Guatemala: Bishop Gerardi case

ABOUT THE BISHOP GERARDI CASE On April 26, 1998, the founder of the Guatemalan Archdioceses’ Office of Human Rights (ODHA) was murdered in the garage of San Sebastian Church in Antigua, the capital of Guatemala.

Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedara’s body was found next to his car in a pool of blood. Two days prior, he had completed a report on the violence, murders, tortures and disappearances that plagued the country during its 36-year civil war. The report clearly implicated the Guatemalan army and associated paramilitary groups as the primary instigators of the killings, documenting 422 massacres and the deaths and disappearances of 52,000 civilians. The guerrillas, the report concluded, were responsible for less than five percent of these incidents. These conclusions were subsequently corroborated by the United Nations’ own investigation.

2001 was election year in Guatemala, and the ruling party had come under attack for the slipshod handling of the Gerardi case. The government was under pressure to convict someone for the Bishops’ murder. Although all indications pointed to the military as the perpetrators of the murder, likely in retaliation for accusations in the report, other theories initially delayed the investigation. One of the theories suggested that the murder was a crime of passion by a homosexual lover.

Compounding the problem were the numerous irregularities in the initial investigation: the crime scene was not sealed off, and much of the blood was cleaned away before the examination was completed.

Three high-ranking army officers, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada and Captain Byron Lima Oliva, and two civilians, Jose Obdulio Villanueva and Priest Mario Orantes were charged with the murder of Bishop Gerardi.

Many threats to those involved in this trial contributed to delays. In March 1998 the acting judge of the investigation fled to Canada after numerous death threats. On October 1999, Prosecutor Clevin Galindo, also left Guatemala after being subjected to telephone surveillance, persecution, threats and intimidation. Galindo’s predecessor, who resigned, had reported that his investigations had made little progress because of the judicial and police authorities’ refusal to investigate military involvement in the murder.

Three judges assigned to the trial were under special protection because of threats and intimidation.[link to Letter Writing Campaign] On March 19, 2001 Judge Iris Barrios experienced an attempted break-in: two days later, she was eating dinner with her family outdoors when a grenade was thrown into her yard. Another judge in the case, Eduardo Cojulun, received death threats in February 2001.

Mynor Melgar Coordinator of the Oficina Derechos Humanos del Arzobishpada de Guatemala (Legal Office of the Guatemalan Archbishop’s Office for Human Rights- ODHAG) and lead prosecutor on the Gerardi case for ODHAG was threatened and his family held at gunpoint, on December 22, 2000. This occurred two days after Mr. Melgar announced plans by ODHAG to charge Efrain Rios Montt, retired general and leader of Congress with genocide. [Information source Amnesty International Index: AMR34/001/2001] Mr. Melgar was the target of further threats in April 2001. All four of the people charged with involvement in the murder of Bishop Gerardi were convicted. Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, Jose Obdulio Villanueva and Captain Byron Lima Oliva, (who also received two years for falsification of documents) were each found guilty of the ‘extra-judicial execution’ of Bishop Gerardi and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Priest Mario Orantes was found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder and sentenced to 20 years.

LRWC OPINION LRWC shares the concern expressed by Param Cumaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, in his April 2000 report on Guatemala to the United Nations Human Rights Commission with two problems in Guatemala: the pervasive practice of impunity for human rights perpetrators and the frequent threats against judges and prosecutors involved in such cases.

In the absence of effective measures ensuring that the lawyers, judges and witnesses can work and testify free from intimidation, interference, harassment and reprisals, there can be no end to impunity and no public confidence in the trial process.

INVESTIGATION James Tate, on behalf of LRWC, attended the final week of the trial of the four people charged with the murder of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala City from June 3 to 9, 2001 to support the jurists involved, many of whom were under severe threats to their lives.

All four of the people charged with involvement in the murder of Bishop Gerardi were convicted. Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, Jose Obdulio Villanueva and Captain Byron Lima Oliva, (who also received two years for falsification of documents) were found guilty of the ‘extra-judicial execution’ of Bishop Gerardi and sentenced to 30 years in prison each. Priest Mario Orantes was found guilty of being an accomplice to the murder and sentenced to 20 years. Mr. Tate also met with lawyers, judges, diplomats and human rights activists.

Mr. Tate was in Guatemala at a critical but dangerous time. The Gerardi trial decision was the first time in Guatemala that anyone had been convicted on a charge of ‘extra-judicial execution’. On June 6 2001, another first in Guatemala’s legal history occurred when CALDH (Centro para Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos) filed a lawsuit accusing General Efrain Rios Montt of genocide in the massacre of 1000 people during the Guatemala civil war period. General Efrain Rios Montt ruled Guatemala from March 1982 to August 1983 and is now Secretary General of the ruling Republican Front Party. On the day this law suit was filed, Amnesty International issued an alert fearing for the safety of members of CALDH. An Amnesty observer was attacked in her Guatamala City hotel several days later.

The situation for lawyers working on politically sensitive cases in Guatemala remains extremely grave. While the completion of the Gerardi trial was a testament to the bravery of the lawyers and judges involved, no meaningful enforcement of human rights can occur in Guatemala until the State acts to ensure the security and independence of all advocates involved in both defending human rights and investigating and prosecuting human rights violations.

Nerys Poole LRWC member and then chair of LRWC’s Latin Amerca Committee had met with Mr. Melgar in May 2001 while attending the Global Exchange Awards ceremony in San Francisco and recommended that LRWC send a representative to the Gerardi trial.


On October 9 2002 the Guatemala 4th Appeals Court overturned the June 2001 convictions, and ordered a retrial of Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, Captain Byron Lima Oliva, Jose Obdulio Villanueva and the priest Mario Orantes. The military officers were convicted by the Supreme Court of Guatemala of the ‘extra-judicial’ murder of Bishop Gerardi and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment each. Priest Mario Orantes was convicted of being an accomplice and was sentenced to 20 years.

Before the retrial could commence, however, the ODHAG and the State prosecutors (Attorney General) filed for a stay and appealed the Appeals Court decision to the Supreme Court, which annulled the Appeals Court decision in February 2003. The Supreme Court decision was, in its turn, appealed to the Constitutional Court. That Court confirmed the decision of the Supreme Court, and ordered the 4th Appeals Court to reconsider the appeal. Subsequently, there were various court proceedings initiated by the Attorney General to prevent the 4th Appeals Court from rehearing the appeal, on the basis of bias. Finally, due to the fact that the terms of office of the President and one other member of the 4th Appeals Court expired and they were not reappointed, the case has gone to the 2nd Appeals Court for rehearing of the Appeal. As of January 2005, no date has been set for the hearing.

In the meantime, Jose Obdulio Villaneuva, the lowest ranking officer to be convicted in this case, was murdered in prison in February 2003, during a prison uprising the day after the Supreme Court overturned the Appeals Court decision. According to Amnesty International (see AMR 34/007/2003) there are fears that Villanueva’s murder may have been orchestrated to remove him as a potential witness against other military higher-ups allegedly involved in the Bishop’s murder against whom proceedings remain open.

An important witness in the original trial was also murdered in December 2002, bringing to 10 the number of witnesses in the Gerardi case known to have been killed, according to Amnesty International.

RECOMMENDED READING James Tate, The Gerardi Murder Trial: Report to LRWC on a visit to Guatemala June 3-9 2001 (August 2001) Top


Fact Summary – Preparation of a summary of facts relevant to the security and independence concerns.

Letters to Guatemalan government officials and departments, the Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala, newspapers and human rights groups.

Meetings – LRWC member Nerys Poole met with Mynor Melgar.

Investigation – LRWC sent lawyer James Tate to attend the final week of the trial.

Press Release/LRWC Statement – LRWC issued a statement June 12/01 regarding the trial.

Press Release/LRWC Statement – LRWC statement regarding the safety of Prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig

Attendance at the hearing of the Appeal in September 2002 – Brenda Wemp, Vancouver lawyer and member of LRWC, attended the hearing of this appeal at the request of lawyers prosecuting the case for the ODHAG, to lend moral support as they continue to feel under threat. Ms. Wemp was already in Guatemala on behalf of LRWC to attend the trial of high ranking military officers in the case of MYRNA MACK, and so was able to attend the appeal in the Gerardi case as well.

LRWC continues to be in contact with the ODHAG and is monitoring the case as it continues through legal proceedings.

Updated April 2005