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The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?

5.0 3
by Francisco Goldman

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Bishop Juan Gerardi, Guatemala’s leading human rights activist, was bludgeoned to death in his garage on a Sunday night in 1998, two days after the presentation of a groundbreaking church-sponsored report implicating the military in the murders and disappearances of some two hundred thousand civilians. Realizing that it could not rely on police investigators or


Bishop Juan Gerardi, Guatemala’s leading human rights activist, was bludgeoned to death in his garage on a Sunday night in 1998, two days after the presentation of a groundbreaking church-sponsored report implicating the military in the murders and disappearances of some two hundred thousand civilians. Realizing that it could not rely on police investigators or the legal system to solve the murder, the church formed its own investigative team, a group of secular young men in their twenties who called themselves Los Intocables (the Untouchables). Known in Guatemala as “The Crime of the Century,” the Bishop Gerardi murder case, with its unexpectedly outlandish scenarios and sensational developments, confounded observers and generated extraordinary controversy. In his first nonfiction book, acclaimed novelist Francisco Goldman has spoken to witnesses no other reporter has reached, and observed firsthand some of the most crucial developments in the case. Now he has produced The Art of Political Murder, a tense and astonishing true detective story that opens a window on the new Latin American reality of mara youth gangs and organized crime, and tells the story of a remarkable group of engaging, courageous young people, and of their remarkable fight for justice.

Editorial Reviews

Carolyn Curiel
In The Art of Political Murder, his first book of nonfiction, Goldman returns to Guatemala to try to solve a real killing, that of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, a Roman Catholic human rights advocate. Becoming by turns a little bit Columbo, Jason Bourne and Seymour Hersh, Goldman gives us the anatomy of a crime while opening a window to a misunderstood neighboring country that is flirting with anarchy. More, he offers an overdue indictment of brutal war criminals who were not just behind the one killing, but also contributed to a generation of atrocities…Goldman's intricate and insightful reporting of the crime and the trial recalls that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in News of a Kidnapping
—The New York Times
Pamela Constable
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…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Novelist Goldman (The Divine Husband, etc.) pursues in his first nonfiction book the infamous murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Guatemalan human rights leader murdered after the release of his multivolume report on the genocidal terror campaign led by the army in the 1980s and '90s, in which 200,000 people disappeared or were killed. The book, which began as a New Yorkerpiece, casts light into the darkest corners of this tortuous case, the U.S.-supported war in Central America and the continuing legacy of violence and corruption. The large cast and myriad details can be overwhelming, but overall Goldman manages a clear narrative (aided by a "dramatis personae" and chronology). Drawing on a wealth of sources, including interviews, declassified documents and court records, his meticulously researched book is an impressive organizational achievement, as well as a vital moral accounting. Goldman-who was baptized in Gerardi's church of San Sebastian, attended by his Guatemalan-born mother-invests this eye-opening account with a layer of personal reflection. Like Latin American writers García Márquez, Vargas Llosa or Carlos Fuentes, his journalism isn't so much a departure from his fiction as an extension of his concerns with the fraught landscapes where "truth" is as contested as the soil underfoot, yet central to battles waged over it. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Thorough, engrossing summary and analysis of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi's death in 1998. In the forefront of the civil-rights movement in Guatemala, 66-year-old Gerardi had been celebrating the release of a four-volume, 1,400-page account of government-sponsored murder and other atrocities over a period of four decades. Later that same week, he lay dead in the garage of the parish house, his head bashed and bloodied. Better known as a novelist, Goldman (The Divine Husband, 2004, etc.) is also a long-time journalist; he covered the bishop's death for the New Yorker, never imagining at the time that he would be devoting much of the next eight years to the case. And what a case, with a cast of heavies and heroes worthy of the richest novel or film: archetypal fat-cat, blood-soaked military officers; devoted, underpaid public servants; frightened witnesses begging for protection; risk-taking journalists; and cold assassins (both named and unknown) who hurled the brains of their victims into the faces of onlookers and dismembered the brother of one of the prosecutors. A homeless man who turned out to be a former soldier trained in intelligence served as a key witness for the prosecution. A priest was also involved-perhaps as part of a ring of thieves, perhaps as host of a homosexual pleasure dome-and even this priest's dog became a major player. Goldman presents unscrupulous lackeys in the government and in the press who endeavored to discredit the truth-tellers and whistle-blowers. Readers will find themselves as overwhelmed as the author was by complexity and confusion of acronyms, agencies and multiple levels in the justice system. Ultimately, some heads rolled-but were they the rightheads? The only ones?First-rate research and reporting on the darkness of hearts. First printing of 50,000. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
From the Publisher

“Passionate and stunningly researched . . . [Goldman] is after more than a crime. His book portrays the hysterical confusion, the dark fog that power—corrupt, ruthless and enduring—can impose on a society, choking its instincts, blinding its sight and rendering truth not only hard to find but hard to distinguish even if it is found.”—Richard Eder, New York Times

“One of our hemisphere’s finest writers has done it again. This magisterial book . . . is a marvelous chimera of reportage, history, autobiography but also a riveting whodunit, all rendered with Goldman’s trademark intelligence, compassion and verve. Goldman details how—through war, corruption, impunity, blackmail, silence and murder—a country's soul can be brought to the brink of extinction. And how—through faith, perseverance, sacrifice, courage, always courage—it can be brought back to the light. Devastating, gripping, irresistible.” —Junot Diaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“Francisco Goldman is a wonderful writer and this is an extremely important book.”—Salman Rushdie

“This is an impressive book. Goldman has focused his superb novelist’s talents—compassion, precision, muscularity, great thoroughness and an instinct for the exotique—on modern-day Guatemala’s ineradicable crime against itself. This remarkable book would seem not to remind us of ourselves, yet somehow it does.” —Richard Ford, author of The Lay of the Land and Independence Day

“With his novels, Francisco Goldman has already made extraordinary contributions to modern literature. Now, he has written a compelling and important piece of investigative journalism. Like of all Goldman’s writings, The Art of Political Murder is a work of unique moral acuity and masterful storytelling; but he has done much more than weave us a fine tale. This is a real-life whodunit, a murder conspiracy which lays bare the poisonous heart of politics and power in contemporary Guatemala. In the story of the murder of Bishop Gerardi, Goldman is not only our writer, but our trustworthy detective.”—Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“A powerful detective story with a labyrinthine plot . . . Goldman brilliantly reconstructs both the story of how the bishop was killed and the murderous history of military violence that he courageously opposed .”—Aryeh Neier, New York Review of Books

“Bishop Juan Gerardi directed the investigation into the Guatemalan terror. Prohibited history: military power gave the order for silence and forgetting. One night in the spring of 1998, the bishop published the results of the investigation. Two nights later, he was found lying in his blood, his skull shattered by blows from a brick. A gigantic international operation was launched to disguise the crime and safeguard the Untouchable impunity of the authors of the murder and two hundred thousand murders more. This book by Francisco Goldman is the irrefutable response to the dirty work of the specialists in misleading public opinion.”—Eduardo Galeano, author of Voices in Time

“Some stories are inscribed deep in the pith of the world, awaiting only the coming of their chosen teller to set them forth. Such is the tale of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the beloved chistoso—or joker—who plumbed the depths of Guatemala’s genocidal darkness and found himself finally engulfed by it. Gerardi’s fate was to serve as the bringer of terrible truths and now he has been succeeded in that sacred role by novelist Francisco Goldman, who offers an unforgettable portrait—not only of one society corrupted to its heart by fear, lies and terror but of the insinuating, terrifying ways of power itself. In The Art of Political Murder, Goldman has written his greatest novel—except that every word on these pages happens to be true. This is an essential book.” —Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War

The Art of Political Murder… exemplifies flawless investigative journalism. A fantastic detective, ….Goldman effortlessly merges background information with character, gets the real scoop, and somehow never loses the reader…Along the lines of Honor Thy Father and In Cold Blood, this is a work of nonfiction that can be read as a novel, even a mystery novel…However, it does something I don’t think a novel could have done in its stead: instigate immediate political change.” —Jesse Tangen-Mills, Bookslut.com

“In this painstakingly reported and passionately-told story of a notorious murder conspiracy and the ruthless forces behind it, novelist Francisco Goldman offers us far more than a classic portrait of political corruption in a small central American country. This is human depravity and heroism on a mythic scale, ever more terrifying and timeless for being true.” —Charles Siebert, author of A Man After His Own Heart

“In today's world of media cover-ups and government irresponsibility, Francisco Goldman's incredible investigation into the murder of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala strikes a powerful chord with the reader. The terror and inhumanity present in this book is both eye-opening and shocking. Goldman's strengths as a journalist and a novelist combine to pack a powerful punch that is incredibly appealing and poignant.” —John M. Hugo, Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA

“In The Art of Political Murder Francisco Goldman has crafted a compelling page turner as well as a deeply moving portrait of Guatemalan activists in the aftermath of a tragic civil war. Goldman’s account of the the1998 murder of the Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi Condera is a tensely wrought detective story and a political history. The Art of Political Murder is one of the finest pieces of personal investigative journalism I have read since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” —Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Booksellers, San Francisco, CA

“Both a horrifying exposé and a triumphant tale of justice . . . [Goldman] 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 . . . 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, Washington Post

“Becoming by turns a little bit Columbo, Jason Bourne and Seymour Hersh, Goldman gives us the anatomy of a crime while opening a window to a misunderstood neighboring country that is flirting with anarchy. More, he offers an overdue indictment of brutal war criminals who were not just behind the killing, but also contributed to a generation of atrocities . . . Goldman’s intricate and insightful reporting of the crime and the trial recalls that of Gabriel Garcia Márquez in News of a Kidnapping.”—Carolyn Curiel, New York Times

“The Art of Political Murder is both a page-turner and a searing indictment of a corrosive brand of politics that has overwhelmed a nation . . . In these dark times, Goldman offers a rare gift: a reason for hope, a story about the limits of impunity, an improbable and inspiring case study of success.” —Daniel Alarcón, San Francisco Chronicle

“A grimly satisfying, finely honed detective story . . . Goldman takes us deeper than any book has ever gone into the criminal pathologies of contemporary Latin America, with its mara gangs, prison riots, drug networks, and political putrefaction . . . [recounting] the murder as coolly as a coroner.” —Roger Atwood, Boston Globe

“Gripping . . . A tour de force, not just for [Goldman’s] reportorial tenacity . . . but because his novelist’s eye and his deep understanding of Guatemalan society take you places no other reporter could: inside the death squads; inside the world of political assassination; inside the gangs and prisons; and out among the legions of psychotic, traumatized, unbalanced, underemployed veterans who are the perpetrators of so much of Guatemala’s crime.” —Peter Canby, The Nation

“The Art of Political Murder is journalism by genre; a searing, gripping account of the 1998 murder of Catholic Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera and the winding, perilous investigation that followed it. Yet like Goldman’s earlier novels, this book engraves itself in a reader’s memory not only for the story it tells—riveting, horrific and oddly inspiring—but also for its nuanced portrayal of a society where violence, fear and moral corrosion have long outlived the conflict that once sustained them . . . an extraordinarily compelling read. Painstakingly, and at no small personal risk, Goldman spent nearly eight years tracking down nearly all of the crime’s key players and untangling thousands of strands of contradictory evidence. Yet he has distilled this tangled mass of information to its dramatic essence, sustaining the suspense of a crime novel in order to compel his readers to understand the complexities of Guatemala’s violent peace.”—Brodwyn Fischer, Chicago Tribune

“First-rate research and reporting on the darkness of hearts.”—Kirkus (starred review)“Drawing on a wealth of sources, including interviews, declassified documents and court records, his meticulously researched book is an impressive organizational achievement, as well as a vital moral accounting. Goldman … invests this eye-opening account with a layer of personal reflection.” —Publishers Weekly

“The Art of Political Murder compels us partly because it swings a door open onto the working guts of state-sanctioned violence . . . Here is a real tale of church machinations and government corruption. If, like me, you have not given the Tennessee-size nation an hour of your attention, The Art of Political Murder is reason to start.” —Karen Long, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“An impeccably researched account of the Gerardi case that reads like a thriller . . . as enthralling as it is filled with terror.” —Carlos Rodríquez Martorell, NY Daily News

"A thriller that crashes through barriers of genre . . . Reading the book is to enter a surreal, and very dark labyrinth, a 300-page ride of relentless fear . . . [Goldman's] book is at once awe-inspiring and disheartening: He has perfected the art of nonfiction by explaining how Guatemala has perfected the art of political murder.”—Silvana Paternostro, BOMB

”An impressive achievement in investigative reporting . . . The Art of Political Murder is witness to the struggle of a small, courageous group of activists to bring the processes of a democratic judicial system to bear on one of the most corrupt and violent modern cultures in the Western hemisphere . . . Goldman’s book is, in large part, [the Untouchables’] story. The tension and suspense are brutally real and the resolution far from certain. The Art of Political Murder is history with a fast pulse and a wary eye.”—Katherine Dunn, The Oregonian

“Goldman spools out clues to the murder like a crime writer, uncovering a terrifying conspiracy that implicates powerful figures in the military, the government, and the media.”—The New Yorker

“Goldman is a journalist’s journalist, and the amount of investigative legwork involved in producing this book, and the risks thereof, is staggering. This is an impressive book in its breadth.”—Rocky Mountain News

“Goldman has a storyteller’s instinct . . . the work . . . provides a detailed and disturbing insight into a lingering national psyche in which the limits of power, corruption and violence remain difficult to measure.”—Jack Broom, Seattle Times

“Francisco Goldman’s carefully documented book is more than just an absorbing whodunit about the shocking assassination of a charismatic cleric . . . It also provides

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The Art of Political Murder


Grove Press

Copyright © 2007 Francisco Goldman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1828-8

Chapter One

One Sunday afternoon, a few hours before he was bludgeoned to death in the garage of the parish house of the church of San Sebastián, in the old center of Guatemala City, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera was drinking Scotch and telling stories at a small gathering in a friend's backyard garden. Bishop Gerardi's stories were famously amusing and sometimes off-color. He had a reputation as a chistoso, a joker. "In a meeting with him, you would get this whole repertoire of jokes," Father Mario Orantes Nájera, the parish's assistant priest, told police investigators two days later. "I wish you could have known him." Guatemalans admire someone who can tell chistes. A good chiste is, among other things, a defense against fear, despair, and the loneliness of not daring to speak your mind. In the most tense, uncomfortable, or frightening circumstances, a Guatemalan always seems to come forward with a chiste or two, delivered with an almost formal air, often in a recitative rush of words, the emphasis less in the voice, rarely raised, than in the hand gestures. Even when laughter is forced, it seems like a release.

Guatemalans have long been known for their reserve and secretiveness, even gloominess. "Men remoter than mountains" was how Wallace Stevens put it in a poem he wrote after visiting "alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala." Two separate, gravely ceremonious, phantasmagoria-prone cultures, Spanish Catholic and Mayan pagan, shaped the country's national character, along with centuries of cruelty and isolation. (At the height of the Spanish empire, ships rarely called at Guatemala's coasts, for the land offered little in the way of spoils, especially compared with the gold and silver available in Mexico and South America.) In 1885, a Nicaraguan political exile and writer, Enrique Guzmán, described the country as a vicious, corrupt police state, filled with so many government informers that "even the drunks are discreet"-an observation that has never ceased to be quoted because it has never, from one ruler or government to the next, stopped seeming true.

Bishop Gerardi was a big man, and still robust, though he was seventy-five years old. He was over six feet tall and weighed about 235 pounds. He had a broad chest and back; a prominent, ruddy nose; and thick, curly gray hair. After the murder, his friends recalled not only his sense of humor and affection for alcohol but also his voracious reading, his down-to-earth intelligence, and a nearly clairvoyant understanding of Guatemala's notoriously tangled, corrupt, and lethal politics, which made him by far the most trusted adviser on such matters to his superior, Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barrio, a less worldly figure. Soon after Penados was named archbishop, in 1983, he had recalled Gerardi from political exile in Costa Rica. As the founding director of the Guatemalan Archdiocese's Office of Human Rights (Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala), which was usually referred to by its acronym, ODHA-pronounced OH-dah-Gerardi became one of the Catholic Church's most important and visible spokesmen and leaders.

The gathering in the garden on that last afternoon of Bishop Gerardi's life was a celebration of the completion of Guatemala: Never Again, a four-volume, 1,400-page report on an unprecedented investigation into the "disappearances," massacres, murders, torture, and systematic violence that had been inflicted on the population of Guatemala since the beginning of the 1960s, decades during which right-wing military dictators and then military-dominated civilian governments waged war against leftist guerrilla groups. An estimated 200,000 civilians were killed during the war, which formally ended in December 1996 with the signing of a peace agreement monitored by the United Nations. The Guatemalan Army had easily won the war on the battlefield, but making peace with the guerrillas had become a political and economic necessity. Still, the Army was able to dictate many of the terms of the agreement and engineered for itself and for the acquiescent guerrilla organizations a sweeping amnesty from prosecution for war-related crimes. This "piñata of self-forgiveness" was an ominous beginning for an era supposedly based on such democratic values as the rule of law and access to justice, as well as demilitarization.

The peace agreement endorsed a truth commission sponsored by the UN-the Historical Clarification Commission-which was intended to establish the history of the crimes of the previous years. But many human rights activists, including Bishop Gerardi, who had participated in the peace negotiations, doubted that the UN commission would be able to provide a thorough accounting of events. The commission was not permitted to identify human rights violators by name or assign responsibility for killings. Testimony given to the commission could not be used for future prosecutions. As a counterweight, under Gerardi's guidance, ODHA had initiated a parallel and supportive investigation, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica), known as REMHI (REM-hee), which in April 1998 produced Guatemala: Never Again. Bishop Gerardi wrote an introduction to the report.

On Wednesday, April 22, Bishop Gerardi, along with Ronalth Ochaeta, a thirty-three-year-old lawyer who was the executive director of ODHA, and Edgar Gutiérrez, the thirty-six-year-old coordinator of REMHI, held a press conference to brief reporters on the general content of Guatemala: Never Again. When a reporter asked if they were taking extra security precautions, Gerardi ceded the microphone to Gutiérrez, and turned to whisper in Ochaeta's ear, "Qué vaina," which is not exactly translatable, but in this context meant something like, "Damn." Shortly after the murder, Ochaeta saw a newspaper photograph that captured the instant after that whispered exclamation. The bishop had just settled back in his chair, a look of grim preoccupation on his face.

The next evening, Thursday, April 23, Bishop Gerardi and his associates invited journalists and influential personages to a dinner in the Archbishop's Palace in the sprawling Metropolitan Cathedral complex, near the church of San Sebastián. That night, copies of the first two volumes of Guatemala: Never Again-"The Impact of the Violence" and "The Mechanisms of Horror"-were handed out. While the guests dined, Bishop Gerardi explained REMHI's methodology, and afterward he took questions. Over a two-year period, he said, some 800 people had undergone intensive training for interviewing and collecting testimony for the investigation. Operating from thirteen regional centers, the "reconciliation facilitators" had spanned out across the country. Guatemala's population is at least 60 percent Mayan Indian, and the Maya, the rural peasantry especially, had borne the brunt of the war's carnage. Well over half of the interviews for Guatemala: Never Again had been conducted in fifteen Mayan languages and the rest in Spanish.

On Friday, April 24, Guatemala: Never Again was formally presented in the cathedral. The cavernous house of worship-an austerely sturdy, earthquake-scarred, 150-year-old neoclassical edifice -was packed with diplomats, politicians, members of nongovernmental organizations, former guerrillas, journalists, human rights activists, and others. The only body not represented that it would seem should have been was the government of the president of Guatemala, Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen.

Television screens were installed in the two aisles off the nave of the cathedral so that the people sitting and standing there could watch the ceremony at the altar. Despite the gravity of the report, the mood was quietly jubilant. To many it seemed as if Guatemala really was on the verge of a new era. Only twelve days earlier President Arzú had announced on national television that the country had been removed from the UN Human Rights Commission's list of the world's worst human rights violators, a status it had held for nineteen years and which had led to UN sanctions, intrusive observer missions, and periodic suspensions by the U.S. Congress of military aid (although covert and other forms of military assistance, through the CIA and surrogate nations such as Taiwan and Israel-which, for example, built the Guatemalan Army an ammunitions factory-had continued).

Along with the peace accords, the end of Guatemala's position as a pariah state cleared the way for renewed foreign aid and assistance. And now the Church, through REMHI, was initiating a truthful accounting of the past-an accounting that, Bishop Gerardi had stressed on many occasions, was crucial for repairing the country's shredded social fabric and for ensuring that human rights abuses would no longer be protected by an official culture of silence and lies or by a legal system that effectively gave certain institutions and sectors of society carte blanche to commit crimes.

In the cathedral that evening, bishops from every diocese that had been involved in REMHI were assembled at the altar. (Only one of twelve dioceses had declined to participate.) A Lutheran pastor was also invited to speak. "When we began this task, we were interested in learning, in order to share, the truth," Bishop Gerardi said in his speech, "to reconstruct the history of suffering and death, discover the motives, understand the how and why. Portray the human drama, share the pain, the anguish of thousands of dead, disappeared, and tortured.... The REMHI project has been a door thrown open so that people can breathe and speak in liberty, and for the creation of communities of hope. Peace is possible, a peace that arises from the truth for each and every one of us."

After the ceremony, there was a reception in the Archbishop's Palace. The crowd, including some 600 of the people who had worked on REMHI in the field, pressed into one of the old colonial-style patios for a traditional repast of tamales and coffee, and to congratulate Bishop Gerardi. Edgar Gutiérrez soon noticed that Gerardi had withdrawn to the end of a corridor alongside the patio and was standing in the shadow of one of the arches, silently observing the crowd. Gutiérrez approached and asked if he felt overwhelmed by so many people. The bishop answered, somewhat vaguely, "It's turned out to be a wonderful night. Hopefully it won't rain." Then he asked, "And you, Edgar, have you made arrangements to leave the country with your family, to go study somewhere until the waters here calm down?"

"They're not calm, Monseñor?" asked Gutiérrez.

"Well, they'll be much more agitated when they finish reading REMHI."

"So then I still have time, Monseñor," said Gutiérrez, with a touch of bravado.

During the final weeks and days of his life, Gerardi had several times warned his young associates to take precautions. He had urged Ronalth Ochaeta to explore the possibility of a scholarship to study at a European university, or to look for a job with an international organization. But Gerardi seemed much less concerned about his own safety. Guatemala, after all, remained a fervently Catholic country, despite a surge in conversions to evangelical Protestantism, particularly during the last decades of the war. Gerardi may have assumed, as everyone else around him apparently did, that his status as a highly visible eminence in the Catholic Church protected him.

Sunday, April 26, the last day of Bishop Gerardi's life, began normally enough. Margarita López, for more than twenty years the cook and housekeeper at the parish house, served him morning coffee-strong, the way he liked it-in his room. Bishop Gerardi slept in a simple wood-frame bed. A crucifix hung on the wall above it, and his dentures were in a glass of water on a nightstand. The room was sparely furnished, with bookshelves, a desk, a stereo, and a television set in the corner. Bishop Gerardi donned his robes, pulled on his heavy bishop's ring, and gave the seven AM Mass. Afterward he was visited by his nephew Javier and Javier's children. The assistant priest, Father Mario, later recalled how absorbed the bishop was while watching the children play Nintendo in his room. Father Mario, who was then thirty-four and had shared the parish duties for eight years, was among the first to notice how unusually Bishop Gerardi was dressed that day, in blue jeans and a red-checked shirt instead of his black suit and collar.

At about eleven that morning, Ronalth Ochaeta came to the church of San Sebastián to pick Gerardi up and take him to El Encinal, a wooded hillside residential community overlooking Guatemala City, where Dr. Julio Penados, the archbishop's brother, was giving the celebration for REMHI. They first drove to Ochaeta's house to collect Ochaeta's wife and children-the bishop's "grandchildren," as he liked to say. Ochaeta, a small, stocky man with a cherubic mestizo face, had been working at ODHA for nearly ten years, and Gerardi, it was often remarked, had come to regard him as a kind of son. On the way to the party, Gerardi excitedly recounted impressions of the events of Friday night, and said, "Now I can retire in peace." He played with Ochaeta's children, giving them pieces of chocolate as a prize if they could reproduce the funny faces he made.

The guests at that final Sunday afternoon celebration were mostly colleagues from ODHA and family members. Many recalled later that "Monse"-short for Monseñor-was in an ebullient mood, and they commented on the unaccustomed informality of his clothes. He wore a beige jacket over his jeans. Monse looked, a woman guest told him, as if he'd suddenly shed ten years. There was festive banter, drinks, and, later, bowls of stewed garbanzos and beef. The sky was a brilliant placid blue, the air flesh and fragrant with the smell of pine and eucalyptus trees.

Naturally, when people who were there recount what they remember about that afternoon, they emphasize details that in hindsight seem charged with premonition. And so they recall that at one point Bishop Gerardi said to Ronalth Ochaeta and Edgar Gutiérrez, "You two shouldn't go around together so much. They'll say you're huecos"-Guatemalan slang for homosexuals. When the laughter subsided, he insisted he was serious. "Remember, now is when the smear campaigns begin," he warned.

They recall that the main subject of conversation, of course, was the REMHI report. "Now we know what happened, but we don't know who gave the orders," Bishop Gerardi remarked at one point. "I think we need to begin another little project," a new report on "the intellectual authors" of the war's atrocities. He let those words sink in, then cackled mischievously. And Gutiérrez responded, "Ay, Monseñor, if we do that they'll kill us for sure."

And they recall that Edgar Gutiérrez's small son fell from a swing made from a rubber tire suspended by a rope from a tree and cut his lip open badly and that the other children were shouting, "There's blood! There's blood!" and that it was after that, around four-thirty, that the party slowly began to break up. Gutiérrez's mother-in-law, who was visiting from Mexico, was so perturbed by Bishop Gerardi's warnings that she decided that afternoon to take her three grandchildren back with her to Mexico City.

Ronalth Ochaeta, with his wife and two children in the car, drove Bishop Gerardi back to his home at the church of San Sebastián, in a still mostly residential neighborhood in Zone 1. (Guatemala City is demarcated into numbered zones, most encompassing several neighborhoods-colonias or barrios-which often have names of their own.) San Sebastián was only a few blocks north of the central plaza fronting the cathedral and the recently renamed Palace of Culture-formerly the National Palace, the seat of so many dictatorships. Between San Sebastián and the palace was the presidential residence. They reached the church sometime between five-thirty and five-forty-five. "Don't you have Mass?" Ochaeta asked. The bishop said that Father Mario was giving the six o'clock Mass. They spoke a bit about a trip Gerardi was to take to a conference in Mexico on Wednesday, and Ochaeta assured him that everything was arranged. Bishop Gerardi got out of the car, turned to wave good-bye, and went inside the parish house.

If Bishop Gerardi really was contemplating retirement-he occasionally mentioned the possibility, although most people seem to think that he was too energetic and involved in his work, and too important a figure to Archbishop Penados and the Church, to go through with it-the completion of Guatemala: Never Again would have represented a logical and triumphant capstone to more than five decades in the priesthood. The son of Italian immigrant merchants, Gerardi had spent most of his first twenty years as a priest serving poor, mostly Indian, rural parishes until being called to Guatemala City, where he worked for two extremely conservative and politically powerful prelates in succession-Archbishop Mariano Rossell and Cardinal Mario Casariego-and served a stint as Chancellor of the Curia. His appointment as bishop of the northern diocese of Verapaz in 1967 coincided with the years of the Second Vatican Council (1965) and the Latin American Episcopate's Medellín Conference (1968), seminal gatherings that committed the Church to a greater openness and its clergy, at the latter conference especially, to a worldlier role, responsive to the needs of the poor.


Excerpted from The Art of Political Murder by FRANCISCO GOLDMAN Copyright © 2007 by Francisco Goldman. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Francisco Goldman’s first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Ordinary Seaman, his second novel, was a finalist for the International IMPAC-Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction. Both of his novels were finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His fiction and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.

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The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
MariaUnda More than 1 year ago
I am a lawyer, born and raised in Guatemala. I worked for five years in the Supreme Court and I learned first hand, how fragile our justice system is. After I read this book, I realized that our justice system is weaker than I thought and the upper spheres of power are rotten and corrupt. This is a great book, very well documented, that reveals a good and profound investigation. I hope that in future years, this book becomes an obliged reading material in schools and universities, specially in law school. It's a great, well written thriller, but more than that, is the story of a country whose people are still struggling to become a nation that respects human rights. I commend and congratulate Mr. Francisco Goldman.
pandunne More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books ever written about the continuing struggle for open government and peace in Central America. While the focus of the book is the specific investigation into one man's murder (albeit an extremely important man), the revelations of the crime indict the real criminals: the governments of Guatemala and the United States, and the Roman Catholic Church. Goldman's writing is thorough, incisive, and always fair. His credentials as a journalist and a citizen of both countries make him the perfect reporter/author for this topic. The Art of Political Murder is thrilling and thought-provoking. Simply an extraordinary piece of work.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up because of its title, knowing nothing about its premise but once I started reading I was hooked. I had to know who killed the Archbishop and why there were so many twists and turns related to his murder - setting it up, why supposedly "good" people were willing to be involved in it. I was struck by and gratified in reading how decent people can stand up in spite of insurmountable odds to make sure justice and decency prevail. It was inspiring to see how the case was investigated and how people were willing to put their lives on the line to do this and justices of the Guatamalian system would hear and prosecute the military men who planned and coordinated the murder -- but how sad to have to leave your country of origin and extended families to have to survive. This is a book for true believers in justice -- albeit an imperfect kind.