Monday, October 13, 2008

Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder

Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? is remarkable investigative journalism, in a country--Guatemala--where it is no easy task. It is about the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a champion of human rights. But it goes far beyond that, delving into the deep-seated corruption, the incredibly powerful military, and the fear that create serious obstacles to the rule of law and accountability in the country. It reads like a thriller.

I lost count of the number of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses who were threatened, killed, and/or fled into exile for their words and actions. Even in exile, they were followed and harassed by military intelligence. The fact that prosecutions took place and survived appeals is a major step forward for Guatemala, albeit an initial one. The case nabbed some of the small fry, but the higher-ups remain untouched. Threats were even made openly in court, using hand gestures in the shape of guns. Or, as one officer said during cross-examination, "There is no greater or more beautiful glory for a soldier than to see his enemy lying dead at his feet" (p. 242).

There is always good reason for fear. One of the key people involved in the murder was Colonel Byron Lima Estrada (and his son, a Captain). See here for declassified documents about him through the National Security Archive. They were both convicted, along with another member of the military (later murdered in prison) and a priest.

Goldman leaves room open for hope. He made one highly relevant point about generational change:

It was also significant that the prosecution and the judges were relatively young, all under forty, and hadn't believed what older, more experienced people believed: that you could never get a verdict like this in Guatemala (p. 259).

Along similar lines, he ends the afterword (an addition for the paperback version) writing about young Guatemalan investigative journalists he met. With luck (and courage), perhaps they can pry open the institutionalized corruption. Indeed, the publication of this book may well have helped push things in the right direction. An article in The Nation published in June talks about how widely read the book was, despite being in English. Parts were translated, made into pamphlets, and then possibly contributed to Alvaro Colom's victory over Otto Pérez Molina, who was also implicated in the murder.

My only small criticism would be that it can be hard to follow at times. There is a (non-alphabetized) list of people in the back of the book, but people change positions, disappear for a while and then come back, etc. It may well be that no author could juggle so many people.


Anonymous,  2:36 PM  

I always admired him as a novelist, but he has outdone himself here.

Greg Weeks 6:53 AM  

I hadn't read any of his novels, which I now plan to do.

Anonymous,  2:22 PM  

Read The Long Night of White Chickens. It's brilliant.

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