Friday, October 19, 2018
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Frank Jack Daniel
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Courts send a colonel to jail

Shortly after preparing a report on the plight of people displaced by Guatemala’s civil war, anthropologist Myrna Mack Chang was stabbed 27 times as she left her office on Sept. 11 1990. And on April 26, 1998, just two days after Bishop Juan Gerardi presented a report blaming the military for the vast majority of wartime human rights abuses, the prelate was beaten to death with a concrete block at the parish house where he lived (LP, May 14, 1998).

Mack’s murder occurred when the country was still in the throes of civil war, while Gerardi’s death came during the first years of peace. Both crimes, however, were seen as evidence that the military was not willing to have its power challenged.

After a week of high court drama in which a senior military official was sentenced for his part in Mack’s murder and last year’s convictions in the Gerardi case were overturned, observers are questioning the impartiality of the Guatemalan judicial system and the degree to which the country has transcended wartime divisions.

Military officers, relatives and human-rights campaigners crowded into the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, to hear the verdict in the trial of three high-ranking military officers in the Mack case. Officers in the audience, who applauded the acquittal of two defendants, were visibly displeased when Col. Juan Valencia Osorio was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The verdict marked the first time that a high-ranking officer had been condemned for a crime committed during the 36-year civil war. Over the past dozen years, one investigator was assassinated and a number of witnesses fled the country.

The Mack murder remained in the spotlight over the years, largely because of the efforts of Helen Mack, the victim’s sister. She said the conviction confirmed her belief that "there were masterminds who used their control over the state security apparatus to plan and order this crime."

The court ruled that the murder was politically motivated and that Valencia, who headed the presidential security unit at the time, had ordered it. Two other defendants, Gen. Augusto Godoy Gaytán, director of the Presidential Chief of Staff’s Office (EMP) at the time of the murder, and Col. Juan Guillermo Oliva Carrera, then deputy director of the EMP, were acquitted for lack of evidence. Noel de Jesús Beteta, an army specialist who served in the EMP, was convicted in 1993 of committing the murder.

Beteta implicated all three defendants in a taped confession that he later retracted. The three-judge panel ruled that only his comments about Valencia were credible, because he had implicated the other two in response to a question that was considered leading.

Helen Mack and government prosecutor Mynor Melgar said they would appeal the acquittals. Valencia also said he would appeal his conviction.

Just five days after the Mack verdict, another court overturned last year’s conviction of three military officers and a priest in the Gerardi case, ruling that a key witness’ testimony was flawed. The decision was met with disbelief by prosecutors and others who had been involved in the case. Mario Domingo Montejo of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office and Mario Leal of the Public Prosecutor’s Office said they would challenge the ruling.

Last year, three officers with ties to military intelligence were convicted of the crime. Retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada, former head of Army intelligence; his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva; and a former presidential bodyguard, Sgt. Obdulio Villanueva, were sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Rev. Mario Orantes, who lived with Gerardi in the parish house, was convicted of being an accomplice and sentenced to 20 years (LP, June 25, 2001).

In their appeal, the defendants argued that evidence provided by witness Rubén Chanax was unreliable and his statements were contradictory. Chanax had testified that he was recruited by the defendants to spy on the bishop and to help alter evidence at the crime scene. In an interview with the daily Prensa Libre, Eduardo Cojulún, one of the judges who heard the original case, said that the witness’ reliability had been established. "I disagree with the decision," Cojulún said. "When any judge has a decision like this overturned, it makes you worry."

The defendants and their supporters, meanwhile, complained that they were the victims of a witch hunt and that international pressure was being applied to win a verdict against them as a symbolic gesture against the military.

After the Gerardi appeal, Lima Oliva called prosecution lawyer Montejo "a guerrilla sympathizer who has no concept of national reconciliation." Lima Oliva claimed that he had been convicted because of President Alfonso Portillo’s 1999 campaign pledge to solve the Gerardi case.

Marco Barahona of the non-governmental Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES) said the contrast between the defendants’ views and those of human rights defenders reflect the murder cases’ roots in the armed conflict. He said they also suggest that the Army is facing an identity crisis, as its image as the nation’s defense against "the communist threat" crumbles.

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