Victory in Guatemala

“Just when we thought we’d recovered an environment that made it possible to live in peace, they answered: Here, take your dead man, who tried to discover the truth.”

Bishop Ríos Montt, head of the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights (ODHA), at the trial of the accused murderers of his predecessor, Bishop Juan Gerardi


Last June 7 three military men, two of them officers, were convicted in a Guatemala City courtroom of having participated in a military intelligence unit’s brutal, politically motivated murder—“extrajudicial execution” was the legal term used—of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the founder and director of the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights (ODHA). A parish priest was also convicted as an accomplice in the crime. It was a verdict that most Guatemalans had never expected to hear, at least not yet, and certainly not in relation to this crime.

Until June 7, no military officer had ever been found guilty and sentenced to prison in Guatemala for a political murder—one commissioned and carried out with the help or acquiescence of a state institution (the military, in particular)—even though, over the last quarter-century especially, the military amassed a record as the hemisphere’s greatest violator of its citizens’ human rights, responsible for the murder of as many as 200,000 unarmed civilians. Also unprecedented was the inclusion in the judges’ verdict of an order for a criminal investiga-tion against the likely “intellectual authors”—i.e., planners—of the crime: the commanding officers of the convicted soldier’s military unit, implicated during the trial in Bishop Gerardi’s murder.

For over three years incidents of intimidation and threat marked the prosecution of the bishop’s murderers. Before the trial began over a year ago, a judge, a government prosecuting attorney, and several key witnesses had to go into exile; intruders entered the home of Mynor Melgar, the head of ODHA’s legal team, which was helping to prosecute the case, and, in front of his wife and small children, forced him to kneel on his bathroom floor with a pistol held to his head, then told him it was just “a warning.” Indeed, the trial’s scheduled opening in March 2001 had to be postponed after two grenades exploded in Judge Yassmín Barrios’s backyard. Throughout the trial, the Public Ministry’s prosecuting attorney, Lepoldo Zeissig, his wife, and his infant child were forced to live like protected witnesses in a drug lord’s case, and, after the verdict, were finally driven by threats to go into exile.

Since the trial, the defense has waged an even more relentless campaign in the press to undermine the verdict. They have accused the judges of corruption and of having yielded to the pressures of foreign governments,1 and have accused the witnesses—most of them members of the underclass—of having sold their testimony for the supposed financial benefits of exile. Capitalizing on much of the confused reporting of a complex and largely circumstantial case, and on the public’s cynicism about government institutions generally, the defense lawyers have succeeded…

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