Guatemala: March for assassinated priest, and justice, as genocide trial remains in limbo

    In Guatemala City today, a demonstration to honor Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, and to call for the genocide trial of Rios Montt to continue. Image: NISGUA.

    Today here in Guatemala, demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital to honor the life of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a Catholic priest and human rights champion. He was beaten to death 15 years ago today, two days after releasing a report about victims of the country's 36-year internal armed conflict. Gerardi has become even more of a hero since what the faithful describe as "his martyrdom."

    In the past few weeks of my travels here in Guatemala, I have visited a number of Catholic churches; his name and his image appear often, with great reverence. At the central church in Nebaj, part of the Ixil Maya area at the center of the historic Rios Montt genocide trial, I snapped this photo of Gerardi's inclusion in a memorial to civilian victims of the armed conflict.

    In the central church of Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi is honored in a memorial to civilian victims of the internal armed conflict. Image: Xeni Jardin.

    The 15th anniversary of Bishop Gerardi's death comes at a time when Guatemala is once again experiencing a wave of polarizing rhetoric around human rights and post-armed-conflict justice issues—rhetoric that includes damning words for the Catholic church.

    One example: "The Farce of Genocide," a recent paid campaign in a major Guatemalan newspaper by Guatemala's "Foundation Against Terrorism" (Fundación Contra El Terrorismo; blog, Facebook). The group was founded by Ricardo Méndez Ruíz, whose father was a military officer and minister of the interior under Rios Montt. The 20-page newspaper insert warned of an "International Marxist Conspiracy" transmitted through the Catholic Church; it included archival photographs said to be proof of "[Catholic] nuns manipulating indigenous people against" the US-backed former military dictator at the center of the current genocide trial.

    The insert says Gerardi was a Marxist guerrilla enabler. "He was insubordinate to the Pope, arming the guerrilla's conspiracy and being complicit with the terrorists," the ad reads.

    If Gerardi were alive today, it is clear that he would still have enemies in Guatemala.

    The genocide trial remains in a confusing legal knot today, having been put on hold last week by lower court Judge Carol Patricia Flores in a power struggle between various judges and court entities.

    Yesterday, Guatemala's Constitutional Court effectively untangled one thread from that knot and handed it back to Flores: first, straighten out the question of defense evidence, the CC told her.

    As I publish this blog post, at 230pm Guatemala time, Flores is opening a hearing in her court to review this part of the knot—but the rest of the case is still in limbo. Flores is obligated to essentially hand back the case to Judge Barrios after that. We could see the trial resume early next week, but that's not clear yet.

    In the last day or so, a number of blogs and news organizations published what I would argue are misleading takes on the latest developments: "Guatemala high court apparently restarts ex-dictator's trial," read the title on an LA Times article. Nope. Not so fast.

    In contrast, the Open Society Justice Initiative's "" blog has remained a reliable, sober source. At that site, a good legal explainer is here, and another here.

    Last Sunday, a Guatemalan friend invited me to attend a Roman Catholic mass with their family at a church built in the mid-1500s. I am not a Catholic, though I was raised as one. I am, however, a respectful friend and grateful guest, and eager to deepen my understanding of Guatemala and her people (about 50-60% of whom are Catholic). So I said yes.

    The mass included what seemed to be references to the genocide trial, and to impunity in Guatemala.

    "May the Spirit of Christ be with the people who run our government so that they act with justice and work for peace," the priest said to the assembly.

    "Hear us, Señor," the congregation responded.

    In a photocopied liturgical guide handed out before the mass, one page was devoted to a message from the Guatemalan Archbishop regarding the upcoming anniversary of Gerardi's death.

    The Archbishop wrote of Gerardi with different words than the paid ad insert that appeared in the newspaper just one Sunday before.

    "[He was] a defender of the humble and persecuted," wrote the Archbishop. "His death continues to batter our hearts, his death was a great lost for our Church and for Guatemalan society."

    The liturgical guide continued with a recounting of Gerardi's works to document atrocities committed against the country's mostly poor, mostly indigenous civil population.

    "We cannot hide or cover up reality, we can't distort history and we shouldn't silence truth. (…) For this reason, brothers and sisters, because his struggle was frank, transparent, and just for Guatemalan society, we continue demanding justice for a just man, so that judicial system will one day clarify this crime and not be disrupted by interests outside the law, so that the truth will flourish forever."

    The page ends with a quote from Monseñor Gerardi's speech on April 24, 1998, two days before he was beaten to death. On that day, he presented the REMHI (Recovery of Historical Memory) report, and spoke about the need for historical clarification and justice in Guatemala.

    "To know the truth is painful. But it is without doubt an act that is highly healthy and liberating," Gerardi said.

    "As long as the truth is not known, the wounds of the past continue to be open and cannot begin to heal."

    The name of the REMHI report signed by Gerardi was "Guatemala: Nunca más" (Guatemala: Never again). In recent weeks, I have heard the phrase chanted often at pro-trial demonstrations led by Ixil Maya victims, here in Guatemala City.

    An Ixil man prays inside the central church of Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala, April 2013. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

    Around the web:

    The Wall Street Journal published a photo gallery this week, with images from the trial and protests.

    • Two additional notable photo essays, published in previous weeks: CNN and NYT

    Guatemalan radio network Emisoras Unidas has an interesting feature (in Spanish) on a local indigenous youth group who support the trial, and the movement for justice for armed conflict victims.

    Christian Science Monitor: Guatemalan legal advisor Edwin Canil of CALDH helped find witnesses to testify in the landmark case against former dictator Ríos Montt. Mr. Canil escaped a massacre during Ríos Montt's reign.

    •Pláza Publica has a solid analysis piece on this week's legal wrangling. Also at PP, a piece on Guatemala's version of super PACs, and their role in the trial. And, a Guatemalan sociologist takes a look at the anti-trial, pro-Montt paid ad campaigns in local media.

    For more on the trial, here is Boing Boing's archive of my coverage from Guatemala.

    (Special thanks to the OSIJ and to Kate Doyle, for legal analysis and some borrowed phrasing!)

    Candles at a memorial for Army massacre victims, inside the central church of Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala. Photo: Xeni Jardin.

    Ixil women pray inside the central church of Nebaj, Quiché, Guatemala, April 2013. Photo: Xeni Jardin.