The Shirtless Man

Thomas Jones

  • The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi? by Francisco Goldman
    Atlantic, 396 pp, £16.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 1 84354 737 2

Juan Gerardi, an auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala, was bludgeoned to death with a paving slab in his garage on the night of 26 April 1998. The parish house of the church of San Sebastián is next to a park in the centre of Guatemala City, a few blocks from the National Palace and the headquarters of the Presidential Military Staff (EMP). At around ten o’clock on that Sunday evening, one of the homeless men who slept in the park, Rubén Chanax, saw a bare-chested man emerge from the garage and run off towards Seventh Avenue. Shortly after midnight, Father Mario Orantes, the 34-year-old assistant priest of San Sebastián who lived in the parish house with Bishop Gerardi, rang the chancellor of the curia with the news that he’d found the bishop’s corpse. He called several other people too, including eventually the fire brigade (who do the work of ambulance crews in Guatemala) and the police. The news spread quickly. Through the early hours of the morning, a substantial crowd gathered: police, firefighters, churchmen, friends of the bishop, human rights activists, UN officials, rough sleepers, the attorney general, and a mysterious short man with a moustache who was taking photographs.

Two days before the murder, the Guatemalan Archdiocese’s Office of Human Rights (ODHA), of which Bishop Gerardi had been the director since it was set up in 1989, published a 1400-page report entitled Guatemala: Never Again. It documented the results of an investigation into the disappearance, torture and murder of the 200,000 civilians killed during the thirty-year civil war between a succession of right-wing military governments and leftist guerrillas. Many of the worst atrocities were committed by the EMP. The attorney general wasn’t the only one immediately to make a connection between the report and the murder, to assume that the army was somehow involved in the bishop’s death.

In 1944, when Gerardi was 22 years old, two years before he was ordained, Guatemalans elected their first democratic government. Ten years later, the republic’s second president was overthrown in a coup backed by the CIA and the United Fruit Company. Throughout the Cold War, military death squads, funded and trained in counterinsurgency techniques by the United States, suppressed all forms of opposition. This was nominally part of the fight against Communism, which is the reason America condoned it, but according to Francisco Goldman in The Art of Political Murder, ‘it was essentially a war to protect an entrenched elite.’

For the first twenty years of his working life, Gerardi was based in poor rural parishes. After a stint in Guatemala City, in 1967 he was appointed bishop of Verapaz, a sprawling diocese of mountains and coffee plantations in the north inhabited mostly by Q’eqchi Maya Indians, along with a few wealthy landowners. Rather than following tradition and catering to the oligarchy, Gerardi, influenced by the liberation theology that had begun to spread throughout Latin America, introduced a Mayan language Mass. ‘We find ourselves faced with a situation of exploitation, marginalisation, illiteracy, endemic illnesses, poverty and even misery,’ he wrote in 1973. The following year he was made bishop of El Quiché. In 1980, 37 Mayan peasants from his diocese occupied the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to protest against the army’s attacks on their villages. Security forces stormed the building and set it on fire, killing all but one of the protesters; the survivor was kidnapped from his hospital bed a few hours later and murdered.

The army stepped up its campaign in El Quiché, attacking churches and convents and murdering priests they considered tainted by liberation theology. Gerardi told the local army chief that the soldiers were killing more people than the guerrillas were, and that the military’s lawless actions were recruiting civilians to the guerrillas’ cause. One night in July 1980 the bishop was smuggled out of a village along a mountain path to avoid an army ambush that had been set for him. Either in fear or protest, or a combination of the two, Gerardi shut down the diocese. Four months later, on his return from a trip to the Vatican, where he had asked the pope to speak out against the brutality and violence of the Guatemalan army, he was refused entry to the country and went into exile in Costa Rica. In 1983, a change of both president and archbishop meant that Gerardi was allowed home and appointed auxiliary bishop.

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