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 Lucas Garcìa, the Guatemalan armed forces launched the extremely violent counterinsurgency campaign that amounted to a reign of terror in the El Quiché region north of Guatemala City. The campaign was led by General Benedicto Lucas Garcìa, the President’s brother. Several days before I talked with the bishop in Costa Rica, I had met the general in Guatemala City. He told me that he had attended the Saint-Cyr military academy in France and had studied the counterinsurgency campaign conducted by the French armed forces in Algeria. General Benedicto Lucas Garcìa was apparently the principal architect of the Guatemalan military’s strategy, which seemed to combine elements of the French strategy in Algeria, including torture, the American strategy in Vietnam, and some elements that were indigenous to Guatemala, such as forcing peasants to take part in unpaid patrols against insurgents. But he did not get to carry this strategy to the extremes that it soon reached. He was removed from his post as army commander when General Efraìn Rìos Montt seized power in March 1982.

Under Rìos Montt, who was president until he was replaced by another general in another coup in August 1983, assassinations and disappearances in Guatemala City at first declined. At the same time, however, the counterinsurgency campaign in El Quiché and several other highland departments largely inhabited by Mayan Indians became more intense than ever. Hundreds of villages were destroyed, many of the survivors were forced to flee into the forests, and tens of thousands were massacred. (President Reagan met with Rìos Montt in Honduras during this period and described the reports of human rights abuses as “a bum rap.”) The killings that took place between 1980 and 1983, during the final year or so of Lucas Garcìa’s rule and Rìos Montt’s seventeen months in office, amounted to the only instance of genocide in the Western Hemisphere during the twentieth century.


Eventually, the thirty-six years of armed struggle were brought to an end by peace negotiations in Norway. In 1994, those negotiations produced an agreement to establish a Commission for Historical Clarification under the auspices of the UN. In 1999, the commission published its own report finding that more than 200,000 people were killed during the civil war, although it was barred from identifying those responsible for the crimes it reported. Both its estimate of the number of deaths and its characterization of them as genocide are now widely accepted.

This report contrasts in some respects with the 1,400-page report produced in 1998 by the archdiocese of Guatemala under Bishop Gerardi’s direction. Entitled Guatemala: Never Again! and known as the REMHI report for the Spanish-language acronym for the Church human rights office that produced it,1 Gerardi’s report neither provides an estimate of the total number of deaths nor uses the word “genocide.” But as Goldman points out, the bishop’s report documents the cases of 52,427 victims of the violence, including those who suffered from such crimes as torture, rape, and “disappearance,” as well as those known to have been killed. About 80 percent of the crimes documented by the bishop’s report took place between 1980 and 1983; and more than half of these crimes were committed in the department of El Quiché.

In 1983, when Rìos Montt was deposed, Bishop Gerardi returned to Guatemala at the request of the newly installed Archbishop Próspero Penados del Barrio, who had been appointed by Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Penados made Bishop Gerardi his deputy as well as vicar of the Guatemala City archdiocese. In 1989, Gerardi established the Church’s human rights office, which Goldman calls “the first grassroots human rights organization in Guatemala capable of operating on a national scale.” To compile its report, the office had to train some eight hundred people to conduct interviews in fifteen Mayan languages as well as Spanish. Bishop Gerardi presented the report publicly in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Guatemala on April 24, 1998. Two days later he was murdered, apparently beaten to death with a piece of concrete paving stone in the garage of the parish house where he lived in the center of Guatemala City.

Francisco Goldman gives an account of that appalling crime and the attempts to clear it up. His mother is a Guatemalan Catholic who married an American from a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant family; and as a child and as an adult he moved back and forth between Guatemala and the United States. In the 1980s Goldman reported from Central America for Harper’s magazine. His first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens (1992), told the story of a man who returned to Guatemala during the war in order to find the killers of a childhood friend. Goldman has spent much of the last decade investigating the bishop’s murder case, often joining with members of the “Untouchables,” the self-mocking name for a team of young researchers at the archdiocese’s human rights office who undertook their own investigation because they did not trust the official inquiry. His book can be read as a powerful detective story with a labyrinthine plot. It is also a dismaying history of how the civil war started and what has become of Guatemala since it ended.

Though the years of Lucas Garcìa and Rìos Montt were the worst in Guatemalan history, they were not the only periods of repression and suffering. Forced labor has long been a part of life in Guatemala. In the sixteenth century, after the Spanish conquest, Indian men were required to work without pay under the repartiamento system. Making up about 60 percent of Guatemala’s population of some 13 million, the Indians are concentrated in the country’s highland regions, having been driven off more productive lands to make way for European settlers. In the 1980s the Guatemalan army forced close to a million men in the rural areas of the country, almost all of them Indians, to take part in civil patrols under the surveillance of the army. They served one or two twenty-four-hour shifts a week without pay and were punished if they didn’t fight the guerrillas with whom many of them sympathized.

The election of President Juan José Arévalo in 1945 gave a short break from repression. Arévalo repealed the Vagrancy Law, which required peasants owning less than ten acres of land to perform one hundred days of unpaid labor each year. Under Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, his democratically elected successor who took office in 1951, hundreds of thousands of workers formed unions and the government sponsored land reform, in some cases taking land from the hugely powerful United Fruit Company. In 1954, however, Guatemala’s brief democratic interlude was interrupted by a coup organized by the United States through the Central Intelligence Agency, which had just overthrown the government in Iran of Mohammed Mossadeq, who was also democratically elected.


In Guatemala, some CIA officials believed that President Árbenz, who had legalized the Communist Party in 1952, was trying to introduce communism to the Western Hemisphere. The United Fruit Company, thinking Árbenz was not offering sufficient compensation for the property that would be expropriated under his land reform law, lobbied for his removal. Largely thanks to its connections to John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, and to his younger brother Allen Dulles, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the company succeeded. The CIA-engineered coup was seen as another great success for the agency. It started Guatemala down the path that led to thirty-six years of civil war, which reached its high point of slaughter during the counterinsurgency campaign of the early 1980s. It was this period, when Bishop Gerardi went into exile, that became the main subject of his report more than a decade and a half later.

Francisco Goldman describes how the officials who initially investigated the murder of Bishop Gerardi tried, without convincing evidence, to portray it as a homosexual crime of passion, making vague suggestions that Gerardi himself was homosexual. For a time, they also contended that some of the wounds suffered by Bishop Gerardi—a big man who may have tried to defend himself against his killers—were inflicted by an aged German shepherd dog named Baloo. The dog belonged to another priest who lived in the same parish house as Bishop Gerardi and who had, according to a former judge with ties to the armed forces, connections with a gang that had been trafficking in stolen Church artwork. The gang was alleged to have murdered the bishop because he found out about their theft of Church icons and relics. This account gained some currency, in part because an attractive young woman, the daughter of the housekeeper of another high-ranking priest, was a member of the gang. One investigator told Goldman that the young woman might be guilty of just about every crime—except the murder of the bishop.

The parallel investigation by the Untouchables and Francisco Goldman concentrated on the armed forces, which had committed most of the crimes documented in the bishop’s report. When a new team of prosecutors took over the case, they followed the leads developed by the Untouchables. Eventually, a trial led to the conviction of three military men, based on the testimony of a homeless Indian man named Rubén Chanax who had been recruited to help the murderers conceal the crime by removing blood and other evidence from the scene. By then, one judge had fled into exile and grenades had been thrown at the house of one of the judges who remained. The lead prosecutor left the country in mid-trial after men stalked his children outside their school, and his successor also had to leave Guatemala temporarily when the trial was over.

Goldman and the Untouchables continued to investigate the murder after the trial. They discovered much additional information—for instance, that the Indian witness had been a military informer paid to spy on the bishop and that he claimed he had seen a powerful general (who is now running for president) near the scene of the crime (the general’s son has denied the claim). One of the killers left a local prison at the time of the murder and then returned to it. But the full story of who planned the crime and who was involved other than the three convicted killers is still not known.

That the crime took place two days after the bishop’s report was issued led to speculation that officials wanted to punish the bishop or to divert attention from his report. One of the killers had been in charge of the counterinsurgency campaign in the El Quiché in the early 1980s and had been named in the bishop’s report. Much else about the bishop’s murder remains mysterious. Still, for the first time in Guatemalan history, military officers had been convicted in a criminal court for a politically motivated crime—in the words of the court, an “extrajudicial execution”—and its verdict was upheld by the Guatemala Supreme Court. The priest who owned the dog was also found guilty of cooperating with them. None of the convicted men confessed, and the priest and two of the killers are still serving sentences for murder; the third was killed in a prison riot in 2003.


The grim portrait of contemporary Guatemala that emerges from Francisco Goldman’s book shows a country dominated by crime and corruption, much of it traceable to the military forces. While the era of large numbers of political assassinations, village massacres, and coerced labor in the civil patrols is past, its legacy is a society in which both organized crime and street crime are pervasive. Among Latin American countries, probably only Colombia—with its continuing conflicts between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and the armed forces—is more violent than Guatemala. The murder rate in Guatemala is one of the highest anywhere in the world, several times as great as in the United States, itself one of the world’s most violent countries.

One cause of Guatemala’s rampant criminality is the impunity of members of the armed forces. During the civil war, it appears, any dividing line they may have recognized between their role in politically motivated crime and their participation in rackets to enrich themselves largely disappeared. The armed forces went from being a law unto themselves to agents of lawlessness. Goldman tells us that the military officers imprisoned for Bishop Gerardi’s murder went on to take over the gangs within the prison as well as those outside.

Another reason for the persistence of violent crime in Guatemala may be the training undergone by tens of thousands of young men compelled to serve in the armed forces and the hundreds of thousands who served in the civil patrols. The training of conscripts seemed to be designed to ensure that they would become as brutal as possible. The Indian whose testimony helped convict Gerardi’s killers told Goldman that as a conscript, he learned how to commit a murder using a rope with two knots in it, or with fishing line tied between two pieces of wood. The same man also told Goldman that he and two fellow conscripts had been required to murder a young couple as their “final exam” in becoming reliable killers. When he had refused, he said, he was beaten. Goldman can’t prove this story. Yet it resembles other accounts of the training of Guatemalan conscripts in the early 1980s, most notably those who became members of a commando unit, the Kaibiles, known for their ferocity.

The Indians forced to serve in the civil patrols were required to report on political activities in their own communities as well as in neighboring villages. This led to mutual suspicion and violence throughout the highlands. Also, in some cases, they were forced to carry out killings on behalf of the armed forces. With many thousands of former conscripts and patrol members unable or unwilling to resume life in their highland villages, and untrained for the jobs that might be available in the cities, it is hardly surprising that some of them should turn to crime.

Some of today’s Guatemalan criminals had gone with their parents to the United States in the 1980s, joined gangs in Los Angeles, and were then deported back to Guatemala after being arrested. Members of gangs can make use of the many thousands of weapons left over from the civil war. There is much money to be made because Guatemala is a way station for drugs shipped from South America to the United States. The gangs, and Guatemala’s increasing importance in drug trafficking, may be the main factors in an upsurge of violent crime in recent years.

The violence in Guatemala was an important factor in the first round of the current national election. According to a front-page story in The New York Times on August 4, there were, more than a month before the first vote, sixty-one violent attacks on candidates and political activists; twenty-six people were killed, including seven members of the national congress.2 By election day at least fifty had been killed, according to The Washington Post.3 The violence will likely continue through November 4, the day of the runoff election between the two leading presidential candidates. The New York Times reported that the leading candidate for president, businessman Álvaro Colom, a nephew of one of the Social Democratic Party leaders assassinated during the Lucas Garcìa period, travels by helicopter to avoid ambush. The other candidate, former general Otto Pérez Molina, has, according to Goldman, been implicated in the bishop’s murder among other political crimes (although his son has denied he was involved). He has promised to expand the police force by half and to use the military to fight crime.

A sign of hope for Guatemala is the approval by the Parliament on August 1 of an International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG). The group, created in collaboration with the United Nations, is intended to help the country crack down on crime. The director of CICIG will be appointed by the secretary-general of the United Nations, and its funds are expected to come from the United States and the European Union. This is the first time that the United Nations has entered into an arrangement with a national government to deal with crime. The commission is the long-delayed result of an agreement reached in 1994 during the peace negotiations in Oslo. If it succeeds, it will not only benefit Guatemala greatly but could also serve as a precedent for other countries that suffer from criminal violence that is tied to the armed forces, the police, or other government agencies.

When the Central Intelligence Agency organized its coups in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, no one could have predicted how those countries would change during the next half-century. Iran suffered under the tyranny of the Shah and, subsequently, under the far greater tyranny of the Islamic Revolution. Guatemala is a much smaller and weaker country that poses a threat primarily to its own citizens. That threat of violence is very great, however. Having reached its peak with the genocide of the early 1980s, it continues today, when, according to Human Rights Watch, murder rates are higher than they were in the days of mass killing.

What would have happened in these two countries had the CIA left them alone? When the US government intervenes to change regimes, even its alleged successes look like failure. That, as Francisco Goldman shows, is one of the lessons to be drawn from the murder of Bishop Gerardi.

—October 24, 2007

This Issue

November 22, 2007