True crime

Pub date September 25, 2007


REVIEW In a July 31, 2007, editorial, the New York Times decried the "more than 5,000 murders … reported each year" in Guatemala, noting that "many are committed by the same groups — both left and right — that terrorized the country" during its 36-year civil war. Yet as author Francisco Goldman writes in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, the Catholic Church–<\d>initiated report that precipitated the murder of human rights leader Bishop Juan Gerardi "concluded that the Guatemalan Army and associated paramilitary units … were responsible for 80 percent of the killings of civilians, and that the guerillas had committed a little less than 5 percent of those crimes."

The Times‘ "plague on both their houses" take is a splendid illustration of how poorly served we are by our media’s reporting on Guatemala — and Latin America in general. When Goldman states that the Guatemalan war "was a consequence of a coup engineered by the CIA against Jacobo Arbenz, only the second democratically elected president in Guatemala’s history," he may shock an American audience largely oblivious to events widely known outside the United States.

On April 22, 1998, Gerardi briefed the Guatemala City media on an Archdiocesan Office of Human Rights investigation so thorough that it named more than 50,000 of the war’s estimated 200,000 casualties. At the time, "no Guatemalan military officer had ever been convicted or imprisoned for a crime related to human rights," Goldman writes. And the military planned to keep it that way. Four days later, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage.

It was a killing so bold as to suggest that military assassination specialists could not have been involved. But, as one Guatemalan journalist wrote, "crimes planned in the [Presidential Military Staff] are executed to look like common violence," and a disinformation campaign immediately sprang into action, one in which, Goldman notes, famed novelist and former Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa played a particularly despicable role.

The Guatemalan-born, US-based Goldman has written three novels, a background that serves him well in his first nonfiction book, a complicated story of high-level government and military obfuscation eventually penetrated — to a degree — through dogged work by low-level government investigators and prosecutors working at great personal risk. At least two special prosecutors, four witnesses, and one judge involved in the case have gone into exile, and one witness was murdered. But three members of the army and the priest who shared Gerardi’s house were convicted for participating in his "extra judicial execution." Their sentences were finally upheld this year, although by that time one of them had been decapitated in a prison riot.

Goldman observes that Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, whose militaries the United States backed in similar conflicts, all became societies with "some of the highest murder rates in the world," where "the powerful and well connected acted with impunity." The story pauses on a positive note, though, with one prosecutor declaring the beginning of "the second stage of prosecution," aimed at higher-ups involved in the crime, possibly including Otto Perez Molina, the right-wing candidate in Guatemala’s current presidential campaign.<\!s>*


By Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

416 pages



Oct. 21, 5 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193,