True Crime
A novelist investigates the killing of a beloved Guatemalan bishop.

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."

Following the 1996 peace accords, Guatemala theoretically became a civilian-ruled democracy. But as this book argues persuasively, the nature of power did not really change, and the country remained hostage to shadowy military forces whose anticommunist mission had morphed into criminal enterprise, employing an army of informants. This system thrived in an atmosphere of conservative politics, media compliance and social prejudice in which many affluent Guatemalans looked down on the Mayan Indian poor whose cause the guerrillas championed.

The human rights activism of Bishop Gerardi's team was an intolerable challenge to this system, Goldman writes, and his slaying was no random crime. It was the calculated lashing out of a threatened monster; a symbolic act in a mighty confrontation between two major institutions, the military and the church; and a "complex chess move" designed to preserve a culture of privilege and profit.

The masterminds of the murder went to extraordinary lengths to disguise it as something else. Titillating rumors were planted in the press and the public imagination, with just enough plausibility to be believed: Gerardi had been the homosexual victim of a violent lovers' spat. He was done in by his housekeeper's vixen daughter and her gangster boyfriend. He was attacked by a German shepherd named Baloo who belonged to the secretive, fetishistic parish priest.

This last version gained such currency that the poor dog was imprisoned, the bishop's corpse was exhumed to look for bite marks, and cars sprouted bumper stickers saying, "Free Baloo!" Lurid gossip became official truth, dutifully repeated by the national media and sucking in even the distinguished Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who opined in 2004 that the plot had been concocted by an array of "scoundrels, opportunists and petty politicians" and that the actions of the church's human rights investigators were "supremely suspicious."

Behind the soap-opera smokescreen lay a plot of breathtaking ruthlessness and seemingly infinite reach. Guatemala's military intelligence apparatus seemed to know everything about everyone, and its methods of intimidation ranged from blackmail to whispered phone threats to sadistic atrocities -- one investigator's brother was found dead, his arms and legs torn off. Witnesses vanished, fled into exile or suddenly recanted. "It was in the long post-execution stage," Goldman writes, "that the murder of Bishop Gerardi was especially masterful."

Slowly, however, the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together. Much of the evidence came from a demi-monde of vagrants, informers and ex-soldiers whose portraits are among the most riveting and revealing parts of the book. They were both accomplices and victims of the system, nobodies who could be manipulated, abandoned or eliminated when necessary.

The key witness was Rub¿n Chanax, a jobless former soldier who had been paid to spy on the bishop and gradually found the courage to tell what he knew. He appears again and again in the book, each time imparting more information about the crime, himself and the sinister system that employed him. Most chilling are his descriptions of training for an elite intelligence unit, which included being forced to decapitate a puppy and shoot a civilian couple chosen at random.

Several major figures in the drama are more opaque or complex, including two convicted in the murder. One is Father Mario Orantes, the owner of Baloo, a man of bizarre habits and relationships whose apparent role in the crime was never clarified. The other is Army Capt. Byron Lima, a former intelligence official who projected spit-and-polish rectitude but ran lucrative rackets inside prison and hinted at a vast conspiracy behind the bishop's death.

The author also plays a crucial role in the book, weaving in and out of the drama as he tracks down nervous witnesses, plucks facts from webs of deception, reflects on the tragic history of his homeland and unforgettably evokes a world of subtle but omnipresent evil that Bishop Gerardi and his colleagues sought to chronicle as a warning to future generations. Above all, The Art of Political Murder is a passionate cry of outrage that should be read and passed on by anyone who believes, as Goldman proves here, that truth is always more improbable than fiction. *

Pamela Constable, a staff writer and former foreign correspondent for The Post, is co-author of "A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company