying enough. But what senators should also be aware of is that Bishop Gerardi had just completed an extraordinarily courageous investigation of the thousands of atrocities committed against Guatemala citizens during thirty years of civil war. He undertook his inquiry after it became clear that the Guatemalan Clarification Commission would not seek to identify those responsible for even the worst atrocities. Bishop Gerardi's investigation, not surprisingly, attributed the overwhelming majority of human rights violations to the military and the death squads and paramilitary groups allied with them.

Mr. President, the United States bears more than a little responsibility for the slaughter in Guatemala that devastated that country in the years after the CIA-backed coup of 1954. Our government trained the Guatemalan armed forces, remained silent when they tortured and killed thousands of innocent people, withheld information about the atrocities, and justified our complicity as the necessary response to a guerrilla insurgency. In fact, during this period of political violence which is apparently not yet over, the principal victims were Guatemala's Mayan population of rural peasants who have been the target of discrimination and injustice for generations.

According to a statement by the Guatemalan Embassy, the Guatemalan Government `condemns and repudiates' this crime and has opened an investigation. Let us hope that this investigation can withstand the inevitable pressure from the forces who would intimidate anyone who seeks real justice in Guatemala. The Arzu Government deserves considerable credit for bringing the peace negotiations to a successful conclusion. But few weeks pass that I do not receive a report of a political crime in Guatemala, most of which go unsolved. Justice remains elusive for those who need it most.

How the Guatemalan government handles this investigation will either embolden or deter those who seek to undermine the peace accords, and, as the Ranking Member of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee I can say that as far as I am concerned it will also be important in determining our future assistance relationship with Guatemala.

(2) Barbara Bocek, Amnesty International (1998)

Two nights after Gerardi released his report, unknown assailants followed Gerardi to his home after a family gathering. He was attacked in his garage as he got out of his car. Shattered eyeglass fragments were found inside the vehicle, and wounds to his hand show futile attempts to deflect the first blows. His attackers battered him to death with a chunk of concrete that left his skull crushed and his face unrecognizable. Colleagues identified the body from his ring, still on his finger. Bishop Gerardi was 75 years old. His killing stunned the Catholic world and the international human rights community, and plunged Guatemala into deep mourning.

As thousands of Guatemalans filed past his casket in the Metropolitan Cathedral, many mourners added their signatures to a petition demanding that the murderers be found and punished. Given the history of reprisals suffered by those opposing Guatemala's security forces, to sign the Gerardi petition is an act of considerable courage. Gerardi had long been known as an outspoken advocate of human rights, especially for Guatemala's indigenous peoples. Starting in 1974 he was Bishop of the Diocese of Santa Cruz El Quiché. He repeatedly confronted military authorities as the civil war reached flashpoint under the repressive regime of Lucas García. An attempt on his life in June 1980 forced him to flee the country. Refused permission to re-enter Guatemala, he served as Bishop in exile in Costa Rica until 1984. Upon returning to Guatemala Gerardi, with Monsignor Rodolfo Quesada Toruño, assisted the incipient peace talks as conciliator. Gerardi then took charge of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office at its inception in 1989.

Gerardi's death, its timing, and its extreme violence are particularly appalling now, in mid-1998, after several years of slow but significant improvement in the overall human rights situation. Before his murder many observers had been cautiously optimistic. The frequency of serious violations has declined with the end of the war, and Guatemalan human rights organizations have gained some popular support. To gather testimony for his report, for example, Bishop Gerardi dispatched 600 volunteers to interview war survivors throughout Guatemala. This undertaking would have been unthinkably dangerous, even suicidal, only a few short years before. And only a few short weeks ago, in March of 1998, the United Nations Human Rights Commission removed Guatemala from its list of countries monitored for systematic violations. The government hailed the UN's decision as confirmation of Guatemala's commitment to the defense of human rights. Then, on April 24th, Bishop Gerardi released the report that almost certainly led to his death.

(3) Amnesty International (7th February 2001)

Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera was found bludgeoned to death in April 1998, two days after he had presented a report that found the security forces to be responsible for a number of atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 30-year civil conflict. Bishop Gerardi was the Coordinator of the ODHAG, Archbishop's Human Rights Office and had been the driving force behind the Catholic Church investigation that led to the comprehensive report.

The first judge and prosecutor overseeing the case were forced to resign after international complaints that they had ignored evidence of military involvement in the murder. The second judge resigned after one month and fled to Canada after receiving death threats. A key witness, taxi driver Diego Méndez, who saw a military vehicle near Gerardi’s home at the time of the murder, fled to Canada in February 1999 after escaping an abduction attempt and being threatened with death. A former member of the presidential guard, Sergeant Jorge Aguilar, fled to Canada in August 1999, two days after accusing some of his colleagues of involvement in the murder. The prosecutor investigating the murder resigned and fled the country on 7 October 1999 after receiving repeated death threats. The judge who eventually indicted three high-ranking military officers accused of being involved in the murder has also received threats.

(4) Paul Jeffrey, Christian Century (20th June, 2001)

In a landmark decision that offers hope for the remaking of Guatemala's war-torn political landscape, a court has convicted three military officers and a priest of the murder of a Catholic bishop. The court also ordered government prosecutors to investigate others who may have been involved in the killing.

Retired Colonel Disrael Lima Estrada, Captain Byron Lima Oliva and Sergeant Jose Villanueva each received 30-year sentences on June 8 for murdering Juan Gerardi Conedera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City. The prelate, a champion of human rights, was beaten to death in April 1998, just two days after releasing a report blaming the military for most of the abuses committed during the country's 36-year civil war, during which 200,000 people died.

Mario Orantes, a priest who shared a residence with Bishop Gerardi, received a 20-year sentence for complicity in the murder. The bishop's housekeeper, Margarita Lopez, was acquitted of a charge that she helped destroy evidence of the killing.

"All of Guatemala is happy because of this significant step toward eliminating impunity," said the bishop of El Quiche, Julio Cabrera. "And achieving justice in this case gives us hope that we can get justice for crimes committed against ordinary people. We received justice in this case only because the victim was a bishop. Now we need justice in the cases of the tens of thousands of victims who were poor."

The verdict was the result of a long and tortuous process. Since the bishop's death three years ago, six witnesses, a prosecutor and a judge linked to the case have fled the country in fear of their lives. There have been numerous threats against those seeking to bring the case to trial. A judge's home was bombed the night before the trial opened in March.

During the 46-day trial, the three-judge panel heard more than 100 witnesses, listened as 80 documents were read, and watched 60 hours of videos made during the investigation of the case. The judges also left the courtroom to examine the crime scene and a jail where Villanueva claimed he was incarcerated on the night of the murder.

Although the judges recognized that no one had proved who the actual murderer was, they declared that the three military officers were "coauthors" of the crime, involved in planning and carrying out the murder, as well as altering the crime scene afterwards. The three military officers were convicted of "extrajudicial execution," which implies that the three acted as agents of the state in committing the crime.

After the verdict, Guatemala's President Alfonso Portillo acknowledged that "the case had become a national shame." He declared: "Today, for the first time in our history, law and justice have been applied to a political crime." Human rights organizations also praised the verdict. "The trial's outcome marks the end of an era in Guatemala," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. "For the first time, a Guatemalan court has ruled that army officers cannot get away with murder."