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

The civil war officially came to an end in December 1996, with the signing of peace accords overseen by the UN. Both sides made sure to grant themselves amnesties so they couldn’t be held accountable for war crimes. Rather than a war crimes tribunal, the UN sponsored a body known as the Historical Clarification Commission, which was meant to come up with a definitive account of the preceding decades’ atrocities. No names were to be mentioned, however, and no blame or responsibility assigned. Considering this to be inadequate, Gerardi and ODHA set up their own investigation, the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI). Guatemala: Never Again was the result. ‘It was widely assumed, of course,’ Goldman writes, ‘that the bishop was killed in retaliation for the REMHI report.’ The real question was: ‘How realistic was it to expect that the murderers would ever be brought to justice?’

The first person to be arrested, three days after the killing, was Carlos Vielman, a young homeless alcoholic. Investigators claimed he was the shirtless man who had been spotted fleeing the scene of the crime by his fellow rough sleeper Rubén Chanax. Chanax failed to pick him out of an identity parade, however. Vielman also had a solid alibi: he’d been sweeping the floor in a bar near the bus station at the time of the murder. He said he knew nothing about the crime. None of the forensic evidence – blood, fingerprints – could be connected to him. And he was lame in one arm, so would have had some difficulty wielding the concrete slab that was used to kill the bishop. Still, the authorities held on to him until they could come up with a more plausible suspect.

Such a suspect duly presented himself in the form of Father Mario, who was arrested, along with the parish house cook, on 22 July (Vielman was released five days later). The priest’s dog, an ageing German shepherd, was also taken into custody. Puncture marks on the back of the bishop’s head, at first thought to have been made by a knuckle-duster, were now said to be a dog bite. The chief prosecutor had a new theory: Bishop Gerardi’s murder was a ‘homosexual crime of passion’. On his return to the parish house, or so this baroque version of events went, the bishop stumbled across something he wasn’t supposed to see – Father Mario and the shirtless man – and was killed (in the words of Vielman’s lawyer) ‘because what he saw was something that was supposed to be hidden’. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but that hardly mattered when Father Mario was so compelling a candidate to pin the murder on. When the real culprits realised who Gerardi lived with, as one of the ODHA lawyers put it, ‘they must have felt like they’d won the lottery.’

Father Mario’s room at the parish house was stocked with a surprising amount of stuff, much of it tending to the unpriestly and nearly all of it expensive (his salary was a modest $74 a month): mahogany and purple leather furniture; a 36-inch TV; 90 videotapes of movies including Jurassic Park, Lethal Weapon and Bordello of Blood; racks of designer shirts, jackets, shoes, pyjamas, belts, cologne, watches; a loaded gun with plenty of spare ammunition; and several photographs of his dog, some of which showed the animal with an erection. The gun and the dog had both been presents from Father Mario’s brother, the former rector of the Colegio San José de Los Infantes. During his four years at the school he ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and was accused of sexual harassment by several female teachers and pupils’ mothers. In 1996 he slipped quietly away to a seminary in Panama. Tainted by association with his brother, with his camp manner and eccentric tastes, Father Mario was a born scapegoat.

The charges against him were provisionally dropped in February 1999: for one thing, the puncture wounds on the back of the bishop’s head were shown not to be dog bites after all; for another, the authorities had found an even better set of suspects in the daughter of another senior priest’s housekeeper and her boyfriend, who were members of a criminal gang that was supposedly dealing in stolen church artefacts. But Father Mario may also have owed his freedom to the intervention of Jean Arnault, the head of MINUGUA, the UN mission in Guatemala. Two days after the priest was formally charged in October 1998, Arnault gave a press conference. ‘We know that groups exist,’ he said, ‘that have both the capacity and the motive to carry out a political crime that has the appearance of a common crime.’ (Modern-day diplomats not only from the UN but also from the US come out well, generally speaking, from Goldman’s book, providing at various key moments much needed protection both to witnesses and investigators in the Gerardi case.)

It was the arrest of Father Mario that drew Goldman, who had been following the case from New York, to Guatemala to write about it, in the first instance for the New Yorker. San Sebastián had been his mother’s parish church when she was growing up, and Goldman was baptised there. He spent his childhood ‘bouncing between Guatemala and the United States’, and as a young adult lived for a couple of years during the 1980s in a flat in Guatemala City that had been his great-aunt’s. He’s not a native of the city, but he’s not a complete outsider either: this, together with the clarity of his prose, makes him an ideal guide to the convolutions of the Gerardi case. He isn’t strictly impartial – he’s inclined to mistrust the military – but he is disinterested, and his suspicion of the army is not exactly unjustified.

To write the piece he wanted to write, he ‘knew that [he] needed to gain the confidence of people at ODHA’, who were polite but guarded when he first approached them. They’d had bad experiences with American journalists before. More important, they had to be very careful who they spoke to since they were preparing to go head-to-head against members of the national security forces who had shown no compunction in murdering one of the country’s most senior churchmen and fully expected to get away with it. This, presumably, was the message that the murder of Bishop Gerardi was meant to send, since it was too late to be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate ODHA into not disseminating the REMHI report: you can publish as many documents and name as many names as you like, but you won’t stop us killing whoever we like, whenever and wherever we like.

Senior ODHA figures made the decision to run their own parallel investigation on the night of the murder. ‘Experience had taught them that it would be naive to assume that an investigation conducted by the government would not be biased.’ The ODHA inquiry was initially headed by a young investigator called Fernando Penados. He and the three other young men in his team were known, ‘half jokingly’, as Los Intocables (‘the untouchables’). Patiently, diligently, over many months, they gathered evidence and assembled their case against the EMP. Their first break came within a few hours of the bishop’s death. The head of ODHA’s legal team, arriving at the parish house around two in the morning, recognised the short man with the moustache and the camera.

Two years earlier, a drunk milkman had nearly run into the president and his wife while they were out horseriding. Captain Byron Lima Oliva of the EMP Presidential Guard had ridden out in front of the milkman’s van and signalled for him to stop. But the van kept coming, and Captain Lima was thrown from his horse and broke his arm. The milkman crashed his van into a parked car. EMP vehicles boxed him in, and Sergeant Major Obdulio Villanueva shot him three times in the head. Villanueva was subsequently sentenced to a five-year stretch for murder, though ODHA had pressed for him to be given 30 years. At his trial, an EMP photographer, the short man with a moustache, made sure to take pictures of all the people from ODHA who were in the courtroom. His presence at the scene of Bishop Gerardi’s murder meant that the EMP were at the very least interested in it.

Witnesses were tracked down or came reluctantly forward. A taxi driver told a priest that he’d seen a car with an official number plate parked near the church of San Sebastián on the night of the killing, with several men standing around it, one of whom wasn’t wearing a shirt. A former drug dealer, trained to notice such things, the taxi driver memorised the licence plate. He gave the number to the priest, who passed it on to ODHA. The number was registered to a military pick-up truck which had since been sold without its plates.

The archbishop’s office received an anonymous telephone call from a woman who said they should investigate ‘Colonel Lima Oliva’. ODHA couldn’t find anyone of that name and rank, but the father of Captain Lima Oliva, Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, was a recently retired colonel, who had been in charge of the army base where the pick-up truck with the missing number plate had been registered.

A private security guard who had served under Colonel Lima in El Quiché in the 1980s and later worked in military intelligence testified that the army had had Bishop Gerardi under illegal surveillance since 1992.

An EMP specialist came forward whose job it had been on the night of the murder to record the names and number plates of all the people and vehicles going in and out of EMP headquarters. Shortly before half past ten, a black jeep arrived carrying Captain Lima, Sergeant Major Villanueva (supposedly still in jail for killing the milkman) and a man the specialist knew only as ‘Hugo’, who had a special forces tattoo on his arm.

A cellmate of Villanueva’s said that prisoners could come and go more or less as they pleased, so long as they attended the daily roll-calls and gave the guards a big enough bribe. Villanueva had sloped off on the night of the murder.

And Rubén Chanax, the original key witness, turned out to be a former soldier and trained informer. He was prevailed on to give a more or less full statement of what he had seen and done that night, implicating Hugo, Colonel Lima, Captain Lima, Sergeant Major Villanueva, Father Mario and, to a much lesser extent, himself, in the murder. Hugo had done the actual killing; Villanueva and Captain Lima had rearranged the crime scene to try to make it look like a robbery gone wrong, enlisting Chanax’s help; Father Mario had let them in; and Colonel Lima had co-ordinated everything. Chanax testified before a judge on 17 January 2000. Two days later, arrest warrants were issued for the Limas, Villanueva (now officially released from prison) and Father Mario. If the assistant priest was after all involved, it would explain why he had been so bad at exonerating himself the first time round. ‘Hugo’ was never positively identified. (An anonymous EMP source suggested he was never found because part of Captain Lima’s job had been to eliminate him once he’d done his dirty work.)

The trial began in March 2001; the four men were all found guilty three months later, and sentenced to between 20 and 30 years in prison. But the verdicts were overturned on appeal in October 2002. The Supreme Court then ruled against the appeal, upholding the original verdicts. A new appeal began. It wasn’t until April 2007 that the process at last came to an end. The Constitutional Court ruled, once and for all, that the Limas and Father Mario were all to serve 20 years. Villanueva was out of the equation because he’d been murdered in jail in 2003.

Goldman’s book is described on its jacket as belonging to the genre of ‘true crime’. But that somewhat demeaning classification can’t begin to encompass its scope. He provides not only a measured and compelling account of the murder, its investigation and aftermath, but also a rich and detailed portrait of the country where it happened. Taking the bishop’s killing as his starting point, Goldman plots its causes and repercussions through all sectors and echelons of Guatemalan society, from the president to the rough sleepers on the steps of the church. He marshals a phenomenal amount of information – names, dates, acronyms, conflicting accounts of uncertain events – without ever becoming either boring or confusing. The linear version of events I’ve given here doesn’t begin to do justice to the complexity of ODHA’s investigation or Goldman’s account of it. With a diligence possibly inspired by what he saw of ODHA’s methods, he chronicles the many potentially bewildering changes of personnel, life histories, friendships and fallings-out that have a bearing on his story. He isn’t short of impressive set pieces, either, providing vivid descriptions of such events as the opening of the bishop’s tomb for a second autopsy, or a grisly battle between rival prison gangs.

Guatemala, as Goldman describes it, is a country that fifty years ago lost, for a combination of internal and external reasons (the vested interests of an entrenched racist elite, American meddling), its opportunity to develop the trappings of a civilian, secular, democratic state. Since then power has rested, in different ways, with the military and the church. More recently, with the help of more liberal and left-wing elements in the church (including Bishop Gerardi), civil society, through organisations such as ODHA, has been making its presence felt. Showing astonishing determination and bravery in the face of extreme intimidation, death threats and enforced exile (the director of ODHA took his family to Costa Rica after Villanueva and two other thugs broke into his house, tied up his four-year-old son and trained a pistol on him), Los Intocables and their colleagues achieved something momentous in calling to account for their misdeeds three army officers who had believed themselves beyond reach. As soon as the Constitutional Court handed down its ruling, ODHA was determined to go after those even higher up the food chain who must have authorised the bishop’s extrajudicial execution.

Goldman ends on a note of cautious optimism: ‘For half a century the military’s clandestine world had seemed impregnable. The Gerardi case had opened a path into that darkness.’ From Goldman’s own account, however, it’s plain that the army is unlikely to surrender any time soon. During the final appeal process – in a grim echo of Bishop Gerardi’s murder two days after the publication of the REMHI report – Darinel Domingo, a 21-year-old law student and the younger brother of one of ODHA’s lawyers, was kidnapped, tortured and shot dead.

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