May 1, 1998

Thousands Take To Streets In Call For Justice In Bishop's Slaying

By Anita Snow

GUATEMALA CITY - With public pressure intensifying to find the killers of a Roman Catholic bishop who spoke out against wartime military abuses, a U.S. team of investigators headed here Thursday to help in the probe.

After a funeral Mass for Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera punctuated by cries for justice, U.S. Ambassador Donald Planty told reporters Wednesday that FBI experts would arrive Thursday and start work.

The Clinton administration offered the U.S. help earlier this week, as demands grew for President Alvaro Arzu's government to solve the crime.

Gerardi was killed Sunday night by unknown attackers, who crushed his skull with a jagged concrete block in the garage of his parish home. Two days before, he had released a report detailing military abuses during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended with a 1996 peace accord.

On Monday, church leaders gave the Arzu government 72 hours to find the killers - a deadline missed Wednesday as more than 10,000 mourners filled the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Gerardi was eulogized as an advocate for Guatemala's impoverished Indian majority.

``He fought for reconciliation, for authentic peace,'' said Bishop Gerardo Flores of northern Verapaz. ``That is why they wanted to silence his voice.''

``Justice! Justice!'' some mourners cried as Gerardi's casket was entombed in the cathedral crypt.

Gerardi, 75, knew about political violence. He closed his diocese in the mostly Indian Quiche province at the height of the civil conflict, after military-backed civilian patrols targeted his priests and lay workers.

Having survived an assassination attempt in Quiche in 1980 and living in exile in Costa Rica until 1984, he accepted the dangers involved in his activism.

``We are recovering the memory of the people,'' Gerardi said Friday in presenting ``Never Again,'' the most exhaustive report yet on military atrocities. ``This road was and continues to be full of risks.''

Most believe his killing was a warning not to delve into past wrongdoing by the military, which the report blamed for nearly 80 percent of the 200,000 wartime killings and disappearances.

Gerardi was consecrated as a bishop in 1967 and sent to Verapaz, where the war was heating up between the leftist guerrillas and the rightist military government.

In 1974, Gerardi was transferred to Quiche, where more than half of 422 wartime massacres occurred. Entire villages were wiped out by military patrols searching for rebel sympathizers.

After exile, Gerardi returned to Guatemala City and in 1989 founded the archdiocese's human rights office. He took part in talks that led to the 1996 peace accords.

The ``Never Again'' report, compiling more than 6,000 interviews, was a final achievement.

``Someday soon,'' Flores said in his homily, ``We hope that this county's people can sing, can cry out wholeheartedly: `Guatemala! Guatemala! Never again!''