BOOKS : ‘The Art of Political Murder’

Activist Auxiliary Bishop Juan Girardi Conederal, murdered in April, 1988.

Mourners gather with can candles to mourn the murder of Bishop Juan Girardi: “Enough!”

The Novelist and the Murderers
By Nathaniel Popper

[This article first appeared in the July 7, 2008 edition of The Nation.]

Early last November, the novelist Francisco Goldman was shouldering his way through the Texas leg of a reading tour for his first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder. Published by Grove Press in September, the book had received glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and it would soon be included by The New York Times Book Review in its list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. On Nov. 5 Goldman was relaxing in his hotel before a reading at a Houston Barnes & Noble when his BlackBerry pinged with an e-mail from an innkeeper in the Guatemalan town of Santiago de Atitlán.

One day earlier, Guatemalans had voted in a general election, and the winner of the presidential contest was Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat and head of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) Party. Quite unexpectedly, Colom had come from behind in the polls to defeat Otto Pérez Molina, a salt-and-pepper-haired general who had campaigned on the slogan of Mano Dura (Firm Fist), a sturdy platform in a country that was ruled by the military and repressive right-wing parties almost without interruption from 1954 until the late ’90s. As it happens, the election was also the subject of the e-mail Goldman received from the innkeeper, David Glanville: The Art of Political Murder, Glanville wrote, may have been a decisive factor in Pérez Molina’s loss.

Goldman’s book is about neither the election nor the candidates. The Art of Political Murder is an investigation of one of Guatemala’s most notorious and gruesome killings. On a Sunday night in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death just two days after publishing a report about the Guatemalan military’s responsibility for civilian massacres in the country’s recently concluded civil war. In the midst of investigating the case, Goldman found sources who told him that on the night of the murder, Pérez Molina was hanging out in a convenience store near Gerardi’s church with a few conspirators in Gerardi’s murder. That scrap of information is mentioned–but not heavily scrutinized–by Goldman in his book.

The Art of Political Murder was available only in English, but during the campaign the news it contained slowly spread through Guatemala: in some places disseminated by priests, in other places by UNE officials at election rallies. In Santiago de Atitlán, a small indigenous town on the shores of Guatemala’s most beautiful lake, word had arrived in the form of a pamphlet featuring three photos–two of Gerardi and one of the cover of The Art of Political Murder–and a line from the book, translated into Spanish, about the general’s alleged role in the crime. The pamphlets were handed out to people visiting Santiago’s cemetery on the Day of the Dead, two days before the election. Dolores Ratzan, a local woman who had lived in exile in the United States during much of the civil war, says she saw the pamphlets when she went to the cemetery. What she noticed even more was the discussion they stirred up. “I just heard people talking about it–like, This Pérez Molina, he killed the bishop. That’s what everybody talked about,” she recalled a few months after the election. She says that on election day, “that’s why a lot of people didn’t vote for him, because he was a killer.”

Pérez Molina’s campaign of law and order had played well in Santiago, thanks to a wave of crime and lynchings last year. But as in many areas of Guatemala, the invocation of Goldman’s account of Gerardi’s murder had deep resonance. In 1981, at the height of the country’s civil war, Guatemalan soldiers broke into Santiago’s Catholic church and drove nails through the head of its priest–a transplant from Oklahoma who had been accused of siding too closely with the indigenous people.

Santiago has weathered the varied effects of US involvement in Guatemala. After the CIA-led coup d’état against Col. Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the US government funded and trained Guatemalan military officers, some of whom went on to serve at a base near Santiago. More recently, Santiago has been the site of American charitable projects. But the unexpected presence of Goldman’s book, not just in Santiago but throughout the country during the 2007 election campaign, represented an inadvertent kind of American involvement in Guatemala. Edgar Gutiérrez, an old colleague of Bishop Gerardi’s and a former foreign minister, calls Guatemala a “kingdom of impunity.” Written to tell one story about that kingdom, The Art of Political Murder has become caught up in another story, one about the kingdom’s possible reformation. More improbable still, the book has injected an element of accountability and consequence into a country where for decades there’s been far too little of either.

During Guatemala’s civil war, 200,000 people were killed–roughly 5 percent of the population at the outbreak of fighting–and nearly all of the dead were from rural indigenous areas. UN-monitored peace accords were signed by the Guatemalan Army and guerrillas in 1996, but since then a virtual narco-state has arisen, created and overseen largely by former military officers. The homicide rate in Guatemala is seven times that of New York City, and it recently surpassed the levels in Colombia and South Africa. The figure is roughly equal to what it was during the civil war–forty-five deaths per 100,000 people. Equally staggering is the fact that the Guatemalan police make arrests in about 5 percent of their homicide cases (in the United States, the figure is 62 percent). During the Colom-Pérez Molina presidential race, nearly sixty people affiliated with the campaigns were murdered, more than twice the number killed during the previous election, in 2003. During a recent stay in Guatemala City, I passed a man who was bleeding from a bullet wound in his abdomen at 1 pm in the middle of downtown. Several firemen, who are responsible for removing dead bodies, were on the scene, but the police were nowhere in sight.

Bishop Gerardi was renowned for defending a group often targeted by brutal political violence–Guatemala’s downtrodden indigenous population. After working as the bishop in the rural province of El Quiché for six years, Gerardi was warned by locals that assassins were on his trail, and so in 1980 he fled to Costa Rica. But people who know him say that his exile never dulled his off-color humor or disdain for the risks involved with his work. After Gerardi returned to Guatemala in 1983, he helped found the human rights project of the Catholic Church, called Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (ODHA). After the 1996 peace accords, ODHA launched an investigation dedicated to providing a thorough accounting of civil war-related crimes, including the massacre of civilians. By 1998 the organization had assembled a four-volume report documenting the toll of the war. Guatemala: Never Again concluded that the military was responsible for 80 percent of the civilian deaths during the civil war. The next year, ODHA’s findings were corroborated by a UN investigation, which attributed 93 percent of the casualties to the military.

Gerardi would not live to see this confirmation of his work. On April 26, 1998, two days after a public presentation of Never Again in Guatemala City’s main cathedral, the bishop was found in a pool of blood in the garage of his parish house, a jagged piece of concrete nearby. The crime occurred a little after 10 pm, and the bishop’s wallet and gold ring were found with his body.

Gerardi’s church, San Sebastián, is a modest, elegant structure within blocks of the National Palace and every major intelligence agency, and initially it appeared that the investigation of the bishop’s murder would, like so many other cases, disappear into the thicket of impunity. The crime scene was a mess (gawkers were allowed on the scene, and some walked through puddles of blood), and the first arrest was a homeless man. The UN verification team stationed in Guatemala after the peace accords quickly raised the possibility of a cover-up and criticized the government prosecutor for withholding documents.

The theory was certainly a plausible one, since at the time only one human rights case against members of the military had gone through the Guatemalan courts, and in that case, when an officer was convicted, he quickly escaped–this after the investigating police officer was murdered in broad daylight. Members of Gerardi’s team at ODHA had worked on that case, and when their boss was killed, the young team of ODHA investigators, which included Edgar Gutiérrez, quickly went to work. While the government prosecutor investigating Gerardi’s murder stumbled, the ODHA team found a taxi driver who had driven past the church on the night of the crime and seen a car with men gathered around it. They traced the car to a mothballed military base. When the information was shared with the government, all public records of the car disappeared. It was the first clear signal in the Gerardi case that, as Goldman writes in his book, “the Army had many chess pieces to play with, and a very large board.”

Born in 1954 to a Guatemalan mother and a Ukrainian-American Jewish father, Goldman has a round head of curly black hair and a ready laugh. He lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and when I met him there books and papers were strewn about his one-bedroom apartment. Goldman spent most of his early childhood in Guatemala, and the country is the setting of his first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It’s the story of a Guatemalan-American aristocrat from Boston who investigates the mysterious murder of his adoptive Guatemalan sister, who ran an orphanage in her home country. The Art of Political Murder covers similar territory–murder, paranoia, Guatemalan political intrigue–but it reads as though it were written by a different author. The Long Night of White Chickens is filled with florid poetic language that often doubles back on itself, exploring ideas of memory and dislocation. The Art of Political Murder, by contrast, is a study in spare storytelling, with Goldman rarely devoting more than a sentence to set a scene. Goldman is an ebullient, expressive man, but he says he felt the need to restrain himself while telling the Gerardi story in order to write “with the most diligent fidelity to the case itself.”

Goldman began reporting on the Gerardi case a few months after the killing, initially on assignment for The New Yorker. He befriended the young team of ODHA investigators, joining them for long days of sleuthing and equally long nights of drinking. “When Frank wrote this book he was living with us–in all the time that we were suffering,” Mario Domingo, the head of ODHA’s legal team, recalls. As the ODHA team and a new, more ambitious government prosecutor pushed the case forward, Goldman quickly became a part of the story he was telling. When his piece appeared in The New Yorker on March 15, 1999, a small but respected Guatemalan newspaper, El Periódico, translated and printed the article in a special edition, and sent copies to 5,000 churches around the country. Several months later, Goldman showed up at the trial in Guatemala City, which had commenced after Gerardi’s team at ODHA had assembled a case in concert with a new government prosecutor. In the halls of the courthouse, Goldman was menaced by taunts from the most colorful of the defendants, Capt. Byron Lima. During a break in the proceedings, Lima called Goldman a “faggot,” leading to a brief verbal altercation. Soon thereafter, the defense lawyers called for the removal of Goldman from the courtroom–a motion that was rejected.

Other people involved in the case encountered more lethal forms of intimidation. Grenades were thrown into the backyard of a judge overseeing the case; masked men broke into the house of ODHA’s director and assaulted his son and maid. Despite these threats–issued from Guatemala’s kingdom of impunity–after a two-and-a-half-month trial the prosecutors and ODHA won convictions against two military officers, a sergeant and Father Mario Orantes, a priest who lived in the parish house with Gerardi and had colluded to let the killers into the church, according to the sentence. The judges determined that the crime had been planned and executed by the presidential intelligence unit, the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), which had long been a nearly independent unit of terror within the Guatemalan government, answerable only to the president. The court issued a list of thirteen others, including seven military officers, to be investigated further, a probe that continues to this day.

The four convictions did little to close the case. The officers denied any role in the crime and quickly appealed. At the same time, two European journalists, Maite Rico and Bertrand de la Grange, published an article in August 2001 in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres that claimed to contradict the findings of the court. According to the duo, who relied heavily on information provided by members of the military and their attorneys, the military defendants had been innocent and the murder had been committed by renegade military officers in cahoots with the Catholic Church. In 2003, Rico and de la Grange published a longer version of their article as a book, ¿Quién mató al obispo? (Who Killed the Bishop?).

The Rico and de la Grange argument won a wide following in Guatemala. Álvaro Arzú, who had been Guatemala’s president when Gerardi was murdered and has since become the mayor of Guatemala City, handed out ¿Quién mató al obispo? to foreign diplomats stationed in Guatemala. Among the many television networks and newspapers to run laudatory coverage of Rico and de la Grange was El Periódico, which published an excerpt from the book. “Bertrand and Maite are rightist journalists working here in a conservative, Catholic country,” a top editor at the paper, Juan Luis Font, told me. “I think most editors here wanted to believe that they were telling the truth.”

The vituperative atmosphere created by Rico and de la Grange provoked Goldman to expand his article into a book. It also pushed two crucial sources to open up to him: the lead government prosecutor, Leopoldo Zeissig, and Rafael Guillamón, a reticent UN police investigator who had been in charge of a parallel inquiry into the Gerardi case. Guillamón told Goldman that he was “nauseated” by the coverage and showed him all his old notebooks about the case.

Goldman was not alone in pursuing the story that had been laid out by the judges. El Periódico had Claudia Méndez, a young, tenacious reporter, on the beat. Méndez, who had studied at one of Guatemala City’s bilingual schools, was only 23 when the trial started, and she speaks with a mix of humility and confidence about the case. “I was like a child when I started working on this case. It was a real clash–a real wake-up. Like I had thought of my country one way and then, bam, I had to realize it is actually this way.” Méndez used her guile and seeming innocence to engage the defendants in jailhouse interviews that brought them as close as they ever came to admitting their culpability in Gerardi’s murder. But in the end it was Goldman, not Méndez, who wrote the book about the case, and she expresses no unhappiness about that. “Who would have the means to do it here?” she explained to me during a driving tour of the Gerardi crime scene. Even more important than resources, Méndez says, is the fact that only a foreigner would have any credibility with the authorities: “They knew that Frank was a power that they cannot buy and they cannot threaten. It’s someone from the outside.”

In early 2007, as Goldman was putting the finishing touches on The Art of Political Murder, he gave Méndez a version. Soon people in the office of Álvaro Arzú spotted printouts of the galleys on the mayor’s desk. Similar reports came from the bishop’s office. (How those two offices nabbed copies of the galleys remains a mystery.) Goldman had sent the copy to Méndez so that the editors of El Periódico could translate and print an excerpt from the book before its publication. For the editors, it was not hard to see which pages would be the most explosive. About two-thirds of the way into the text, on page 239, Goldman introduces Pérez Molina, describing him only as a “Guatemalan officer.” But this suave political operator would not blend into the seemingly endless cast of characters who people the book. An excerpt featuring the passage about the “Guatemalan officer” appeared in El Periódico on June 10 along with a photo of Pérez Molina.

Read all of this article here. / The Nation /

Thanks to Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte / The Rag Blog

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