Canada and the World

An agonizing wait

Raoul Léger was killed in 1981 in Guatemala. His family wants to know why.

JOHN DEMONT March 18 2002
Canada and the World

An agonizing wait

Raoul Léger was killed in 1981 in Guatemala. His family wants to know why.

JOHN DEMONT March 18 2002

An agonizing wait

Canada and the World

Raoul Léger was killed in 1981 in Guatemala. His family wants to know why.

JOHN DEMONT

Andrea Léger stood in the unseasonably warm sun of an early winter day, waiting for the remains of her brother

Raoul to be returned to the family plot in tiny Bouctouche, N.B. It was a far cry from the first time he was laid to rest some 20 years earlier. Then, more than 1,500 mourners—including 40 clergy—filled the nearby church to pay their respects to the 30-year-old lay missionary who had died violently in the midst of Guatemalas bloody civil war. This time, only six people surrounded the grave site. But Andrea felt something close to happiness as she watched her brothers steel casket being lowered into the ground. Just two days earlier, an autopsy—performed by a team that included forensic anthropologist and novelist Kathy Reichs-—finally confirmed her brother had at least escaped the torture inflicted on so many other victims of Guatemala’s military dictatorship. “I felt peace knowing Raoul had not suffered,” she says. “I said, ‘You can finally rest, my dear little brother, we will finish the mission you started.’ ”

Léger is as much a folk hero in the mountains of Guatemala as in the Acadian villages of his home province. He spent his short, turbulent life trying to help the poor, sick and powerless. On July 25, 1981, he died during a firefight—carried live on local television—that ended with an explosion killing everyone inside a house in a rich Guatemala City neighbourhood. The government of the day claimed he was a commando holed up with members of a guerrilla group known as ORPA (Organización del Pueblo en Armas) who committed suicide rather than surrender. To his family, and countless others, he was a martyr. But in the absence of irrefutable evidence, the doubts gnawed: was he, in fact, a gun-toting guerrilla fighter or a dogooder murdered by government soldiers? The son of a farmer and homemaker,

Léger grew up a devote Catholic who wanted to help others less fortunate than himself. As a lay missionary in Guatemala for Montreal’s Catholic Foreign Mission Society, he taught hygiene, coached soccer and ran literacy programs in one of the poorest regions of the abysmally poor country. He quickly learned the dangers of trying to help the downtrodden peasants: in 1979 he spent three days in a church belfry hiding from soldiers searching for foreign subversives. On his last trip home to New Brunswick in December, 1980, he was so jumpy he dove for cover at the click of an automatic garage door. And he told his family it would be too dangerous to write to him when he returned to Central America. “He was saying goodbye,” his sister Andrea maintains, “and we just didn’t realize it.”

By then, Léger seems to have decided there was another way to change society: by allying himself with ORPA, the guerrilla

movement fighting for the rights of the descendants of Guatemala’s ancient Maya people. It was a dangerous choice in 1981. The country’s CIA-backed regime was determinedly slaughtering the Mayan majority, and anyone who tried to take up their cause routinely disappeared. A fellow Guatemalan aid worker, Montrealer Dr. Charles Godue, now an adviser with the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, says Léger joined ORPA because he believed the only way to help the Maya was to overthrow the military regime. Still, Godue contends Léger would not have taken up arms for ORPA: “He just sympathized with their goals.”

After the shootout, Légers corpse was thrown into a mass grave. In official records he was identified only as “XXX age 30 years, son of unknown and unknown, civil status unknown.” Ottawa eventually got wind of his fate and, after two months of negotiations, convinced Guatemala to exhume the body. In October, 1981, Légers body, identified by dental records, was returned to Canada in a hermetically sealed steel coffin. Despite the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death, an autopsy was not performed at the time.

The Légers grew tired of pushing Ottawa to pressure the Guatemalan government for a full accounting and eventually gave up. Then, last summer, Andrea and Légers other sister, Cléola, accompanied a National Film Board of Canada crew to Guatemala and met peasants who had known Léger. For Andrea, in particular, the trip was an epiphany: she returned to New Brunswick, quit her job as a truck driver and devoted herself full-time to organizing shipments of school supplies and helping Guatemala’s farmers from her farmhouse in the hamlet of Cocagne.

She also set out to finally answer the riddle of Légers death. Her first step was to assemble a forensics team, including Reichs, who is an old hand in Guatemala. In 2000, Reichs, who divides her time

between Montreal and Charlotte, N.C., helped find a mass grave and examined numerous skeletons of people tortured and murdered during the nations 36-year civil war. (Also the best-selling author of four novels, including Déjà Dead, she plans to open her next mystery, Grave Secrets, with her forensic anthropologist heroine, Temperance Brennan, exhuming a mass grave in Guatemala.)

When the New Brunswick government refused to pay all the costs of an autopsy, the Léger family agreed to raise the rest. After 20 years underground, the unembalmed body was surprisingly wellpreserved. “There were no signs that the fingernails had been pulled out, that he had been burned with cigarettes, hacked with machetes or any other physical indications of torture,” says Reichs. But the team did determine from metallic fragments embedded in Légers tissue that hed died violently in an explosion.

There was more detective work to be done. The family hired a ballistics expert to try to determine what type of explosive was used in the blast that killed Léger. The answer to that question could reveal whether the army murdered him. The family is still waiting for the report. In the meantime, they have contacted Amnesty International to help track down relatives of another foreigner who died beside him. In the search for clues, Andrea, using the Access to Information Act, has already discovered one person in the house didn’t die immediately. She also learned that a security officer from the U.S. Embassy visited the house 30 minutes after the raid, an intriguing revelation considering the American government’s involvement with the Guatemalan regime during the 1980s.

If the army took Légers life, the family wants the killers brought to justice. Ottawa insists it was stonewalled by the Guatemalan government back in 1981. But since then, the civil war ended and, in 1999, the Central American country held presidential elections. Ottawa is once again pressing for further information, including whether there are any internal reports on what happened.

Still, after all this time Andrea isn’t holding her breath. On some level the family just wants to finally know by whose hand Léger died. Then, at last, maybe they can bury the ghosts of the past along with the body in the Bouctouche cemetery. E3