True Crime

Banners with the image of Juan Gerardi in 2005 read
Banners with the image of Juan Gerardi in 2005 read "The truth shall set us free." (Rodrigo Abd/associated Press)
Reviewed by Pamela Constable
Sunday, September 30, 2007


Who Killed the Bishop?

By Francisco Goldman

Grove. 396 pp. $25

Francisco Goldman, an accomplished novelist who specializes in evoking murky tropical worlds, could easily have concocted a macabre and fantastic plot in which right-wing military officers of a Central American country murder a leftist cleric, then set about terrorizing witnesses and planting salacious rumors to distract the public and cover their tracks. The assassins are never found, the powerful institutions behind them remain entrenched, and justice proves as elusive as a rare quetzal bird flitting through the jungle.

But The Art of Political Murder is not a novel. It is a painstakingly researched account of the assassination of a Guatemalan bishop, Msgr. Juan Gerardi, whose bludgeoned body was found lying in a pool of blood in his parish garage on the night of April 26, 1998, just four days after he and a team of human rights investigators announced the publication of a devastating, 1,400-page report blaming Guatemala's security forces for a 30-year reign of murder, torture, massacres and disappearances.

Goldman's book is both a horrifying expos¿ and a triumphant tale of justice belatedly served in a country where the concept had lost all meaning, of institutional evil unmasked in a place where it had long operated behind a thousand disguises, of plodding police work and personal courage overcoming a culture of impunity and fear.

It is also alarmingly relevant to current events in Guatemala, where a season of national elections has been savaged by political assassination and skullduggery. One of the two leading presidential candidates is Otto P¿rez Molina, a former army general and military intelligence chief who was in office at the time of the Gerardi murder. He has campaigned on a law-and-order platform and has said he would not hesitate to restrict civil liberties to crack down on crime.

Starting from the grisly murder scene, Goldman slowly builds a case against the killers and their shadowy protectors. His journalistic investigation closely tracks a laborious, multi-year inquiry by the human rights office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala as well as a badly flawed official prosecution that nevertheless led to the first-ever convictions of Guatemalan army officers in a human rights crime. In the process, he lays bare the inner workings and powerful reach of an amoral shadow state.

The Guatemalan-born author employs a blend of literary prose and factual reportage to keep readers engrossed in a complex tale involving dozens of characters, a thicket of deception and constantly shifting versions of events. He zooms in like a detective on tiny forensic details, scrutinizing casual comments and wisps of evidence until they begin to make sense.

At the same time, he repeatedly reminds us of the murder's context in a bloody history that goes back to the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the establishment of Central America's most ruthless military machine and the launching of a protracted guerrilla war that took an estimated 200,000 civilian lives.

Goldman briefly recreates the era of anti-communist dictatorships and counterinsurgency campaigns, touching on some of its most notorious murders and shedding light on his own motivations. In particular, the 1985 torture-killing of a human rights activist named Rosario Godoy de Cuevas and her infant son haunted him for years. The pervasive fear and sorrow of that period, he writes, "stayed inside me like a dormant infection that can sometimes be stirred back to life, even by a glance."

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