Home > Archives > 01 - 2004 > In Memory of Father Chemita
from issue no. 01 - 2004

EVENTS. In December Father José María Ruiz Furlán was assassinated

In Memory of Father Chemita

The people loved him because of his work for the poor, his public denouncements of illegalities and abuses of power against the weak. In 2002 he participated in the Commission which had the task of organizing the Pope’s journey to the country

by Davide Malacaria

He had just finished saying mass. The last one of Sunday. He had gone out and was on his way home, a few steps away from his parish church, dedicated to the Sainted Curé of Ars which he himself had founded about thirty years ago in the Cinque quarter, one of the poorest in the city of Guatemala. It was evening, who knows what he may have thought in those few steps. Who knows whether, for a moment, he thought perhaps of the obscure death threats which had lately been arriving ever more insistently. He got to the door of his house and put the key in the lock. He heard his name called. He turned round. He was hit by various bullets. Hit in the head and the face, he fell to the ground where the killers finished him off at point blank range. Seven shots in all. It was the 14 December when 69 year old José María Ruiz Furlán, better known as Father Chemita, was assassinated.
Thousand of people participated in the funeral of José María Ruiz Furlán, the parish  priest of the Cinque quarter of Guatemala city

Thousand of people participated in the funeral of José María Ruiz Furlán, the parish priest of the Cinque quarter of Guatemala city

Violence in Guatemala goes cheap. The small Central American Country has seen a lot of it in the past, when a bloody military regime inflicted cruel pain on the civilian population, torturing, killing and terrorizing them. A cruelty which went as far as paroxysm at the end of the ’seventies and which ended, officially, in 1966, following a peace agreement between the government and the various guerilla formations. But the ghosts of the past return every now and then to torment the little country, where absolute impunity is still in force for those who committed those crimes, and the then executioners now live next door to their victims. In 1998 Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera, the bishop who had coordinated the “Remhi” project (Recuperación de la memoria histórica), a monumental investigation to reconstruct what had happened under the military dictatorship, was killed, beaten to death in his home. A crime which occurred only two days after the publication of the document Nunca mas, in which the horrors which had terrorized the country were detailed: an act of accusation, in fact, against those who had planned and directed the military repression. An odious crime that against Monsignor Gerardi. A martyr for the Guatemalan people: a crime which civil justice has not yet got to the bottom of. Also because of this, the killing of Father Chemita raised an uproar in the country. Sergio Morales, who is editor of the Procuradoria for human rights, a non-governmental but highly respected organization in Guatemala, maintains that the killing of Father Chemita may have a political motive. He said so immediately after the crime. He repeats it now: «In our country waves of terrorism follow on each other with very precise categories as their targets, aimed at intimidating those who want full legality to be established in the country». He goes on: «At the beginning of last year, for example, members of the magistrature were targeted. After that, it was the turn of people connected with organizations working in the field of human rights, here again with threats and assassinations. The killing of Father Chemita may represent a warning to the Church, which traditionally, in our country, has always been on the side of the poor, denouncing and combating violence against human rights. We must, of course, await the outcome of the investigation, but the most probable hypothesis remains that of a politically motivated murder, which could open up a new phase of intimidation of the Church».
The ecclesiastical authorities are more cautious. The Office for Human Rights operates out of the Archbishopric, created at the urge of Monsignor Gerardi himself. Nery Rodenas, the person in charge, explains that political murder is, for the moment, just one of the many hypotheses. The problem is that Father Chemita was a multi-faceted, very extrovert man. In his life he had done a bit of everything to help the needy. Among other things, he had attempted direct involvement in politics on several occasions, presenting himself as candidate in 1974, 1978, and in 1982 for mayor of Guatemala city. Something that had got him labeled with that curious nickname. In 1974 he was a candidate on behalf of the Comité de habitants electors del municipio integrato trabajo y acción, the initial letters of which make up the acronym “Chemita”. A choice which, along with the decision to set up various tourist businesses (some hotels in Guatemala and along the coast, as well as a tourist agency primarily handling religious tourism to Rome and the Holy Land), which had aroused the distrust of the ecclesiastical authorities towards him. In 1991 he was suspended a divinis. But that is done and finished with, because in 1999 the decree of suspension was withdrawn. One of his assistant parish priests, Father Basilio Vasquez, recalls that after the reconciliation with the Church Father Chemita had given up any direct involvement in politics and submitted with meekness to the ecclesiastical authorities, so much so that, in 2002, he was chosen to coordinate the commission which was to prepare the Pope’s visit to Guatemala. However, despite the caution, Rodenas says that the Archbishop of the city of Guatemala, Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruña, has authorized the Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric «to assist the family members of Father Chemita, who have joined themselves in an action with the public prosecutor in the investigations». The Cardinal, who went immediately to the site of the murder, also made a statement: «We lament and condemn the assassination, because it is an absurd crime, and shows us the level of violence which reigns in Guatemala. I hope that this crime will not go unpunished like so many others». In short the Church asks and seeks for justice. As also do the people who crowded the parish immediately after the attack on Father Chemita and who began a spontaneous demonstration. «He was a much loved man,» Rodenas continues, «there were many who sought him out, who asked him for help. As soon as the people knew about his death they crowded the streets demanding justice. We await the development of the investigation and hope that things will soon be clarified. One thing is certain, the murder of Father Chemita was a premeditated crime».
That the priest was much loved there is no doubt. Father Ramiro Obando, one of his collaborators in the parish of the Sainted Curé d’Ars, recalls how Father Chemita did so much for the Cinque quarter, buying lots, building houses and having water and electricity brought in. And he recalls how he often joined in with his people, during demonstrations, to ask for light and water for the poor of the quarter. It might look odd, but in areas where one dies of a trivial infection, it has to do with the right to life. But his work, as his political venture testifies, did not stop at the threshold of the Cinque quarter. Father Chemita was known throughout all of Guatemala. So much so that thousands of people turned up at his funeral, celebrated by Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño.
Maya Indian faithful assist at the holy mass at the end of the American Missionary Congress in Guatemala on 30 November 2003

Maya Indian faithful assist at the holy mass at the end of the American Missionary Congress in Guatemala on 30 November 2003

One person who has no doubts about the political nature of the assassination of Father Chemita is Father Basilio: «They have killed a prophet, a priest who lent his voice to those who don’t have one, those to whom no one listens», he shouts into his mobile phone to the other end of the world: «His work for the poor and his public denunciations of impunity, corruption, against the perpetrators of abuse of power and violence were troublesome. They killed him just for that». In the Guatemalan newspapers meanwhile different investigations have appeared: the life of the murdered priest is under scrutiny. They are searching into the folds of his life for other possible motives for the murder, as for example conflicts which arose in some business deals. «I believe it’s part of a strategy to bring discredit on the victims of certain crimes», Sergio Morales states. «It’s also a way of guaranteeing the impunity of those who carried out and ordered the crime.» Those who knew him well, as Father Basilio did, say that the insinuations are without foundation. As he explains: «Father Chemita was a righteous man. The businesses he set up paid for land-purchase and house-building in the Cinque quarter. He was certainly not an entrepreneur, but a man of God: everything he made he put at the service of the people of God. To perform certain works of charity either you seek international aid or you try to find the money through money-making activities. He chose the second way. The people who knew him know this well and loved him. Also because he had quite his own way of helping them. Father wanted those who received a house to pay a small symbolic price: it was a way of ensuring that people felt they had collaborated in the purchase».
Father José María Ruiz Furlán may have been a controversial figure, but for the many disinherited of this small, tormented country he was, and will remain, a good pastor. Rest in peace, Father Chemita.
(With the collaboration
of Tiziana Nardini)

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