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Quebec missionary murdered in Guatemala

The Story


A civil war is raging in Guatemala. Over 4,000 people have been killed in political violence as government soldiers and Marxist rebels battle for control. Among the victims is 30-year-old Raoul Léger, a lay missionary from Bouctouche, N.B. who died during a gun battle between rebels and government forces. In probing Léger's death, the CBC's Man Alive examines footage of the battle caught live on Guatemalan TV. Government officials take a camera through the bloody aftermath, pointing out bodies they say are priests from Spain and commanders from Cuba. Léger's body is identified nine days later by a driver's license allegedly found on his body, and the government says he was in the house fighting alongside the rebels. Critics say the government is trying to create the impression that foreigners in the Catholic Church are subversives supporting the guerillas. A Canadian forensic pathologist reviews the footage for Man Alive and says he doesn't believe the government claim that the rebels died in a bomb explosion. The Quebec Foreign Missionary Society also challenges the official story. After successfully fighting to have Léger's body exhumed and returned to Canada, the Society is calling for an investigation into his death.

Medium: Television
Program: Man Alive
Broadcast Date: Nov. 22, 1981
Guest(s): Gordon Fairweather, Charles Godue, Richard Goran, Gilles Marchand, Robert Nolan, Hillsdon Smith
Host: Roy Bonisteel
Duration: 16:19

Did You know?


• Raoul Léger completed a master's degree in social work at Dalhousie University in 1977. The following year he met with Father Yvon Arsenault and the Quebec Foreign Mission Society, which was organizing a three-year mission to Guatemala. Both priests and laymen would take part, and Léger agreed to join them.
• Léger arrived in Guatemala in January 1979. According to the National Film Board, he "join[ed] the ranks of ORPA" (Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms) in 1981.

• In 2002 the Léger family had Raoul Léger's body exhumed from its New Brunswick grave and examined by a team of forensic experts in Montreal. Fragments embedded in his tissue demonstrated that Léger had been in an explosion. His skull was crushed and arteries in his legs had been severed -- all evidence of a violent death at the hands of others and not the suicide suggested by Guatemalan authorities. There was no evidence he had been tortured.

• As of December 2003, there had not been an investigation into Léger's death. In 2001 his sisters Cléola and Andréa travelled to Guatemala to talk to people who knew him there and to see the places where their brother lived, worked and died. Their journey and their brother's story were documented in the National Film Board of Canada's 2003 film Raoul Léger: The Elusive Truth.
• In March 2003 Léger's family visited Ottawa for the premiere of the NFB film and to push the federal government for an investigation.

• Dr. Charles Godue, seen in this clip, said in 2003 that he believed Léger was allied with the guerrilla group ORPA at the time of his death. ORPA was fighting for the rights of Guatemala's Mayans, a group singled out for slaughter by the ruling regime during the civil war. Léger, said Godue, sympathized with the Maya and supported the overthrow of the regime, but would never have taken up arms for ORPA.

• The civil war in Guatemala lasted 36 years, ending with a formal agreement and ceasefire in 1996. An estimated 100,000 people died in the conflict.
• Instability in Guatemala began in 1954 when a CIA-backed coup overthrew democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz from office. U.S. agricultural interests were threatened by Arbenz's policy of nationalizing land and distributing it among farmers. The war began in 1960 after a group of leftist military officers fled for the mountains.

• Missionaries all over the world face danger when they work in conflict zones. In 1965 a missionary wife Thelma Southard described to the CBC her experience in the Congo, hiding from a group of rebels opposing the government.


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