“Bishop Juan Gerardi did not chase the cameras but was always present at important moments, such as the peace agreements. José Roberto Paz, head of the Center for the Memory of the former Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala Ciudad, the capital of Guatemala, is responsible for keeping alive the legacy of the latter, who was assassinated twenty-five years ago on April 26. 1998.
This “execrable crime committed against a true servant of peace”, as Pope John Paul II called it at the time, took place two days after the presentation of a vast investigation, of which the bishop was one of the instigators. , on the crimes of the civil war in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996. He said on this occasion that he wanted to “contribute to the construction of a different country”. “Immediately after his assassination, Guatemalans took to the streets,” explains José Roberto Paz, showing photographs of white marches bringing together thousands of people.
Comprising 6,500 chilling testimonies, for years of work, mobilizing nearly 600 people, the investigation, entitled “Guatemala: Nunca Más” (“Guatemala: Never Again”) and collected in four thick volumes, had the effect of a bomb when it was published. Never before had such in-depth work documented the human rights violations during this period which bloodied the country and during which the United Nations counted 200,000 dead and 45,000 missing.
List the victims of repression
Appointed bishop of the diocese of Verapaz in 1967, then of Quiché, the poorest region of the country, in 1974, Bishop Juan Gerardi showed himself to be particularly open and close to the indigenous populations. He was present with the poorest and sensitive to their social conditions.
In 1980, Guatemala was under the control of General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. The conflict escalates and the atrocities mount. Witness to the horror in the Quiché region, Msgr. Gerardi goes to the Vatican to participate in the Synod on the family and alert John Paul II. Threatened and blocked by the authorities on his return, he was forced into exile in Costa Rica for two years. He then works to identify the victims of repression in order to achieve reconciliation.
In the office where the archives are kept, Hugo Alvarado hastens to take out the documents that served as the basis for “Guatemala: Nunca más”. happened during the war,” he said. “During the trial of General Rios Montt (in power between 1982 and 1983), ‘Guatemala Nunca más’ served as proof of the genocide of the Ixils”, a Mayan ethnic group, specifies Hugo Alvarado.
Considered a martyr for peace and truth
It was under the authority of General Rios Montt that the worst war crimes were committed by the army. He was convicted in 2013 for the genocide of the Ixil people but his sentence was overturned for procedural flaws. However, according to recent opinion polls, Zury Rios, his daughter, could win the next presidential election on June 25. In this divided political context, the Center for the Memory of Bishop Juan Gerardi takes care not to forget the past.
“The work of remembrance is essential for the victims and for all of society in order to prevent such atrocities from happening again, underlines José Roberto Paz. The violence of the Guatemalan war may be repeated here and in other parts of the world. The center also houses the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala. This organization produces numerous reports on the human rights situation in the country. The objective: to speak out so that the horror never happens again.
“Considered as a martyr of peace and truth”
How is Bishop Juan Gerardi perceived today? “He is considered by Guatemalans as a martyr for peace and truth. His image remains very strong in the collective imagination, ”says José Roberto Paz, himself the son of missing persons.
However, unlike the figure of Bishop Oscar Romero in neighboring El Salvador, assassinated in full mass in 1980 for having defended the poor and landless peasants, and canonized in 2018, Bishop Juan Gerardi does not win the favor of the authorities in a country where inequalities are extremely high. Thus, no official tribute will take place to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his assassination. For those who want to carry his legacy, the fight for his memory remains unresolved.
A human rights defender
Juan Gerardi, born in 1922 in the capital of Guatemala, was appointed bishop of Verapaz in 1967, where he made work with the indigenous populations his pastoral priority.
In 1974, he becomes bishop of Quiché, one of the poorest regions of Guatemala and scene of great violence between the army and the guerrillas.
From 1980 to 1982, he was forced into exile before being appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala in 1984. He set up the Archdiocese’s Human Rights Office, which still deals with victims of violence and violation of human rights.
On April 26, 1998, two days after the presentation of an investigation into the crimes of the civil war, he is assassinated.