The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 September, 2007, 12:00am

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?

by Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

This investigation into the murder of a Guatemalan bishop plays out like a complicated Latin American novel. In 1998, Bishop Jose Juan Gerardi, the author of a report that found that Guatemalan army murder squads were responsible for the deaths of almost 200,000 of the country's citizens, was murdered.

Guatemalan human rights workers were convinced that a military intelligence organisation called the EMP was responsible. But their attempts to bring the murderers to justice were stymied by a powerful military machine that still exercised influence over the nominally democratic government.

Francisco Goldman details their courageous - and ultimately successful - attempts to prove that EMP operatives killed the bishop.

The Art of Political Murder is written in an eloquent literary style. The rich language, bizarre events and twisting, complex narrative are reminiscent of the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But this doesn't mask or mar Goldman's commitment to the truth - this is a solid and detailed work of investigative journalism. The Guatemalan novelist began investigating the murder for The New Yorker magazine soon after it was committed. He stayed with the case for eight years, interviewing prosecutors, witnesses and military suspects. He also followed up his own leads.

Guatemala's civil war, from 1960 to 1996, is the backdrop to The Art of Political Murder. Ten thousand civilians died in the first 20 years. But the worst human rights abuses occurred between 1981 and 1983, when the governments of two ultra-right military dictators massacred swathes of the population to prevent them collaborating with the leftist guerillas. Both sides were accused of atrocities, but it's now accepted that the military was responsible for more than 90 per cent of the 200,000 civilian murders. Torture, rape and the razing of whole villages were common tactics.

By 1998, the year of Gerardi's murder, the war was over and Guatemala was nominally a democracy. But the government had strong ties to the military, and military intelligence organisations such as EMP, fiefdoms that acted outside government regulation, remained intact. In 1998, Gerardi - the founding director of the Guatemalan Archdiocese Office of Human Rights (Odha) - published 'Guatemala Never Again', a four-volume, 1,400-page report. It was 'an unprecedented investigation into the 'disappearances', massacres, murder, torture, and systematic violence that had been inflicted on the population' by the military. Two days later, Gerardi was bludgeoned to death.

Most Guatemalans suspected the military. Human rights workers suspected the EMP. But years of covert operations by the military against the population had given the perpetrators the skills to cover their tracks. The crime was carried out to look like a personal rather than a political attack. Here, the bizarre labyrinth began. At various times, the establishment put forward the idea it was a robbery, a homosexual crime of passion and a gangland killing. At one point, a dog was arrested for the crime. The military murdered potential witnesses and threatened judges, and the government tried to slow and confuse the investigation. Finally, tenacious lawyers from Odha, along with public prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig, brought some of the murderers to justice.

The bravery of the prosecutors is not to be underestimated. The EMP's methods were barbaric, and they acted with impunity. The brother of Odha investigating lawyer Mario Domingo was tortured by having all of his limbs pulled from his body, then shot. A woman activist representing those who had gone missing during the military dictatorship had her car pushed off a road. The perpetrators tortured her baby in front of her by ripping out its fingernails, then raped and murdered the woman.

The politics at the heart of the murder were as labyrinthine as the EMP's methods of dissembling. Odha was puzzled by the fact that Gerardi was murdered two days after his report was published. Why not before publication? The military correctly predicted that the bishop's murder would be such sensational news that it, rather than the damning report, would receive most of the press coverage.

Goldman takes us up to last year, when the Guatemalan courts finally upheld a decision to imprison military officers found guilty of the murder. That has opened the door for investigations into other members of the military involved in the crime - and, perhaps, wider investigations into the role of the military in other civilian murders.

Guatemala remains a violent country rife with murder, political assassination and intimidation. In the run-up to recent elections, the BBC reported that at least 50 candidates or their family members had been murdered. But Goldman expresses a hope that, with tenacious investigation, murder will lose out in the end.