GUATEMALA CITY — May 3 was a key day in the protracted Guatemalan trial of the alleged murderers of Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera. For the first time since the Spanish-born bishop was murdered on April 26, 1998, one of the five accused, Father Mario Orantes Najera, finally made his deposition.

Oddly, the seats of the large courtroom were almost empty of journalists. For most of them, as for the general public, the Bishop Gerardi saga has continued too long and the passage of time seems only to confuse matters further.

On Jan. 20, 2000, the newly elected president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, announced he would personally pursue the murder investigation until the case was resolved.

Initially, the president's promises bore some fruit. Upon the request of prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig, the Guatemalan police arrested retired Army Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, and Sgt. Obdulio Villanueva as suspects.

Zeissig also ordered the arrest of Margarita Lopez, the bishop's cook, and demanded Father Orantes, who lived with Bishop Gerardi at the residence where he was murdered, to return from the United States to stand trial or face extradition proceedings.

The following month, at the Guatemalan bishops’ conference's request, Father Orantes returned from self-imposed exile in Dallas and was arrested in a hospital, after alleging health problems.

But from that moment on, investigations have led only to dead ends.

The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, known as ODHA, claims Gerardi was murdered by the military for issuing a report two days before his death blaming the army for 90% of the human-rights violations committed during Guatemala's bloody, 30-year-long civil war. Zeissig agrees with that theory, telling the trial judges that Bishop Gerardi's report “directly caused his death.”

But when the trial finally began on March 23, nearly three years after the murder, contradictory testimony abounded.

Since the prosecution has no witness who actually saw the killing, Zeissig must rely on evidence found at the crime scene, as well as testimonies from homeless people who slept in a park in front of the parish residence, located just a block away from the presidential palace. All those providing such evidence have left the country after being attacked or threatened, but some of their testimony has been presented in written form.

According to the prosecution, Villanueva and Lima Oliva killed Bishop Gerardi with a concrete block, with the complicity of Father Orantes and under the orders of Lima Estrada, who allegedly directed the killing from a nearby bar through a cellular phone.

Bishop Mario Rios Montt, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City and Bishop Gerardi's successor as head of the archdiocesan human-rights commission, took the stand in late March to support the prosecutor's theory. He also sparked controversy by saying the brother of Alvaro Arzú, Guatemala's president at the time of the murder, had offered him a “deal” regarding the prosecution of Father Orantes (see accompanying story).

Father Orantes’ May 3 deposition, transmitted on a videotape, contributed very little to clear up matters. Orantes testified that at 7:15 p.m. on April 26, 1998 — the time the killing is believed to have occurred — he was working on his computer. At around 10:30 p.m., the priest said, he turned on the TV and fell asleep.

He also said that when he saw Bishop Gerardi murdered at the front porch, he could not recognize him. “You don't see a corpse every day, and I was shocked,” he added.

To make his case against Father Orantes and the other defendants, Zeissig must overcome numerous obstacles. For example, Obdulio Villanueva, one of the accused military men, was in jail for another crime until two days after the bishop was murdered. ODHA notes that many jailed soldiers receive special privileges that might have included a temporary release, but cannot prove that was the case with Villanueva.

Moreover, blood samples collected at the crime scene and analyzed at the FBI's headquarters in Quantico, Va., contain a mixture of blood from Father Orantes, a homeless man who was the first suspect arrested in the crime and later released, and a former drug dealer.

Zeissig will also have to answer other puzzling questions:

lWhy Bishop Gerardi was murdered with a piece of concrete instead of a more efficient weapon?

lWas the blood of the bishop mixed with Father Orantes’ blood and that of the homeless man?

lWhy were the blood samples found by the FBI in a carpet at the second floor of the bishop's rectory?

Whatever the eventual resolution of the case, Guatemalan commentators say that Bishop Gerardi's death has already brought a significant consequence: the lesson that there cannot be “untouchables” — like the military, until recently — in Guatemala's legal and political systems.

“Who really killed Bishop Gerardi cannot be said yet,” said Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barrio of Guatemala City at a press conference in early May. “Nevertheless, his murder will not be fruitless. We will work to make it a cause to bring justice and reconciliation to Guatemala.”

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.