Early last November, the novelist Francisco Goldman was shouldering his way through the Texas leg of a reading tour for his first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder. Published by Grove Press in September, the book had received glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and it would soon be included by The New York Times Book Review in its list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. On November 5 Goldman was relaxing in his hotel before a reading at a Houston Barnes & Noble when his BlackBerry pinged with an e-mail from an innkeeper in the Guatemalan town of Santiago de Atitlán. One day earlier, Guatemalans had voted in a general election, and the winner of the presidential contest was Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat and head of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) Party. Quite unexpectedly, Colom had come from behind in the polls to defeat Otto Pérez Molina, a salt-and-pepper-haired general who had campaigned on the slogan of Mano Dura (Firm Fist), a sturdy platform in a country that was ruled by the military and repressive right-wing parties almost without interruption from 1954 until the late ’90s. As it happens, the election was also the subject of the e-mail Goldman received from the innkeeper, David Glanville: The Art of Political Murder, Glanville wrote, may have been a decisive factor in Pérez Molina’s loss.
Goldman’s book is about neither the election nor the candidates. The Art of Political Murder is an investigation of one of Guatemala’s most notorious and gruesome killings. On a Sunday night in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death just two days after publishing a report about the Guatemalan military’s responsibility for civilian massacres in the country’s recently concluded civil war. In the midst of investigating the case, Goldman found sources who told him that on the night of the murder, Pérez Molina was hanging out in a convenience store near Gerardi’s church with a few conspirators in Gerardi’s murder. That scrap of information is mentioned–but not heavily scrutinized–by Goldman in his book.
The Art of Political Murder was available only in English, but during the campaign the news it contained slowly spread through Guatemala: in some places disseminated by priests, in other places by UNE officials at election rallies. In Santiago de Atitlán, a small indigenous town on the shores of Guatemala’s most beautiful lake, word had arrived in the form of a pamphlet featuring three photos–two of Gerardi and one of the cover of The Art of Political Murder–and a line from the book, translated into Spanish, about the general’s alleged role in the crime. The pamphlets were handed out to people visiting Santiago’s cemetery on the Day of the Dead, two days before the election. Dolores Ratzan, a local woman who had lived in exile in the United States during much of the civil war, says she saw the pamphlets when she went to the cemetery. What she noticed even more was the discussion they stirred up. “I just heard people talking about it–like, This Pérez Molina, he killed the bishop. That’s what everybody talked about,” she recalled a few months after the election. She says that on election day, “that’s why a lot of people didn’t vote for him, because he was a killer.”
Pérez Molina’s campaign of law and order had played well in Santiago, thanks to a wave of crime and lynchings last year. But as in many areas of Guatemala, the invocation of Goldman’s account of Gerardi’s murder had deep resonance. In 1981, at the height of the country’s civil war, Guatemalan soldiers broke into Santiago’s Catholic church and drove nails through the head of its priest–a transplant from Oklahoma who had been accused of siding too closely with the indigenous people.
Santiago has weathered the varied effects of US involvement in Guatemala. After the CIA-led coup d’état against Col. Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, the US government funded and trained Guatemalan military officers, some of whom went on to serve at a base near Santiago. More recently, Santiago has been the site of American charitable projects. But the unexpected presence of Goldman’s book, not just in Santiago but throughout the country during the 2007 election campaign, represented an inadvertent kind of American involvement in Guatemala. Edgar Gutiérrez, an old colleague of Bishop Gerardi’s and a former foreign minister, calls Guatemala a “kingdom of impunity.” Written to tell one story about that kingdom, The Art of Political Murder has become caught up in another story, one about the kingdom’s possible reformation. More improbable still, the book has injected an element of accountability and consequence into a country where for decades there’s been far too little of either.