Death came to Guatemala last Sunday night in the form of a brutal and anonymous assassin. It struck one of the country's finest, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, crushing his skull with a cement block. It left behind nothing but blood.
Forty-eight hours before his murder, Gerardi, 75, was standing before an audience of thousands in Guatemala's National Cathedral, declaring an end to the savage violence that has ripped the country apart for so long. His death is a signal that Guatemala's violent past still haunts its search for peace.
The occasion for the bishop's last speech was the celebration of the release of a report by the Archbishop's Office of Human Rights called "Guatemala: Nunca Mas." The four volumes of this extraordinary document represent more than three years of work by the Guatemalan archdiocese.
Based on some 6,500 interviews painstakingly gathered from survivors of the country's 36-year civil conflict, they chronicle one of Latin America's most devastating human rights tragedies. More than 140,000 Guatemalan citizens died or disappeared during the war, many of them members of Mayan Indian communities living in rural areas far from the public eye. The report calls the state's own military, police and paramilitary forces responsible for more than 85 percent of the killings.
The church intended the release of the report to herald the dawn of a new era of reconciliation. The Guatemalan government and armed guerrilla forces had signed a historic peace agreement on Dec. 29, 1996, outlining a program of profound change designed to repair a society broken by war. The accord contained specific proposals to reduce the power of Guatemala's military and police institutions, strengthen its judiciary and introduce some measure of economic, political and social equity.
But government-sanctioned peace initiatives are not enough in a country such as Guatemala, where the power of the state has long been used against its own people. That was the brilliance of the undertaking launched by the Roman Catholic Church in 1994. Dubbed "The Recovery of Historical Memory," the project sent dozens of church workers armed with tape recorders into communities across rural Guatemala. There, the teams trained community members to take oral testimonies from friends, relatives and neighbors about what happened to them during "la violencia." The interviews were then collated and analyzed by a team of researchers working in Guatemala City.
Gerardi, who founded the church's human rights office in 1984, was himself no stranger to repression. As bishop of El Quiche in the late 1970s, Gerardi witnessed some of Guatemala's worst violence when the majority Mayan province became the target of the army's "scorched earth" campaign to eliminate guerrillas and their presumed sympathizers.
The military's staggeringly brutal counterinsurgency sweeps left thousands dead and missing, and entire villages destroyed. In 1980, Gerardi escaped an attempt on his life. He was forced to close his diocese later that year as relentless military harassment and the slaughter of his own priests made a continued church presence insupportable.
As Gerardi knew too well, those among his parishioners who survived the massacres suffered another kind of torment: the silence imposed by terror. Many of the contributors to the church's report told their stories for the first time, revealing - and reliving - the unbearable secrets of their past. This was the great challenge of Gerardi's project: to break the legacy of silence by "recovering memory," thereby writing a new history of Guatemala.
Gerardi's assassination was an act of psychological warfare of the worst kind, a chilling message that to speak the truth is to risk everything. But Guatemalans - who came by the tens of thousands to his funeral last week - will not be cowed in their effort to hold the perpetrators of past human rights atrocities accountable to history, if not to justice.
They will continue to unearth the clandestine cemeteries, to build their monuments to the massacred and to remember their victims. Unofficial and official truth commissions will continue to investigate the crimes of the past to foster real peace for Guatemala's future.
The authors of terror in Guatemala have proved that they have not yet abandoned violence in their attempt to crush the truth. But Guatemala can never again return to the collective silence imposed by brute force. "Nunca Mas." Never again.
Kate Doyle is director of the Guatemalan Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, an independent research institute and library in Washington.
Pub Date: 5/03/98