The recent history of Guatemala is in many ways the tale of a country being gradually overwhelmed by crime, but in February Guatemala was rocked by a crime sensational even by its standards. Three prominent Salvadoran legislators–including Eduardo D’Aubuisson, son of the infamous rightist Roberto D’Aubuisson–were on their way to Guatemala City for a meeting of the Central American Parliament, a legislative body created in 1986 to try to heal the rifts that run through this fractious region. Not far from Guatemala City, the luxury SUV carrying the legislators was ambushed and diverted to a rural farm, where the three Salvadorans–along with their chauffeur–were riddled with bullets and then torched inside their vehicle.

A transponder soon revealed the kidnappers to be members of the Guatemalan National Police, including the head of its organized crime division. The accused cops were locked up in El Boquerón, a maximum-security prison forty miles outside Guatemala City.

A few days later, all visitors to the prison were asked to leave, and in full view of a public already riveted by the initial crime, a team of assassins passed unimpeded through a series of locked gates, shot the police in their cells, slit their throats and promptly disappeared. According to the Los Angeles Times, a group of FBI investigators sent to help Guatemala with the subsequent investigation were “appalled” by the conduct of their Guatemalan counterparts and found the crime scenes compromised and obvious leads not followed up. A Central American intelligence official told the LA Times‘s Héctor Tobar that Guatemalan investigators “simply and intentionally refused to pass information to the FBI.”

This double crime is unlikely ever to be solved, and to many observers it offers further proof of the degree to which organized crime has penetrated, perhaps even come to dominate, the structures of the Guatemalan state. Somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States is estimated to pass through Guatemala, and narco-traffickers reportedly make regular payments of up to $5,000 a month to well-connected law enforcement officials.

“It’s not that organized crime has penetrated the police force or the Interior Ministry,” Luis Ramírez, an analyst at the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies of Penal Science, told Nancy San Martin of the Miami Herald. “Organized crime is directing the police, the ministry, and the military.”

Guatemala is not the world’s only crime-dominated state, but what distinguishes its predicament is how the crime wave came about. For the country’s lawlessness is, in many ways, the logical outcome of the peace accords that ended its brutal, long-running internal war. That war came to a close in 1996, when the United Nations brokered an ambitious peace treaty between the state’s armed forces–sustained by overt and covert support from the United States–and leftist guerrillas who had fought them for decades. An integral part of the treaty was the plan to create strong civil institutions, including police and a judiciary, to guide Guatemala back to democratic life. But while the fighting between the guerrillas and the army has come to an end, the violence has not. At the time of the peace negotiations, the guerrillas held the weak hand. The police and other security forces were never purged or rebuilt, and the feeling of many observers is that the security forces, having discovered the efficacy of torture and assassination during the long war, are now using these same techniques, to greater effect, to promote criminal cartels.

The men with guns have shed their ideological slogans, but they continue to enjoy impunity–put more crudely, the ability to get away with murder. There are more than 5,000 murders a year in Guatemala, but only 2 percent of them result in arrests. “It’s a paradise for organized crime,” Anders Kompass, a United Nations representative in Guatemala, told Manuel Roig-Franzia of the Washington Post. “The state apparatus is weak. The impunity rate is very high. This [the February murders] has shown that organized crime has penetrated at a much higher level than we ever thought.”

Francisco Goldman’s new book, The Art of Political Murder, is about another murder in Guatemala–perhaps the only other Guatemalan murder to surpass the February murders in notoriety. The book’s subject is the fatal bludgeoning of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in his Guatemala City parish house–Guatemala’s so-called “crime of the century.” Goldman’s account of the search for and arrest of the perpetrators is gripping. More significant, though, it also sheds light on the ways Guatemala has become a place where bishops can be murdered in the middle of the capital and Central American legislators can be assassinated in broad daylight by the head of the police department’s organized crime division.

Bishop Gerardi, the son of Italian immigrants, was a large, genial man. He stood over six feet tall, weighed some 235 pounds and liked drinking Scotch and telling jokes. Despite his affable qualities, Bishop Gerardi played a central role in the politics of Guatemala’s war. In 1974 he was appointed bishop of the Quiché diocese, a largely Indian region of Guatemala’s highlands. During the war, Quiché was hit especially hard by violence. In 1980, after escaping an assassination attempt and in response to the army’s murderous rampage against not just priests and lay Catholics but also many thousands of indigenous villagers, Gerardi made the unprecedented choice to shut down the diocese. He was soon forced into exile by Guatemala’s military junta. Several years later, upon his return to Guatemala, he was put in charge of the church’s human rights office in Guatemala City. On April 24, 1998, he issued a massive, church-sponsored human rights report based on testimony from approximately 50,000 victims of political violence (mostly Maya Indians) and backed by files naming the perpetrators (mostly members of the army and other security services).

Two days later, Gerardi, then 75, was followed into his parish house and bludgeoned to death with a cement block. It was widely assumed that the motive for the bishop’s murder was the release of the report. The armed forces had hoped to emerge from the peace process with what amounted to an amnesty. They were willing to accept an accounting of the violence–an estimated 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Maya Indians, had been killed over the course of the war–but since the armed forces had committed the vast majority of those murders, they made it clear that they would not tolerate having specific names and units attached. Gerardi’s report did just this–not in the report itself but in the diocesan files, which, at the time the report was issued, the bishop’s office had promised to make available to the public. In contrast to the military’s desire for an amnesty, Gerardi argued for an accounting of the violence and stressed on many occasions that human rights abuses should not be protected by a culture of silence or, as Goldman puts it, “a legal system that effectively gave certain institutions and sectors of society carte blanche to commit crimes.”

Even knowing the army was likely responsible for the bishop’s murder, finding the evidence to indict specific members of the military, or a court that would prosecute the case, was another matter. Despite tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings stretching back for decades, at the time of Bishop Gerardi’s murder no Guatemalan commissioned officer had ever been convicted of a murder. Indeed, in many ways the investigation and prosecution of Gerardi’s murder became a high-profile test case for the UN’s plan to assert the primacy of civil authority. It is not clear that there would have been a prosecution without the prestige of the UN behind it.

Goldman is Guatemalan by heritage and a successful and well-known novelist. This is his first nonfiction book, and it is a tour de force, not just for his reportorial tenacity (he followed the case for eight years, long after the international press had lost interest) 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.

The Gerardi murder turns out to have been run out of the Estado Mayor Presidencial, an elite military unit responsible for the security of the president and his family. The EMP, as it is known, was a dreaded organization that, during the war, had been the agent of much of the army’s interrogation and torture. The perpetrators of the Gerardi murder, who were eventually tried and convicted, were Col. Byron Disrael Lima Estrada; his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva; and Sgt. Maj. Obdulio Villanueva, a particularly brutal NCO with a history of political violence.

Colonel Lima was a former head of military intelligence and a man said to have incinerated, during the war, 400 Maya Indians who had taken refuge in a church (an incident apparently described in Bishop Gerardi’s report). Captain Lima and Sergeant Major Villanueva were members of the Kaibiles, a Guatemalan special forces unit that reportedly required its trainees to adopt a puppy on induction and strangle it with their bare hands upon graduation. A Kaibil specialty is decapitation by razor-sharp bayonet; in recent years, former Kaibiles have put themselves out for hire with Mexican drug cartels and set new standards for depraved violence in the cartel war zones of the Mexico-United States border.

Nothing was easy about the prosecution and conviction of Gerardi’s murderers. Thugs broke into the home of the executive director of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office, terrorized his children and left him a gift box containing a chunk of concrete similar to the one used to assassinate the bishop. An intruder also broke into the home of the Human Rights Office’s legal coordinator, forced him to kneel in his bathroom–in the presence of his wife and children–while the intruder held a gun to his head and told him that he wasn’t going to kill him, just deliver a warning. Most of the important witnesses made statements and then fled the country. Judges were harassed and threatened–one had two grenades tossed into her backyard. The chief prosecutor’s wife, the mother of a 1-year-old child, received repeated phone calls with such messages as “Your husband hasn’t come home yet? Well, he’s not coming home.”

Perhaps most interesting, however, was what happened to the Limas after their initial convictions and while they were imprisoned during the appeals process. Both Limas, according to Goldman, are members of a secret brotherhood of present and former military officers known as the Cofradía. The Cofradía (which is also implicated in the February murders) is said to be heavily involved in narcotics trafficking and to be a kind of military shadow government in Guatemala. The Cofradía takes care of its own, and according to documents cited by Goldman, the Limas were permitted to run lucrative rackets (possibly including narcotics) inside the prison. Captain Lima, an admirer of Pinochet (Colonel Lima prefers Hitler), was able to patrol the prison wearing a black ski mask and forcing his fellow inmates to assemble and shout out, “Good morning, Guatemala!”

But things have changed in Guatemala since the end of the war, and the prisons are increasingly filled with members of Guatemala’s maras–savage, violent, working-class gangs that run narcotics rackets of their own. In prison, Captain Lima’s autocratic militarism, standard for the armed forces during the war, soon wore thin on gang members. In February 2003, gang members led an attack specifically targeting Captain Lima. Although the gang didn’t know it, Captain Lima and his father were out at classes at the time of the attack; two of the maras–Psycho and Chopper–managed to corner Sergeant Major Villanueva. He tried to flee through a hole in the wall but proved too fat and became stuck. The maras cut off his head and then stuffed a little military doll that Captain Lima kept on his prison bed into the sergeant’s brain case.

Throughout the investigation and trial, prosecutors expressed their feeling that the issue was more than just Bishop Gerardi’s murder but the larger question of what happens when a sector of the population becomes accustomed to working with total impunity. Although the original logic of this impunity had been counterinsurgency, prosecutors argued, once the guerrillas had disappeared the structures carried on were the same–though increasingly devoted to graft rather than counterinsurgency. During the trial, a member of the United Nations mission observed that “Guatemalans in the military had gotten rich through criminal activities such as narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, automobile theft, dealing in contraband, extortion, and so on.” He referred to this array of illegal enterprise as “the clandestine underbelly of official power” and noted that it depended on the military’s “being able to commit crimes with impunity.”

At the end of Goldman’s book, after the courts–improbably–have upheld the convictions of the Limas, Goldman finds cause for guarded optimism. Postwar civil society has prevailed in this case, and there appears to be a court-approved mandate for the investigation of a possible wider conspiracy involving the bishop’s assassination. One of the named targets of this expanded investigation is the far-right presidential candidate Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, who is one of the two finalists in this fall’s electoral runoff. But Goldman also implies that the military may have cut the Limas off for what, in the postwar era, may have been too crude and too blatantly political a crime. If the February murders indicate anything, it may be that the military has successfully kept its impunity intact and used it to move on to bigger, subtler and no doubt more lucrative crimes.