'The Art Of Political Murder': Who was Ruben Chanax? Here's why his 'shirtless man' testimony was controversial

Bishop Juan Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his house and the murder sent shockwaves across the nation and set the stage for a grueling battle between justice and corruption


                            'The Art Of Political Murder': Who was Ruben Chanax? Here's why his 'shirtless man' testimony was controversial
(HBO)

Just after the Guatemalan Civil War, human rights activist Bishop Juan Gerardi presented a concise and clear report that detailed the atrocities committed by the army. Two days later, he was brutally murdered in his garage. The murder sent shockwaves across the nation and set the stage for a grueling battle between justice and corruption in the latest political crime thriller, 'The Art Of Political Murder', which is an HBO production.

The documentary features key investigators and witnesses who recollect the crucial investigation and trial that spanned over a couple of months. Assembled by the church, a couple of courageous investigators took it upon themselves, despite terrifying intimidations and fearful death threats, to examine Gerardi's death. The light at the end of a long and dark tunnel finally flashed, and the truths that had been carefully hidden were brought out to dry. The testimony of their key witness Ruben Chanax turned the trial around.

So what happened on the fateful night of April 26, 1998? Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death, in the garage of the parish house of San Sebastian Church, where he was the pastor. His assailants had used a heavy and concrete slab as a murder weapon. His face had been so badly damaged that his face was unrecognizable and his body had been identified by the means of his episcopal ring. In the first testimony provided by witness Chanax who at the time claimed he was a 'homeless' man, sleeping on the steps Gerardi's house, he said that he noticed that the door was ajar, and as he was about to lie down, he saw a 'shirtless' man of athletic build coming out of the house.

Chanax asked him whether anyone else was coming out of the garage, he just said 'Yeah..' and began to run. Following this testimony, the media exploded with sensational stories about Gerardi and supposed homosexual relations, and whether this was a crime of passion. It began to be believed that it was a petty crime committed by people staying in the nearby park, and after that, the theory that the dog belonging to the priest living in Gerardi's house, had mauled him. 

For a long time, Chanax was forgotten. He had been forcibly presented as a witness and then seemed to be under heavy protection. No one had dug deeper into his life and background and there were several questions about him that needed to be answered. 

In 2001, Chanax came around and gave a few more crucial details. He wasn't just a normal vagrant, he had been hired to spy on Gerardi and inform Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada and Captain Byron Lima Oliva as well as José Obdulio Villanueva, who were from the army. However, he wasn't prepared for the murder of Gerardi. In the trial, he revealed that on the night of April 26, he entered the garage and saw Gerardi lying in a pool of blood. The three army men threatened Chanax that if he ever revealed what he had seen, he would be arrested and perhaps murdered. Chanax even helped to move the body. Chanax's testimony proved crucial in the trial and all three men were convicted of murder. The priest, Mario Orantes, whom the court had identified as an accomplice, was sentenced to 20 years.  

'The Art Of Political Murder' is airing on HBO on December 16 at 9 pm.

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