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A meddlesome priest

Behind the 1998 murder of Bishop Gerardi, a Guatemalan human-rights activist

The funeral procession for Bishop Juan Gerardi, passing through Guatemala City's main square, April 29, 1998. The funeral procession for Bishop Juan Gerardi, passing through Guatemala City's main square, April 29, 1998. (REUTERS/eliana aponte)

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?
By Francisco Goldman
Grove, 396 pp., illustrated, $25

A priest is a uniquely dangerous man. In a country run by thugs, like Guatemala in 1998, he can frighten and shame the powerful like nobody else. He can remind people, at least some people, of their atrophied ethical conscience and embolden them to follow it in ways that are unpredictable and potentially subversive. And dead, a priest can remain unnervingly alive.

By those measures, Bishop Juan Gerardi was as dangerous as they come. In the Guatemalan highlands, he pioneered giving Mass to the rural poor in their Indian languages and came under pressure from the army to name guerrilla sympathizers among his parishioners. In 1980, he dodged an assassination attempt and went for a time into exile. As an auxiliary bishop, he founded the Guatemalan Archdiocese's Office of Human Rights and helped assemble a crew of daring young lawyers who called themselves the Untouchables. They set about investigating the war's atrocities and, in April 1998, issued a two-volume report with the bishop that recounted them in gruesome detail, massacre by massacre. Eighty percent of the fatalities in the war were committed by the military and 5 percent by the guerrillas, the report said. (A later United Nations inquiry found similar numbers.) It named officers responsible for abuses, although there was little chance of prosecuting them; they had already been granted amnesty.

Two nights after the release of that report, Gerardi was bludgeoned in the parish garage. He was found face up in a pool of blood, his skull crushed by a concrete block. This story could slip easily into lurid, true-crime voyeurism, but Francisco Goldman, who was baptized in Gerardi's church as an infant, recounts the murder as coolly as a coroner. He then tackles a bigger story: The eight years of investigations and trials that revealed the almost comically outrageous impunity with which the Guatemalan military was still settling scores and executing enemies while throwing an endless supply of red herrings to the press and police. To call this gang an army doesn't fit; it was a mafia that commandeered the state and turned it into a merciless crime machine.

The first smoke bomb came from the presumed murderer himself. Minutes after the deed, he emerged from the garage shirtless and walked casually down the evening street, fully visible to the homeless drunks who gathered there regularly. The point of this display, Goldman believes, was to make people think the bishop had been killed in a homosexual crime of passion. When that didn't fly, the conspirators and their defenders tried a new explanation: a dog. A wound on the bishop's head allegedly resembled a canine bite, leading to frenzied speculation, promoted by an eccentric Spanish forensic expert, that another priest's German shepherd had chomped the bishop to the death. That theory fizzled with other explanations and scapegoats until, finally, all that was left was the truth. Whether you know how the case ended or not, you'll find this is a grimly satisfying, finely honed detective story.

Goldman has published three novels, and the Gerardi case certainly would have given him great material for a fourth. The book's first sentence - "One Sunday afternoon, a few hours before he was bludgeoned to death . . ." - rings like Julio Cortázar or Gabriel García Márquez. We should be glad Goldman wrote this as nonfiction. As he probes the murder, sometimes following his own leads, more often following in the Untouchables' footsteps, he takes us deeper than any book has ever gone into the criminal pathologies of contemporary Latin America, with its mara gangs, prison riots, drug networks, and political putrefaction.

He finds some hope for change in a generational shift. Older Guatemalans, steeped in war-weary cynicism, tended to place little confidence in the possibility of justice for Gerardi's murder. The prosecutors, lawyers, and judges who tried the case were all under 40, often trained outside Guatemala, and unencumbered by Cold War baggage. Their ideology was justice. As one of the church's lawyers tells a reluctant witness, "They killed a bishop. Our country can't go on this way." That witness eventually came forward, but he, three others, and the case's prosecutor all had to leave Guatemala for fear of their lives. Several other witnesses, including one whom Goldman interviewed, were murdered.

Goldman, raised in Massachusetts by a Guatemalan mother and a Jewish father, doesn't sugarcoat his feelings about the place. Guatemala City's shuttered storefronts at night resemble "long, deserted rows of dilapidated tombs." He ruminates in traffic about people kidnapped by military units and never seen again, remembering murdered acquaintances. By the end, his judgment seems to warp a bit. He gives credence to another homosexual-tryst scenario that might partly explain the murder, except that there is no evidence to support it, and it would seem to contradict another scenario that held up in court. For someone who spent years interviewing and following the human-rights lawyers who probed the case, his descriptions of them seem oddly shallow. They're courageous and competent, he tells us, but he delves little into their personal lives or motivations.

He's better at villains. The mad, honor-obsessed army officers who had been tailing Gerardi for at least six years before his death first appear confident but then, as evidence mounts, descend into a kind of paranoid delirium. They scream threats at anyone around them. One of them pantomimes firing a gun at a prosecution lawyer in court. Another invades the home of a lawyer and takes his wife and children hostage.

Best of all is Goldman's description of the crucial witness, a taciturn ex-soldier named Rubén Chanax who lived on the sidewalk outside the bishop's house. Goldman strips away the layers of deception hiding Chanax's role in the murder, and possibly other murders, drawing closer and closer until Goldman finds himself sitting with Chanax in a dingy Mexico City room where he has been living under a witness-protection program. With his muscular, warty hands, Chanax describes how to strangle someone (a rope with two knots, 2 inches apart, or fishing line "for a fast, silent kill") until Goldman grows tense with fear. That's the fear of a reporter who knows - suddenly, alarmingly - that he's too close to his story. Goldman made it out of that awful room, and, he suggests, maybe Guatemala will make it out, too.

Roger Atwood, author of "Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World," is working on a biography of the poet Roque Dalton.

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