In April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the seventy-five-year-old auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, issued a report compiled, under his direction, by a Catholic human rights group that documented the cases of more than 52,000 civilian victims of Guatemala’s civil war and, in most cases, named them. The report attributed most of the deaths to the Guatemalan army. Two days later the bishop was found beaten to death in the garage of his parish house.
The initial investigation by the Guatemala City police and the first prosecutor assigned to the case pursued a number of false leads and went nowhere. But thanks in part to the work of a small group of Church human rights researchers who carried out their own inquiry, and also to a new and determined prosecution team and a few brave judges, a Guatemalan court, in June 2001, convicted three military men of the bishop’s murder. This was the first time Guatemalan officers had been found guilty of a politically motivated killing.
In The Art of Political Murder, the Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman brilliantly reconstructs both the story of how the bishop was killed and the murderous history of military violence that he courageously opposed. I first met Bishop Gerardi in 1981 in San José, Costa Rica, where he had taken refuge after closing his diocese in the El Quiché region in the highlands of Guatemala. This was the area hit hardest by the campaign of terror intended to wipe out a small left-wing insurgency that had been opposing the Guatemalan army since 1960. Thousands of Mayan Indian peasants were presumed to be supporting the guerrillas; they were driven off their land, and many of them were killed. Among the army’s other targets were priests and parishioners of the Catholic Church, which had tried to speak up for the Indians. None of the bishops had been more outspoken than Juan Gerardi. He closed his diocese in 1980 only after Church buildings were attacked and occupied by the military, and two of his priests were murdered. He narrowly survived an attempt to assassinate him.
I met with Bishop Gerardi while preparing to launch Americas Watch (which, together with its sister Watch committees, concerned with other regions, evolved into Human Rights Watch later in the decade). Guatemala was then ruled by General Romeo Lucas Garcìa, who had become president in 1978 following an apparently fraudulent election. This was one of the worst periods in Guatemalan history, with many targeted killings of prominent lawyers, journalists, teachers, and union leaders. Among the victims were a highly regarded poet, the secretary-general of the University Students Association, and the two best-known leaders of the opposition party, who were expected to run for president and vice-president in the next election. A middle-aged physician told me that of the fifty members of his graduating class in medical school, only two were still alive and practicing medicine in Guatemala. Most of the rest had been killed or had fled.
Under the rule of General…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.