Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"The Murder of Guatemala's Bishop Gerardi: Muerte en el vecindario ...
May 23, 2014 - One thing is clear—Bishop Gerardi succumbed to Guatemala's secret, ... and Israeli and Argentine advisers may have served as proxies, but the U.S. role ... In 1980 he was presiding over the Catholic diocese of El Quiché, the ...

So who killed Bishop Gerardi?
The most elegant solution is still the one proposed by Rico and de la Grange. Dismissing Padre Orantes’ alleged homosexuality, they focus on Msgr. Hernández’s daughter and her friends. Ana Lucía Escobar’s associates suffered an interesting rash of fatalities following Gerardi’s death. According to a survivor, she and her cohorts were lured to the rectory by a rumor that was both planted and false—that the bishop had received a large cash donation from a foreign country and that he would be absent that night. When Gerardi came home, he confronted the intruders, with Padre Orantes unhappily in the middle, and Ana Lucía’s boyfriend—prone to rage when high on crack—stomped on his face.
Based on other lines of evidence, Rico and de la Grange argue that Ana Lucía and her gang were set up for the crime by a clandestine network of cashiered army officers who were angry with President Arzú for purging them, and who then duped ODHA and prosecutors into focusing on three army fall-guys. It was this clandestine network which planted the idea that cash was stashed at the rectory, that Gerardi would be gone, and that his housemate Orantes would be vulnerable to extortion.
In particular Rico and de la Grange point to three retired officers who became advisers to the next president—General Francisco Ortega Menaldo, Colonel Jacobo Esdras Salán Sánchez, and Colonel Napoleón Rojas Méndez. Unfortunately for this theory, Rico and de la Grange’s pathway to these figures is hypothetical. And one of their key informants on Ana Lucía Escobar is anonymous.
Like Frank Goldman and myself, Rico and de la Grange assume that it will be possible to establish exactly who killed Bishop Gerardi—perhaps not right now, but eventually. It’s no coincidence that the four of us are foreigners; Guatemalans are less likely to assume that the killers will ever be identified. Julie López is in this latter camp. She agrees with Rico and de la Grange that the murderers were not professional killers. Professionals would not have tried to mop up blood that they knew could be detected by luminol. Nor would they have left behind obvious clues such as Nike footprints in blood. Professional killers who wanted to confuse the crime scene would have done a much better job.
Like Goldman, López is very attentive to inconsistencies in EMP testimony, and so she suspects that presidential military staffers were involved on the fatal night—but probably in a cover-up of the murder rather than the murder itself. She thinks the murder was unplanned and happened for reasons that may never be confirmed. Various robbery scenarios, including the one proposed by Rico and de la Grange, are possible. So is a rumored but never-proven fracas involving President Arzú’s son Diego, a friend of Padre Orantes, which might explain why Captain Lima was brought into the picture. But if so, Captain Lima would be a clean-up man for an unplanned murder, and on such short notice that he would have been unable to do a good job.
Even if no one in the army or politics planned Gerardi’s death, López points out, it gave cashiered army officers a golden opportunity to get even with the Arzú administration and its military staff.
The army, but which faction?
Human rights activism is most important and difficult when it occurs in the absence of reliable judiciaries. Human rights groups must evaluate conflicting information, decide who is believable, choose sides and publish denunciations – almost always before these can be tested in court, or at least a court with much credibility. Courts digest probabilities but pronounce categoricals—guilty or innocent. Deciding whom to believe is therefore central, but in Guatemala this issue has seemed deceptively simple because the army is such an international pariah.
The army dominated political life from the 1960s to the 1990s. Together with other security forces, it was responsible for a large majority of political killing—ODHA’s estimate of ninety percent is a reasonable one. The army's victims included more than twenty Catholic clergy. Even though a few were guerrilla combatants at the time, the Catholic hierarchy has far more credibility, not just with human rights groups, but with the foreign governments who provide credits and hold Guatemala's mortgage to the international financial system.
Without the Catholic Church and human rights groups, and the diplomatic pressure they were able to solicit from Europe and the U.S., the three military men might never have been put on trial. And yet, had the two Limas and Sergeant Villanueva been prosecuted in the U.S. or any European country, the witnesses against them would have been cross-examined by defense lawyers. Nor would any U.S. or European court have taken Chanax as seriously as the Guatemalan court did.
The Guatemalan officer corps is such a murky subject, surrounded by so much rumor and dread, that opponents can project their paranoia into it without fear of refutation. For so long, after all, paranoia about the Guatemalan army wasn’t necessarily paranoid. And so human rights activists became accustomed to blaming the army for a wide range of strife. When a market crowd of Mayan Indians in the rural highlands kills a tourist as a suspected organ-snatcher, the army's secret hand is at work. When Mayan mobs soak criminal suspects with gasoline and set them on fire, the army must be to blame for that too. And it must be to blame for the extortionists who, from 2006 to 2010, killed more than 800 bus drivers and fare-collectors for failing to pay protection money.
Even sophisticated analysts refer helplessly to the "hidden powers" that turn the Guatemalan state into a shelter for organized crime, siphon off government revenues, and hamstring criminal investigations. Retired army officers have indeed hooked up with Colombian and Mexican drug cartels moving their product north. Yet because the national police are so corrupt and ineffectual, many Guatemalans think that only the army has the credible force needed to fight the postwar crime wave that, by some measures, takes more lives than the war did.
Human rights groups have long recognized factions in the officer corps, then minimized their significance. They are reluctant to acknowledge that one army faction might be preferable to another. The usual human rights view of the army is that it is like a rotten police precinct. If no one in the precinct will cooperate with an investigation, then all members of the precinct must be complicit.
The actual picture is more complicated because army factions have long conspired against each other, not just against external enemies. Like members of any institution, army officers are reluctant to make public accusations against their peers. But they often have only a dim idea of what other factions in the officer corps are up to. And so suspicion rules the roost, giving rise to the culture of the anónimo—the anonymous denunciations that singled out the two Limas and Sergeant Villanueva with such awful results.
Army factionalism complicates the question of why Gerardi was killed. To intimidate activists and investigators is the reason presumed by the human rights community. If die-hard officers can kill a bishop and get away with it, they can kill anyone. But if such individuals planned Gerardi’s death, they did not just succeed in intimidating human rights activists. If we ask who, in a broader political sense, was hurt by the crime and who benefitted—the guiding question in Rico and de la Grange’s investigation--it was also a sharp blow to the reformist Arzú administration. And it yielded a bountiful harvest for the rightwing populist Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), which brought Alfonso Portillo to power (2000-2004).
What’s the most important human rights issue in Guatemala today?
Seven years after Gerardi’s death, in 2004, a new Guatemalan administration, led by many of the same neoliberal politicians who served in the Arzú administration, carried out an important provision of the peace accord by chopping the army in half, to 17,500 members. The political capital for this important step was generated by the spectacular corruption of the FRG administration led by President Portillo. After it was voted out of office, some of its leading figures ended up in the same prison wing as Padre Orantes. Ex-president Portillo became a fugitive from justice and is currently incarcerated in New York on charges of money laundering. Padre Orantes has been released for good behavior; Colonel Lima has been released for old age; only Captain Lima is still in prison. As for Sergeant Villanueva, he was attacked by fellow prisoners and beheaded.
More than one lesson can be drawn from this terrible story. One is that outsiders’ monolithic views of the army can make it easier for criminal officers to set up other officers as scapegoats. That Chanax’s testimony became the pivot of the prosecution’s case shows how much politics weighed in the trial outcome. This was a crime that could not go unpunished!
And so the Catholic hierarchy, foreign diplomats, human rights groups, and different army factions jumped into the fray. Once the three military men had been indicted, a guilty verdict was the only acceptable outcome even though there was no hard evidence they were at the scene of the crime. Of the three church-connected people who were definitely at the scene of the crime and manifestly not telling the truth, only one—Padre Orantes—paid the consequences.
The conundrums of the Gerardi case mirror a shift in the challenges facing the human rights movement worldwide. A human rights violation is an act of commission or omission by the state. Human rights activists have always seen their fundamental mission to be stopping strong-arm regimes from jailing or killing political opponents. Time and again, however, from Guatemala to South Africa, activists learn that ordinary citizens are less interested in protecting civil liberties than obtaining law-and-order crackdowns on criminals whom they view as a more serious threat to their personal security. What these citizens want is more state authority, not less. And one of the places they are likely to seek it—however paradoxical or perverse this might seem to outsiders—is the army.
So is the most important human rights issue facing Guatemalans stillthe army? Or is the most important human rights issue in 2014 the lack of state authority, and the resulting rampant criminality and corruption--which then pressures so many Guatemalans to look to the army as the only guarantor of stability? According to survey research, seven months after the May 2013 genocide conviction of the former 1980s dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, 81% of Guatemalans thought the army was doing a good job—6% more than before the trial (Prensa Libre, January 16, 2014).
True, most of this seemingly exalted status could be due to the low regard in which Guatemalans hold their police and courts. Nor are opinion polls an argument against putting military men on trial for the war crimes of the 1980s. Even if the genocide conviction of Ríos Montt was quickly overturned, it had an impact on how Guatemalans view their history. There will be quite an audience for future trials. But for most Guatemalans today, the war crimes of the 1980s pale in comparison with the dangers they face from extortionists and kidnappers, few of whom are in uniform.
If we assume that Guatemala’s crime-wave today is just another manifestation of the army’s limitless capacity for conspiracy, we are downplaying the forces of disorder and order that operate among ordinary Guatemalans. The insistence that evil comes directed from on high, that it can be vanquished by just the right application of pressure from abroad, is analogous to another recent misadventure by high-minded foreigners. Prior to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration downplayed the potential for chaos in these two countries and overestimated its ability to implant the rule of law. In such cases, and in others such as the Ukraine, it is all too easy for strong-headed foreigners to bask in their own moral certainties rather than acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and their solutions.
In Guatemala, the nagging question of ‘Who killed the bishop’ has become a mirror—or perhaps a political Rorschach test—for how one defines the challenge of law and order. Frank Goldman looks in the mirror and sees the “art of political murder.” In that case, Msgr. Gerardi was the victim of a superbly efficient army killing machine—and in that case Guatemala has not changed much from the darkest days of the 1980s.
For Maite Rico and Bertrand de la Grange, the mirror shows that Gerardi succumbed to a particular army faction’s skill in exploiting the private lives of Catholic clerics. This faction then fooled the human rights movement into withdrawing its support from a relatively responsible administration, one that was more or less committed to the peace accords, and implicitly giving its support to an administration that wrecked the peace accords.
For Julie López, finally, the assassination of Msgr. Gerardi is an x-ray into the bottomless intrigue of Guatemalan political life. But not an x-ray that tells us who killed him. Or why. Not surprisingly, it is López who lives in Guatemala.
(David Stoll is an anthropologist who teaches at Middlebury College; he has conducted field work in the Guatemalan highlands for several decades. His most recent book is El Norte or Bust! How Migration Fever and Microcredit Produced a Financial Crash in a Latin American Town.)  

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