This article originally appeared in EntreMundos, Guatemala’s bilingual human rights publication. View the original version here (PDF). May, 2009.
Good fiction weaves threads of truth into a fabric of narrative invention. In The Art of Political Murder, Francisco Goldman inverts this order. He gives a non-fiction account of the Guatemalan human rights activist and bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. In Goldman’s journalistic investigation of the murder and its aftermath, he untangles threads of governmental secrecy and deceit, of opaque military brutality and impunity, and of media spin and invention. He then weaves them into a fabric of historical record so compelling that it reads like pulsating fiction.
The book opens with the release of Guamtemala, Never Again!, a 1,400 page report covering the systematic violence of the armed conflict beginning in the early 1960s and formally ending with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996. The report was an unprecedented account of atrocity, torture, and human rights violations during a war that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 civilians. In 1997, the Catholic Church’s Office of Human Rights in Guatemala, ODHA, launched an investigation called the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI in Spanish). Bishop Gerardi had been serving as director of ODHA and Guatemala, Never Again! was the product of the REMHI investigation. The report was released to the public on April 24, 1998, and two days later Bishop Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in the garage of his parish home in Guatemala City.
Theoretically, the signing of the Peace Accords would put an end to things such as state-sponsored murder in Guatemala. Yet Gerardi and the report had incriminated the military in human rights abuses of genocidal scale. In a culture of persistent impunity in which no governmental or military figure had ever been found guilty of human rights violations, Gerardi’s murder seemed suspiciously political.
Several different investigations of the murder unfold, each revealing its own version of the truth. Military intelligence officers were quick to paint the murder as a crime of passion, the result of a sordid homosexual love affair gone awry. Prosecution investigators followed extraneous leads, arresting a homeless man who is soon released. The involvement of Gerardi’s assistant priest Father Mario Orantes and his German shepard Baloo is investigated, and both are taken into custody. A morbid farce of forensic evidence includes the exhumation of the bishop’s body to look for dog bites, and the medical “expertise” of an eccentric Spanish forensics doctor who removed a thumb from the corpse to display in his macabre museum in Spain.
At the heart of the story is the independent investigation of the “Untouchables,” a group of students and young lawyers from the Church’s human rights group ODHA who sought the truth of the political murder despite its dangerous implications. With the hope of tracing the murder to military forces and then holding the accountable for the crime, the Untouchables found key witnesses and ex-military informants, offering protection for those who would testify. Facing threats against their families whispered through cell phones or years of exile abroad, a series of witnesses did come forward. In 2000, three members of the Presidential Military Staff were implicated and brought to trial. In 2001, they were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, an historic moment for human rights prosecution in Guatemala.
Goldman’s book reflects the bittersweet complexity of this triumph. The verdicts are eventually overturned on appeal, before being reinstated once again. Meanwhile, other human rights activist murder trials found the Guatemalan state guilty, only for the verdict to be overturned later. Striking in its very recent and still unresolved denouement, The Art of Political Murder is a story whose truth is entrenched in uncertainty, beset by danger, and stranger than political fiction.