In December 1996, the corrupt, discredited Guatemalan military and a decimated guerrilla army signed a peace accord, under United Nations supervision, ending thirty-six years of civil war. Less than two years later, the Guatemalan Archdiocese Office of Human Rights (known by the Spanish acronym odha) published a fourteen-hundred-page study of wartime atrocities, based on six thousand interviews conducted around the country with traumatized survivors and perpetrators of la violencia. This final report from the church’s Recovery of Historical Memory (remhi) investigations counted 150,000 dead and 50,000 disappeared and held the military primarily responsible. Its recommendations were no less powerful for being couched in the language of sorrowful, humanist reflection.
The report’s conclusion and its demand for justice enraged the military. As of 1998, not a single high-level officer had ever been held accountable for human rights abuses in Guatemala. On the night of April 26, 1998, two days after formal presentation of the remhi report, auxiliary bishop Monseñor Juan Gerardi, a genial, sturdy man and the visionary force behind the church’s plans for the reconstruction of the wounded society, was bludgeoned to death with a chunk of cinder block in the garage of his parish house, adjacent to the church of San Sebastian, in Guatemala City, a short walk from the headquarters of a branch of military intelligence.
It should have been an open-and-shut case. Motive and opportunity clearly lay with a group of high-ranking officers within the Presidential Military Staff, some of whom could probably be tried for their roles in the scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in the Mayan highlands in the early 1980s. remhi collected evidence of 192 massacres in 1982 alone, the same year President Reagan met and congratulated General Efrain Ríos Montt, Guatemalan president by military coup, on his dedication to democracy (Reagan said he’d been “given a bum rap”), while at the State Department, Elliott Abrams and Thomas Enders ran a shabby cover-up of the genocide.
But in Guatemala’s sham of a democracy, it took three years to indict and convict three members of the military staff for the murder. Final appeals were quashed only in April 2007. This conviction marked an unprecedented victory, possible only because, for once, the whole world was watching—UN peace-accord monitors were still on the ground during the investigation and initial trials—and because a remarkable group of men in the church human rights office took huge risks to see that truth prevailed. In The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, Francisco Goldman reports—with passion, acuity, and dogged courage—from deep within odha’s eight-year campaign for justice in the Gerardi case. Goldman, who was baptized at the church where the good bishop drowned in his own blood, has poured his insider/outsider knowledge of Guatemala into two brilliant novels (The Long Night of White Chickens and The Divine Husband). In his first foray into nonfiction, however, he reins in his engagingly romantic literary imagination and sticks to the somber facts.
But what are the facts? A campaign of disinformation and defamation in which army, press, police, federal prosecutors, and even the sitting president seem to collude pins the murder on a series of unlikely suspects: an alcoholic drifter; a young priest of dubious morals, possibly an informer, who shared Gerardi’s duties at the church, and the priest’s old, arthritic German shepherd, Baloo (the bishop’s body was actually exhumed so a Spanish forensics “expert” could examine the corpse for bite marks); a ring of thieves, including another church eminence’s pretty young associate, accused of trafficking in stolen sacred art; and a conspiracy of embezzlers within the church’s own human rights office. Some of this is funny, in a sick sort of way. With the young priest in jail and his dog sequestered in a kennel, Goldman reports an epidemic of bumper stickers throughout the country demanding free baloo!
Welcome to the land of impunity, where bribes and threats and assassinations are standard operating procedure. An architect who knows too much is paid off with the post of Vatican ambassador. A cab driver who spotted an army license plate outside the church on the fatal night testifies and leaves, quickly and reluctantly, for Canada. Two hand grenades explode in the backyard of a young woman judge trying the case. Informed observers suspect her security guards. She stays put. The most vulnerable witnesses—the homeless and the incarcerated—are murdered. The director of odha gets the full treatment: Cocaine is allegedly planted in the trunk of his wife’s car, and thugs break into his house and threaten his four-year-old son at gunpoint. In 2006, when the Guatemalan Supreme Court upholds the guilty verdicts, the brother of odha’s top attorney is found murdered with his limbs severed—a final, unspeakable act of vengeance.
There’s more how than why in this story of Guatemalan lawlessness, but sometimes the two suddenly fuse, in illuminating flashes, as when Goldman tracks exiled prosecution witness Rubén Chanax to his dingy hideout in Mexico City and probes his psyche, as if he were a character in a novel: “Ever since he was a little boy, living in Huehuetenango with the family that had bought him from his mother, Chanax told me, he’d looked up to soldiers and liked being around them.” The army became this throwaway kid’s surrogate family. They trained him as an informer and assassin and sent him to spy on Gerardi, long before the murder he may have witnessed. With his Mayan features and name and his sad contempt—tinged with self-hatred—for everything “Indio” (a sorry local insult for Mayan ways), this man “with warty strangler’s hands,” fatuously reveling “in a reporter’s attentions like some old, nearly forgotten actor,” becomes, in Goldman’s canny portrait, a potent symbol of a society corrupted from top to bottom by military rule.
A writer based in New York, Suzanne Ruta lived for many years in Guatemala and Mexico.