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.
During Guatemala’s civil war, 200,000 people were killed–roughly 5 percent of the population at the outbreak of fighting–and nearly all of the dead were from rural indigenous areas. UN-monitored peace accords were signed by the Guatemalan Army and guerrillas in 1996, but since then a virtual narco-state has arisen, created and overseen largely by former military officers. The homicide rate in Guatemala is seven times that of New York City, and it recently surpassed the levels in Colombia and South Africa. The figure is roughly equal to what it was during the civil war–forty-five deaths per 100,000 people. Equally staggering is the fact that the Guatemalan police make arrests in about 5 percent of their homicide cases (in the United States, the figure is 62 percent). During the Colom-Pérez Molina presidential race, nearly sixty people affiliated with the campaigns were murdered, more than twice the number killed during the previous election, in 2003. During a recent stay in Guatemala City, I passed a man who was bleeding from a bullet wound in his abdomen at 1 pm in the middle of downtown. Several firemen, who are responsible for removing dead bodies, were on the scene, but the police were nowhere in sight.
Bishop Gerardi was renowned for defending a group often targeted by brutal political violence–Guatemala’s downtrodden indigenous population. After working as the bishop in the rural province of El Quiché for six years, Gerardi was warned by locals that assassins were on his trail, and so in 1980 he fled to Costa Rica. But people who know him say that his exile never dulled his off-color humor or disdain for the risks involved with his work. After Gerardi returned to Guatemala in 1983, he helped found the human rights project of the Catholic Church, called Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (ODHA). After the 1996 peace accords, ODHA launched an investigation dedicated to providing a thorough accounting of civil war-related crimes, including the massacre of civilians. By 1998 the organization had assembled a four-volume report documenting the toll of the war. Guatemala: Never Again concluded that the military was responsible for 80 percent of the civilian deaths during the civil war. The next year, ODHA’s findings were corroborated by a UN investigation, which attributed 93 percent of the casualties to the military.
Gerardi would not live to see this confirmation of his work. On April 26, 1998, two days after a public presentation of Never Again in Guatemala City’s main cathedral, the bishop was found in a pool of blood in the garage of his parish house, a jagged piece of concrete nearby. The crime occurred a little after 10 pm, and the bishop’s wallet and gold ring were found with his body.
Gerardi’s church, San Sebastián, is a modest, elegant structure within blocks of the National Palace and every major intelligence agency, and initially it appeared that the investigation of the bishop’s murder would, like so many other cases, disappear into the thicket of impunity. The crime scene was a mess (gawkers were allowed on the scene, and some walked through puddles of blood), and the first arrest was a homeless man. The UN verification team stationed in Guatemala after the peace accords quickly raised the possibility of a cover-up and criticized the government prosecutor for withholding documents.
The theory was certainly a plausible one, since at the time only one human rights case against members of the military had gone through the Guatemalan courts, and in that case, when an officer was convicted, he quickly escaped–this after the investigating police officer was murdered in broad daylight. Members of Gerardi’s team at ODHA had worked on that case, and when their boss was killed, the young team of ODHA investigators, which included Edgar Gutiérrez, quickly went to work. While the government prosecutor investigating Gerardi’s murder stumbled, the ODHA team found a taxi driver who had driven past the church on the night of the crime and seen a car with men gathered around it. They traced the car to a mothballed military base. When the information was shared with the government, all public records of the car disappeared. It was the first clear signal in the Gerardi case that, as Goldman writes in his book, “the Army had many chess pieces to play with, and a very large board.”
Born in 1954 to a Guatemalan mother and a Ukrainian-American Jewish father, Goldman has a round head of curly black hair and a ready laugh. He lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and when I met him there books and papers were strewn about his one-bedroom apartment. Goldman spent most of his early childhood in Guatemala, and the country is the setting of his first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, published in 1992. It’s the story of a Guatemalan-American aristocrat from Boston who investigates the mysterious murder of his adoptive Guatemalan sister, who ran an orphanage in her home country. The Art of Political Murder covers similar territory–murder, paranoia, Guatemalan political intrigue–but it reads as though it were written by a different author. The Long Night of White Chickens is filled with florid poetic language that often doubles back on itself, exploring ideas of memory and dislocation. The Art of Political Murder, by contrast, is a study in spare storytelling, with Goldman rarely devoting more than a sentence to set a scene. Goldman is an ebullient, expressive man, but he says he felt the need to restrain himself while telling the Gerardi story in order to write “with the most diligent fidelity to the case itself.”
Goldman began reporting on the Gerardi case a few months after the killing, initially on assignment for The New Yorker. He befriended the young team of ODHA investigators, joining them for long days of sleuthing and equally long nights of drinking. “When Frank wrote this book he was living with us–in all the time that we were suffering,” Mario Domingo, the head of ODHA’s legal team, recalls. As the ODHA team and a new, more ambitious government prosecutor pushed the case forward, Goldman quickly became a part of the story he was telling. When his piece appeared in The New Yorker on March 15, 1999, a small but respected Guatemalan newspaper, El Periódico, translated and printed the article in a special edition, and sent copies to 5,000 churches around the country. Several months later, Goldman showed up at the trial in Guatemala City, which had commenced after Gerardi’s team at ODHA had assembled a case in concert with a new government prosecutor. In the halls of the courthouse, Goldman was menaced by taunts from the most colorful of the defendants, Capt. Byron Lima. During a break in the proceedings, Lima called Goldman a “faggot,” leading to a brief verbal altercation. Soon thereafter, the defense lawyers called for the removal of Goldman from the courtroom–a motion that was rejected.
Other people involved in the case encountered more lethal forms of intimidation. Grenades were thrown into the backyard of a judge overseeing the case; masked men broke into the house of ODHA’s director and assaulted his son and maid. Despite these threats–issued from Guatemala’s kingdom of impunity–after a two-and-a-half-month trial the prosecutors and ODHA won convictions against two military officers, a sergeant and Father Mario Orantes, a priest who lived in the parish house with Gerardi and had colluded to let the killers into the church, according to the sentence. The judges determined that the crime had been planned and executed by the presidential intelligence unit, the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), which had long been a nearly independent unit of terror within the Guatemalan government, answerable only to the president. The court issued a list of thirteen others, including seven military officers, to be investigated further, a probe that continues to this day.
The four convictions did little to close the case. The officers denied any role in the crime and quickly appealed. At the same time, two European journalists, Maite Rico and Bertrand de la Grange, published an article in August 2001 in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres that claimed to contradict the findings of the court. According to the duo, who relied heavily on information provided by members of the military and their attorneys, the military defendants had been innocent and the murder had been committed by renegade military officers in cahoots with the Catholic Church. In 2003, Rico and de la Grange published a longer version of their article as a book, ¿Quién mató al obispo? (Who Killed the Bishop?).
The Rico and de la Grange argument won a wide following in Guatemala. Álvaro Arzú, who had been Guatemala’s president when Gerardi was murdered and has since become the mayor of Guatemala City, handed out ¿Quién mató al obispo? to foreign diplomats stationed in Guatemala. Among the many television networks and newspapers to run laudatory coverage of Rico and de la Grange was El Periódico, which published an excerpt from the book. “Bertrand and Maite are rightist journalists working here in a conservative, Catholic country,” a top editor at the paper, Juan Luis Font, told me. “I think most editors here wanted to believe that they were telling the truth.”
The vituperative atmosphere created by Rico and de la Grange provoked Goldman to expand his article into a book. It also pushed two crucial sources to open up to him: the lead government prosecutor, Leopoldo Zeissig, and Rafael Guillamón, a reticent UN police investigator who had been in charge of a parallel inquiry into the Gerardi case. Guillamón told Goldman that he was “nauseated” by the coverage and showed him all his old notebooks about the case.
Goldman was not alone in pursuing the story that had been laid out by the judges. El Periódico had Claudia Méndez, a young, tenacious reporter, on the beat. Méndez, who had studied at one of Guatemala City’s bilingual schools, was only 23 when the trial started, and she speaks with a mix of humility and confidence about the case. “I was like a child when I started working on this case. It was a real clash–a real wake-up. Like I had thought of my country one way and then, bam, I had to realize it is actually this way.” Méndez used her guile and seeming innocence to engage the defendants in jailhouse interviews that brought them as close as they ever came to admitting their culpability in Gerardi’s murder. But in the end it was Goldman, not Méndez, who wrote the book about the case, and she expresses no unhappiness about that. “Who would have the means to do it here?” she explained to me during a driving tour of the Gerardi crime scene. Even more important than resources, Méndez says, is the fact that only a foreigner would have any credibility with the authorities: “They knew that Frank was a power that they cannot buy and they cannot threaten. It’s someone from the outside.”
In early 2007, as Goldman was putting the finishing touches on The Art of Political Murder, he gave Méndez a version. Soon people in the office of Álvaro Arzú spotted printouts of the galleys on the mayor’s desk. Similar reports came from the bishop’s office. (How those two offices nabbed copies of the galleys remains a mystery.) Goldman had sent the copy to Méndez so that the editors of El Periódico could translate and print an excerpt from the book before its publication. For the editors, it was not hard to see which pages would be the most explosive. About two-thirds of the way into the text, on page 239, Goldman introduces Pérez Molina, describing him only as a “Guatemalan officer.” But this suave political operator would not blend into the seemingly endless cast of characters who people the book. An excerpt featuring the passage about the “Guatemalan officer” appeared in El Periódico on June 10 along with a photo of Pérez Molina.
Until The Art of Political Murder was published, Pérez Molina had never been publicly linked to the case. Goldman had pried his information from one of the central–though most disputed–witnesses in the case, an indigent man named Rubén Chanax, who slept each night in front of the bishop’s garage door. After testifying at the trial, Chanax went into exile in Mexico City; Goldman tracked him down there in 2005 with tips from ODHA’s investigators. The two sat down in Chanax’s squalid apartment, and Chanax recounted for Goldman the events of the night of April 26, 1998.
Things began soon after 9 pm, when Chanax was in a convenience store just around the corner from San Sebastián, Gerardi’s church. Known as Don Mike’s, after its owner, the store looks like so many other Guatemalan mini-markets, with lollipops and cheap chips stuffed into glass cases. Chanax is a movie fanatic, and Don Mike had a television in the corner that customers could watch. That night, the movie Congo–based on the Michael Crichton novel–was playing on Channel 3. While Chanax was watching the film, he told Goldman, three men walked in. Chanax had mentioned the presence of the men during the trial, but at that time he said he only recognized one of them, Col. Lima Estrada, who was ultimately convicted. (Lima Estrada is the father of Byron Lima.) With Goldman, Chanax confidently said that one of the other men was Pérez Molina. Chanax also recalled hearing Don Mike say, “Here come my favorite clients.”
Chanax told Goldman that since he had already seen Congo, he left before the end of the movie–with the military officers still in the corner store, drinking beer and laughing. Chanax went to claim his customary sleeping spot near the parish house, along with a number of other local indigents. Soon thereafter, a shirtless man peeked out of Gerardi’s garage door, and, according to a variety of witnesses, military intelligence officers swiftly moved around the park outside the church as word of the bishop’s death began to spread.
Chanax had earlier shared the information about Pérez Molina with UN investigator Rafael Guillamón when they spoke a few nights after the murder. Chanax also mentioned Pérez Molina to ODHA investigators when they visited him in Mexico. Mario Domingo, the lead lawyer at ODHA, said that he took Chanax’s allegations seriously because another indigent had told him about well-dressed men congregating in Don Mike’s on the night of the murder. But Domingo says the team at ODHA is, to this day, still investigating Chanax’s identification of Pérez Molina, and he was not entirely happy with Goldman’s decision to include the information in his book. “Yes, it’s true, I have this info too–but I don’t want the people to have this information,” Domingo told me from Indiana, where he was taking a year off from his ODHA duties and studying at the University of Notre Dame. He fears, like many Guatemalans, that the longer a suspect knows he is under investigation, the easier it will be for him to cover his tracks.
The reference to Pérez Molina is hardly the most solidly grounded fact of Goldman’s book. The source is a man who changed his testimony over the course of the trial, primarily to obscure what appears to be his own role in the crime; in court he acknowledged having gone into the garage after the murder to help foul up the crime scene. Goldman describes Chanax as a shifty, almost demonic character and suggests that he may well have been in on the crime. Once he had gone into exile, Chanax let it be known that he had been working as an informant for military intelligence, spying on Gerardi in what was known as Operation Bird. But Chanax’s military affiliation was also what convinced Guillamón that Chanax knew Pérez Molina.
When El Periódico printed the excerpt about Pérez Molina on June 10, the reaction was predictably swift. Goldman had not asked Pérez Molina for a response to the allegations, and the retired general was infuriated. “Why didn’t he interview me if he thought to include me as a character in his book?” he said in an interview in El Periódico the day after the excerpt appeared. Pérez Molina added that he was in Washington at the time of the murder, as Guatemala’s representative to the Inter-American Defense Board. A Periódico reporter dutifully called Goldman the same day and asked why he had not spoken with Pérez Molina. “I didn’t interview him because I don’t believe that the people involved will tell you the truth,” Goldman explained. “I found I didn’t have much to gain by talking to military people.” In this interview Goldman also divulged a piece of information that was not in the excerpt but ended up in the book. According to Guillamón, Pérez Molina had dinner with the top UN official in Guatemala, Guillamón’s boss, a few nights after the murder. When the subject of Gerardi’s murder came up, the UN official was allegedly struck by Pérez Molina’s “stony reticence.”
It was another three months before the publication of The Art of Political Murder in the United States, but the book became a hot topic among Guatemala’s elite long before a hard copy hit the shelves. Guatemala City has essentially one political bookstore, Café Sophos, an oasis of gentility in the city’s flashy business sector. The owners, a mother and son, say that there was not a day during the summer that someone did not come into the store to ask if they had the book.
Café Sophos placed an order for 100 copies, and when the book was released in the middle of September, it was the month’s second-bestselling book. In October, the last month of the election campaign, it climbed to the top spot–the first time an English-language book had occupied that position. Marilyn Pennington, the Guatemalan-born co-owner of the store, said that she had read ¿Quién mató al obispo? when it appeared in 2003. It had impressed her at the time–and given the difficulty of pinning down the truth in Guatemala, she was ready to accept Rico and de la Grange’s theory of a cover-up. “People sort of accept not knowing in this country,” Pennington said while organizing a stack of English-language magazines. “It’s the price you pay for being alive.”
When Goldman’s book was published, Pennington read one of the first copies out of the box, and she had the same response as many of her customers. “The funny thing is that everyone thought that earlier one was a great book. And then this Goldman book appeared and people started really asking, saying, Hmm,” she said. “This new one was really a human-filled book. The other one–it seemed like they had a thesis and they got the information to back it up.”
The more momentous and prophetic response came soon after the June 10 El Periódico excerpt. Goldman was at home in Brooklyn when he got a phone call from Atlanta. A Guatemalan political handler was on the other end, and after a quick hello, Goldman was put on the line with Álvaro Colom, the presidential candidate for UNE. “Thank you for what you’ve done for justice,” Colom said, according to Goldman and the handler who was on the call. “If I get elected president I would want to end impunity in Guatemala and create an environment where the Gerardi case could prosper.” Goldman had not been following the campaign at the time, but he wished Colom luck and hung up.
Colom’s chief opponent in the election had ascended through Guatemala’s elite military schools to oversee the cruelest wings of the armed forces during the most gruesome period of the civil war. In the 1980s Pérez Molina had been a teacher at the school for the Kaibil–a special force of assassins–and in 1992 he became the head of military intelligence, or D-2. It was while he was overseeing the D-2 that Efraín Bámaca–a guerrilla leader married to a Harvard-trained American lawyer–disappeared. In a document from the National Security Archives in Washington, a Guatemalan source says that Pérez Molina had gone to pick up Bámaca. Another document records a source as saying that Pérez Molina then made the decision to execute Bámaca, a charge Pérez Molina has denied.
In 1993 Pérez Molina won many admirers in the American Embassy when he defied an attempt by the Guatemalan president at the time, Jorge Serrano Elías, to seize absolute power. In 1994 a Defense Department cable titled “Colonel Otto Molina Today” said the officer was the leader of a group of “progressives that grew up with blood stains on their hands, though we have no direct information to suggest that Colonel Perez himself has [sic] involved in activities of this nature.” A year before this memo was written, Pérez Molina had been given control of the notorious EMP.
Pérez Molina requested that we meet at the Clarion Suites, a favorite gathering spot for politicians located in the ritziest, American part of Guatemala City. His tan SUV arrived, and a bodyguard jumped out while the vehicle idled. A few minutes later, Pérez Molina climbed out of the driver’s seat, wearing a blue blazer and jeans and looking the part of a casually polished mogul. He walked into the hotel alone and gave me a soft, warm handshake. In campaign posters Pérez Molina maintains a stern, intent stare. In person he had a pliant, almost anxious grin.
“I think that the campaign helped them to disinform people, attacking me as a military man, as a killer. And they showed Gerardi’s picture,” he said, looking down in a rueful way as we made our way into the hotel lobby. “What effect did this have in the vote? Well, not the book directly, but the campaign that derived from the book hurt me.”
In his interviews immediately after the Periódico excerpt of Goldman’s book, Pérez Molina alleged that The Art of Political Murder had been “pedido,” or requested, by other politicians–with the implication that it had been paid for. When I mentioned the word, he laughed gently and said, “Yes, we believe that everything indicates that we were at a difficult moment in the campaign, and everything points to the fact that someone planned the timing of the book’s release.” When I asked him who exactly had made the request, he smiled and deflected the question. “We do have some names, but I’d rather not mention them,” he noted. When I asked him about his military career, his responses remained evasive and general. “We do not deny that there were abuses, but we cannot say that the officers participated in the same manner,” he said.
Pérez Molina worked me into a relaxed state with his gentle patter and clasped hands. The only time he became the least bit ruffled was when we returned to the charges about his role in the Gerardi murder that arose in the campaign. “On my career, I feel comfortable and proud of what I have done,” he said, his eyes tensing into a squint. “But what did bother me was an offensive campaign, where it was against the military. It was obviously directed toward me–but also against the whole military, treating them as murderers who committed atrocities. They didn’t make a differentiation that there are always good and bad people everywhere.”
Pérez Molina has not been the only person to lash out against Goldman’s book. The most vocal of the imprisoned defendants, Capt. Byron Lima, created a website after his conviction, and in June, when the Periódico excerpt appeared, he posted a professionally made thirty-minute video refuting Goldman’s charges. In an e-mail sent to me from prison, he slammed Goldman’s work: “For me the Goldman book is a book of stories with very little credibility and it bases its theory on doubtful gossip and cheap reports without the fundamentals of many journalists.”
Lima directed me to an account of the case written by one of the defense lawyers and to Rico and de la Grange’s book, which questions the courts and exonerates the defendants. Indeed, it was the two European journalists who made the most widely disseminated and coherent criticism of Goldman. In the fall, the authors brought out a cheaper paperback edition of their book. They also wrote an opinion article in El Periódico, and Rico wrote a letter to Goldman’s Spanish publisher, Anagrama, asking for her side to be heard but without specifying the format her riposte should take. Rico’s most substantive criticism was of the witnesses that Goldman and the court relied on–most of all Rubén Chanax. “The accused were sentenced based on a witness for the prosecution who changed his story five times (and always under oath),” Rico said of Chanax in her letter to Anagrama. She neglects to mention that Chanax was only one of dozens of witnesses, and that UN investigators in Guatemala substantiated the court’s and Goldman’s telling of the story. Rico and de la Grange approached the Gerardi case like classic defense lawyers, poking at every weakness of a complex story that the prosecution has managed to put together and taking advantage of the fact that the burden of proof does not lie with them.
Still, Rico and de la Grange’s arguments found a favorable audience with one of the most influential people in Guatemala, the American ambassador. The previous two ambassadors, Prudence Bushnell and John Hamilton, had been strenuous supporters of the Guatemalan courts, which have upheld the Gerardi sentences through five rounds of appeals. But the current occupant of the post, James Derham, who was appointed in July 2005, told me that his reading and discussions have left him with doubts about the courts’ decisions. “If you agree with what happened–the prosecution and the conviction–then that indicates it was a political murder,” Derham said, slouching back in the big leather chair in his office. “But, you know, I’m not personally 100 percent satisfied that that’s what happened.”
When I visited Derham, there were two copies of Goldman’s book on his coffee table, one in plastic wrap and the other a well-thumbed review copy that Goldman had sent him. A boyish-looking white-haired man, Derham was quick with his take on the book: “To give you my own kind of review of the book, I found the book kind of very difficult to follow–it’s a murky book about a murky case.” When asked if there was a clearer explanation for the murder, he replied, “I did kind of like the Rico book.”
Derham takes issue with Goldman’s portrayals of Pérez Molina. “I think either Goldman or someone else was kind of out to get Pérez Molina on this,” he says. When Goldman learned of these remarks, I saw flashes of the quick temper that I had heard about. “Does this ambassador really think I spent eight years on the book because I was worried about one crummy presidential candidate?” Goldman fumed. “He sounds like the characteristic expat, a blustery blowhard.” To some degree, though, the ambassador saw the same thing in the Gerardi case that Goldman did: an opacity in Guatemalan society that allows a case like this to continue to be scrutinized for years. “Everyone understands that there are bad things going on, but it’s not clear who is not involved,” Derham says.
At first glance, it is unclear why Pérez Molina would have been concerned about the sudden appearance of Goldman’s book on the Guatemalan political scene. Guatemala is a country with a 70 percent literacy rate. “This is a country made up of illiterate people,” says Edgar Gutiérrez, “and the people who know how to read, don’t.”
After the first round of the election on September 9, Pérez Molina appeared to be unscathed by the allegations, or anything else. He had netted enough votes to force a runoff with Colom, and going into October, his poll numbers had been steadily rising, with most polls showing him moving ahead of Colom in their two-way race. It was on the last day of September that Manuel Baldizón, a baby-faced legislator who is considered one of UNE’s future stars, held up Goldman’s book at a campaign event in the rural town of Esquipulas. “In this book there is proof that the military was involved in the death of Bishop Gerardi,” Baldizón remembers saying. “Do we want to vote for the past or for the future?”
Baldizón said that in discussions among the UNE leadership in early October, there was recognition that the people “don’t read books, so the way to get that information, and get the book to the population, was through the political campaign.” Throughout October, Baldizón continued to brandish The Art of Political Murder at many campaign stops. “This book from Goldman is a great book–and it talks about things that we in Guatemala have not been able to discuss freely,” he said.
The practice soon began to spread across the country. In Puerta Parada, a town on the road from Guatemala City to El Salvador, a priest held up the book at a Sunday Mass. He did not mention Pérez Molina by name, but according to people who were present he said, “This is a book you must read.” “It warns us of not making errors,” the priest also said. “We must not give our vote again to the past.” Puerta Parada is home to many powerful Guatemalans. The president of the Congress was at the Mass, and he stood up during the sermon and left. Gutiérrez was also there, and he told me that “the people would have never expected the priest to be so explicit in his sermon. Many had no idea the book existed.”
The widest dissemination of the book’s claims came through the pamphlet. In the capital city, people from various neighborhoods recall waking up during the last weeks of the campaign to find the streets blanketed with the pamphlet, headlined Otto Pérez Organized the Assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi. The target of the pamphlet learned of its existence in early October, when two of his deputies were assassinated on a street in downtown Guatemala City shortly before 7 am. I had heard that Pérez Molina became openly emotional when he arrived at the scene, and he told me that all the pamphlets fluttering around the streets had left him feeling distraught. “First, we were deeply lamenting the murder of these two people,” he recalls. “But then we lamented that these fliers were there, all over the area–all over the downtown where the assassination occurred.”
The pamphlet was certainly not the only political material distributed during the campaign. But it had a certain iconic power. Colom’s party had been trying to paint Pérez Molina as a man with a dirty military past, but, as with most matters of fact in Guatemala, it had been difficult to nail down any specific incidents. “I think what the Goldman book did was give substance to the whole idea of the attack that Pérez Molina was involved in the war,” says Manfredo Marroquín, the head of the Guatemalan branch of Transparency International, “and that Guatemala did not need a president like that.”
For Pérez Molina, perhaps the most damaging development came when Claudia Méndez of El Periódico returned to the Gerardi case during the last weeks of the campaign. In an October 21 article she examined Pérez Molina’s claim that he had documents proving that he was in Washington at the time of Gerardi’s murder. Méndez had turned up documents showing that Pérez Molina had six different passports that he used at various times. “Was it possible that he could come and go without leaving an official record?” Méndez asked in her article. (When I spoke to Pérez Molina in Guatemala City, he repeated that he had been in Washington at the time of the murder.)
After Méndez’s article appeared, Pérez Molina did not show up to the final two debates of the campaign. The reason, he said, was that his lead appeared to be safe. On election day, whatever lead he may have enjoyed evaporated, and he lost by six points, 53 percent to 47 percent. There were, of course, many elements in the election aside from the charges about Pérez Molina’s past. Colom promised social benefits to a country with widespread poverty, and allegations of corruption rocked both sides. Marroquín says that Pérez Molina’s loss was largely due to the low turnout in Guatemala City, where right-wing candidates generally do well. This stemmed, he believes, from a discomfort with Pérez Molina’s military past. In rural areas, the turnout was high, and Colom swept all but three of Guatemala’s twenty-two departments.
Colom is the most progressive politician to be elected president of Guatemala in decades, yet the use of Goldman’s book during the campaign was unpopular with many progressives who were close to the bishop. Mario Domingo, the lead lawyer at ODHA, says the organization is accustomed to seeing Gerardi’s murder used as a political volleyball without the exposure ever leading to any concrete help for moving the investigation forward. Domingo and others at ODHA say that they have never been given a single page of information about any particulars of the case (such as the alleged role of the EMP) by any president. While Domingo is not displeased with the election results–“Obviously I prefer this government–it’s not the best, but it is better than Otto Pérez”–he’s waiting for Colom to demonstrate “a real commitment to solve this crime and not leave it in our hands.”
The appointments Colom has made since the election have not entirely assuaged Domingo’s fears. Colom’s cabinet includes only a handful of Social Democrats, and his minister of defense was in the EMP at the time of Gerardi’s murder. In April, Colom spoke at a ceremony commemorating the tenth anniversary of Gerardi’s death, and while there had been talk that he would accept the state’s responsibility for the murder, in the end he did not. More generally, Colom has taken only timid steps toward challenging the impunity enjoyed by drug traffickers. At the same time, a month after Colom took office, Jorge García, the special government prosecutor assigned to the Gerardi case and whose investigative team was dismantled by the previous presidential administration, received word from the attorney general that his team would be reinstated. “If Pérez Molina had won we would be out of a job,” García told me from behind a desk in his new office.
On that desk I noticed a folder containing a worn, highlighted document listing the thirteen people who the judges in the Gerardi case said warranted further investigation as potential “intellectual authors” of the crime. García, a high-strung, bearded man, said that Goldman’s book had “opened up new possibilities” for his investigating team. One point that García intends to pursue is the allegation of Pérez Molina’s involvement, noting that “when the time is right we will speak with him. You have to understand that he has a lot of power. His circle of power is very strong. But sooner or later I have to speak with him.”
A crucial task will be investigating the questions about Pérez Molina’s whereabouts around the time of the murder. When initially interviewed after the allegations came out, Pérez Molina said he took three trips to Guatemala from his posting in the United States during the year of the murder. The documents that Méndez turned up indicate that he made at least four trips to Guatemala that year, including one less than a month before the murder. But these are the trips on only one of the six passports that appear in Pérez Molina’s files. When I asked Pérez Molina for documents proving that he was in the United States when Gerardi was killed, he provided copies of the records previously reported on by Méndez.
As to the broader pursuit of justice in Guatemala, a judicial body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG in the Spanish acronym, was created in the last months of the previous presidential administration. CICIG will oversee a team from the United Nations working with local prosecutors and judges on a handful of representative cases about clandestine sources of power in Guatemala. I was told that the head of CICIG has discussed making one of those cases the Gerardi murder.
CICIG is interesting because it is drastically different from the efforts at postconflict recovery and reconciliation in countries like Rwanda and South Africa. CICIG is designed to name and punish specific perpetrators–a goal similar to the one Gerardi envisioned twenty-five years ago when he founded ODHA. Nery Rodenas, ODHA’s somber executive director, says that Gerardi always saw his pursuit of criminals as part of the Catholic mission of forgiveness. “If the victims want to forgive, they need to know who to forgive, and why,” Rodenas said. “Forgiveness cannot happen in an abstract manner.”
Goldman has kept his distance from the Gerardi affair since El Periódico published excerpts from his book. Last summer his wife drowned in a surfing accident in Mexico, and he could barely gather the strength to do a reading tour for The Art of Political Murder. During October, just after the tour had begun, aides to Colom had been working feverishly to bring Goldman into Colom’s campaign. Frank Greer, an American communications expert who had become Colom’s media adviser, eventually arranged a meeting with Goldman while he was in Seattle for a reading on October 25. The two met in a hotel lobby, and Greer told Goldman, “I think there is a real likelihood that unless we tell the story of his real background, Pérez Molina will be elected president. And I don’t think you want that to happen.” Greer asked Goldman to travel to Guatemala for a press conference, and while Goldman initially showed some interest, after speaking with friends in Guatemala he declined for fear of politicizing his work.
For the Guatemalan public, there are many names still secreted away in The Art of Political Murder. El Periódico did not translate the section on Álvaro Arzú, one of the country’s right-wing power brokers. The Art of Political Murder discusses evidence that Arzú’s son and Father Mario, who is serving a twenty-year sentence for his role in the Gerardi killing, were members of an underground gay community. Juan Luis Font, the editor at El Periódico, says that when the Spanish translation of Goldman’s book is published in September, “it’s those Arzú bits that are going to hit like a bomb in this conservative country.” Goldman’s book, which has already lived so many lives in its short existence, may have even more life in it yet.