Challenging Impunity Through the Guatemalan Justice System

As the head of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi was determined to investigate and publicize the brutal human rights abuses that occurred during Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war. He worked with the Catholic Church on the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI), which interviewed hundreds of people to create a history of the war based on their testimonies. Before the war had even come to an end, Bishop Gerardi and other members of the clergy were visiting communities all over the country and recording the violent experiences Guatemalans had suffered. In the majority of the instances they recorded, the military was responsible for the crimes.

Bishop Gerardi presented the REHMI report, titled Guatemala: Nunca Más (Never Again) on April 24, 1998. It included not only testimonies, but also research done by the clergy on the military and the conflict. The REHMI report explicitly placed responsibility on the military for 87% of the 200,000 non-combatant deaths and disappearances. It was the first report to specifically name individuals for violent acts (naming over 1,000 individuals and military members). This report was also the first to break the silence surrounding the violence that had occurred and to challenge the impunity that the perpetrators enjoy. The response from the clandestine powers that protect the Guatemalan status quo was immediate; Bishop Juan Gerardi was brutally murdered two days later.

Bishop Gerardi was the most visible human rights defender within the Catholic Church at this time, yet the police investigation of his death did not immediately link his murder to his political activities, nor was it handled in a professional matter. Despite the innumerable barriers the case faced, finally three military officers– former intelligence chief Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, his son Captain Byron Miguel Lima Oliva and presidential bodyguard Sergeant Obdulio Villanueva– as well as Gerardi’s assistant priest Mario Orantes, were accused and found guilty of the murder. This is the first case in which high-ranking members of the armed forces have been tried in a civilian court since the 1996 Court of Appeals ruling that removed exclusive military tribunal jurisdiction for officers accused of civilian crimes.

The Gerardi case presents an opportunity for the Guatemalan courts to condemn both the violence that occurred during the civil war and attacks on human rights defenders that take place today. These courts have consistently refused to make landmark rulings necessary to address human rights abuses or challenge the powerful and corrupt military. In an article published at the beginning of the Gerardi trial, the Central America/ Mexico Report declared, "A fair trial in such a prominent human rights case would be a watershed event in Guatemala, offering renewed hope that the country can create a future that is different from its past."

The defense continues to pursue every possible appeals option and has succeeded in having the sentences of the Limas reduced from 30 years in prison to 20 years in prison. (Obdulio Villanueva was killed in prison during the trials.) The sentences were reduced because the military officers were found to be accessories, not the "co-authors" of the crime. This acknowledges that others are also responsible for the murder of Bishop Gerardi, yet no one else has been tried for the crime.

Since this has been the first time officers have been tried in a civilian court, the rulings send a powerful message to Guatemalan society. Although the officers were found guilty, the fact that their sentences were reduced and no effort has been made to expose the full conspiracy to murder Bishop Gerardi or identify any "intellectual authors" of the crime weakens the rulings. The powerful forces behind the crime remain unnamed and unpunished.

Those who have been involved in the court case know firsthand that there are influential parts of society who do not want the Gerardi case to challenge the pervasive state of impunity in Guatemala. Intimidation is a serious issue. Numerous judges, prosecutors and witnesses involved in the case have fled the country due to death threats and attacks. The night before the Gerardi case began, grenades were thrown into one of judges’ backyard. Several witnesses have been killed under questionable circumstances. Such intimidation aims to frighten those involved into silence and to reinforce the climate of impunity that allows for human rights violations to abound.

According to the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (ODHAG), which represents the Catholic Church in the case:

A pattern of harassment has been identified against the members of this office, which intensifies in moments prior to the important judicial hearings for the case of Monsignor Juan Gerardi’s murder or prior to commemorative anniversaries of his death. This cannot be understood separately from the existence of clandestine groups, which through illicit actions try to influence national political life.

Even after ODHAG staff members had their phone numbers changed for security reasons, they have received threats on their cell phones and have reported people following and watching them.

On January 12, 2006, the Superior Court of Justice upheld the sentences against Capt. Lima Oliva, Col. Lima Estrada, and Father Orantes, denying what is their penultimate legal option to appeal the judgment. Days later, the youngest brother of the lead Gerardi case lawyer Mario Domingo Montejo (and brother-in-law of longtime NISGUA activist Jessica Yarrow), Darinel Adilio Domingo Montejo, told his family he was going out with some friends and later phoned to say he would be home the following day. His family never heard from him again, and on January 23, 2006 his corpse appeared at a local morgue.

Darinel’s body showed signs of torture and was brutally mutilated. Days after the murder, one of his limbs was found with his identification card nearby, suggesting that those responsible wanted to make sure his body would be identified. The motive behind the murder of Darinel Domingo Montejo is still unknown. Although Mario is the most prominent activist in the family, all of Darinel’s brothers are politically active. But Darinel was a 21-year old law student at San Carlos University, and unlike his other brothers, his focus was his university work, not political issues.

ODHAG and other organizations have asked for a full investigation into the crime, and ODHAG has also asked the international community to take action to ensure that the death of Darinel does not go unnoticed and unpunished, as so many others do. While it seems clear to many that Darinel’s murder was related to the political activity of the Montejo family, the unfortunate reality is that the police do investigate the vast majority of murders in Guatemala.

Rising violence in Guatemala has led to the murders of many young men and women, and as noted above, these murders frequently go uninvestigated. Thus far, in 2006, an average of 16 murders a day have taken place in Guatemala, a number that has risen from 14 a day in 2005 and 11 a day in 2003. The U.S. State Department’s 2005 Human Rights Report on Guatemala notes that violence is rampant, the police and the judicial system are corrupt and hugely inadequate and have huge inadequacies and generally, violent crimes are generally shrouded by impunity. The report further condemns the fact that "the majority of serious crimes were not investigated or punished."

In this context, it is difficult to say for sure if Darinel’s murder was politically motivated. However, it is also clear that if anyone wanted to send a message to Mario Domingo by attacking his brother, they would not have to worry about repercussions from the police. The combination of widespread violence with a corrupt police force and a weak judiciary creates a bleak setting for citizens and human right defenders alike.

According to journalist Claudia Munaiz, Guatemalans "already don’t believe in the justice system because it doesn’t resolve anything." Clearly, change is needed before people will trust the Guatemalan system to deliver just verdicts. But the decisions to date in the Gerardi case doubtlessly indicate progress for the Guatemalan justice system as the courts have held several military officers accountable and condemned them for past human rights abuses.

It is critical for other components of the State to also challenge human rights abuses. The police must be methodical in their investigations and ensure the safety of human rights defenders and their families. The military and the police must be held accountable for their actions.

The country must use the Gerardi case as a catalyst to address the glaring impunity that has surrounded attacks against human rights defenders and the murders of young people like Darinel in Guatemala. In order to challenge the violence, fear and corruption that have haunted Guatemala, justice must be backed by a legitimate judicial system and a police force that cares more about its citizenry than itself.

Jennifer Mizgata has been interning with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala since November 2005, researching and analyzing impunity for human rights abuses in Guatemala. She graduated from Goucher College with a degree in International and Intercultural Studies in May, 2005.