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Bishop Jose Gerardi Brutally Murdered in Guatemala City

By Juanita Darling
Los Angeles Times
GUATEMALA CITY

The Roman Catholic bishop who supervised a recently published study of human rights abuses committed here in three decades of a U.S.-backed conflict has been brutally murdered. The act is a reminder of the bloody violence that haunts this nation from its decades of civil war.

An assailant crushed the skull of Bishop Jose Juan Gerardi with a concrete block as the cleric, returning from dinner with his sister, entered his house at 11 p.m. Sunday, church officials said. The 75-year-old coordinator of the Guatemalan Archbishop's Office of Human Rights was hit 14 times on the back of the head and the face. Nothing was stolen.

A statement released Monday by the independent human rights office gave the government 72 hours to clear up the crime, because "if impunity is allowed to extend to this case, the cost for Guatemala will be high."

Police have found a witness and are looking for a suspect based on a composite drawing. Attorney General Hugo Perez Aguilera has called this crime "a vile murder."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the killing "in the strongest terms." The United States said it deplored the "senseless act of violence" and called on Guatemala to begin a full investigation. And the Catholic Bishops' International Policy Committee called the murder a "terrible shock" and "despicable crime."

Authorities in this crime-riven nation have not stated a motive for this murder. But for those who worked with Gerardi, the reason was clear. "This was a blow against the peace process," said Guatemalan human rights activist Hellen Mack. "For them to have killed a bishop, which they did not even dare to do during the war, shows how far [some people] are willing to go to stop the peace process."

Gerardi initiated and directed the Roman Catholic Church's Historical Memory Recovery project, a three-year study of human rights abuses committed in the civil war that ended with a peace agreement in December 1996. Released Friday, the 1,400-page study, "Never Again," compiled 6,500 interviews, many in 15 Mayan languages.

It was the first attempt to document atrocities committed in the 36-year conflict between Communist guerrillas and the government, which except for the last years of the war was made up of U.S.-backed military dictators.