Slain Bishop's Legacy: Moving Guatemala Beyond Civil War

In an emotional speech last Friday at the Metropolitan Cathedral, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera called a church project to determine the fate of an estimated 150,000 Guatemalans killed in this country's 36-year civil war "a beautiful service" to the nation's martyrs. On Sunday, he became one himself.

The murder of Bishop Gerardi - just two days after he and other church leaders delivered a stinging report on human rights abuses committed during the war by the army and leftist rebels - has shocked a nation still struggling to leave its violent past behind. The killing is also a setback to efforts by Guatemala's leaders to erase an image as one of the hemisphere's worst human rights violators.

On Monday President Alvaro Arzu declared three days of national mourning and proposed a commission to investigate the murder. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the killing a "brutal act" and called for a prompt investigation. Police say they have no suspects, although 150 officers are working on the case.

Many here find it difficult to see the murder as anything but an act of intimidation against those seeking to bring greater democracy to the country. Edmund Mulet, an opposition politician and former ambassador to the United States, says it's clear Gerardi was killed to stifle work in human rights and to destabilize the peace. "What we are trying to do is to make an appeal to the Guatemalan people not to fall into this trap," he says. "The legacy of Gerardi has been to help us continue with this task to build a democratic society.... I think there is a will to work together among [most Guatemalans] to help to overcome this tragedy."

FORMER President Ramiro de Leon Carpio called the murder "a tremendous blow to Guatemala, the church, the peace process, and to our weak democratic transition."

Church officials say no possessions had been taken from Gerardi or his home, and are ruling out robbery as a motive. But police are reviewing evidence that the assailant took a wallet and an inexpensive watch from Gerardi, who witnesses say was found with money in his shirt pocket and a ring on one hand. Human rights activists have long accused the security forces of taking personal effects in order to disguise political killings.

Friends and colleagues of Gerardi said Tuesday that the bishop's murder deprives the country of one its most progressive clergymen, an outspoken human rights advocate and defender of the disadvantaged Mayan Indian majority. In 1989 he founded the Human Rights Office of the Diocese of Guatemala City, one of the first and most effective human rights organizations to arise after the Army ceded power to civilian governments in the mid-1980s. He also was deeply involved in facilitating the peace talks that ended the war in 1996.

"He was dedicated to his ministry but also to the common man. He interpreted Christ with a social sensibility," says Douglas Gonzalez-Dubon, whose brother, president of the Constitutional Court, was gunned down in 1994. It's suspected he was killed for political reasons.

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