Learning about Guatemala–A Reading Recommendation and a window

My five day window into Guatemala was drawing to a close.  I was sitting with three friends in a cafe in the small town of Chichicastenango. We had come to Chichi for a wedding, and were now enjoying our last meal together before going our separate ways. My time in Guatemala was a bright interlude in a dreary summer landscape.  Seated at a table with three people who had lived and were living in Guatemala, I listened as they swapped stories, savoring their experiences like the potent hot chocolate I sipped.

Picking up on my interest to learn about Guatemala’s history, my friend suggested that I read The Art of Political Murder.  But back in my busy bureaucrat’s life,  I did not get around to picking this book up until than a year later. But when I did, I was swept into another world, the gripping world of Guatemalan political powers as the intersected with Bishop Juan Gerardi’s murder and its tangled investigation.

Bishop Juan Gerardi was the head of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, and was named Coordinator General of the Archbishop’s Office on Human Rights in 1990.  Determined to uncover the horrific human rights violations that occurred during the Guatemalan Civil War, he participated in the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REHMI). Starting in 1994, two years before the Civil War ended, Gerardi and other clergy members gathered testimonies from communities throughout the country, and recorded their firsthand stories of the violence they suffered in the report. In most testimonies, the military was the perpetrator of the violence.

On April 24, 1998, Bishop Gerardi presented the completed REHMI report, which in addition to Guatemalans’ testimonies included the clergy’s research on the Guatemalan military and the Civil War. The report was titled, “Guatemala Nunca Mas (Never Again). To paraphrase Upside Down World, an online magazine covering activism and politics in Latin America, the REHMI Report explicitly stated the military was responsible for 87% of the 200,000 civilians who died or disappeared during the War.  Also, The REHMI Report was the first report to specifically name individuals responsible for these violent acts. The REHMI Report named over 1,000 individuals and military members, thereby challenging the impunity that the perpetrators enjoyed and threatening “the clandestine powers that protect the Guatemalan status quo.”  In response to this threat, two days later, on April 26, 1998, Bishop Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death in the garage of his San Sebastián parish house.

Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder Who Killed the Bishop? begins with the events described above, and moves forward to the convoluted investigation and cover-up of Bishop Gerardi’s murder, entwined with the quest for truth and justice that a courageous few, including Goldman himself, undertook. The narrative also moves backward, explaining how Guatemala’s history shaped the unfolding events. Goldman is a talented writer, in addition to The Art of Political Murder, he has written vibrant novels and contributed thoughtful essays to The New Yorker.  In The Art of Political Murder, his writing is as captivating in style as substance.  Like a deft narrative balancing act, Goldman captures the astonishing absurdity as well as the tragedy in the events around him. Moreover, Goldman’s description of the proceedings and people surrounding Bishop Gerardi’s investigation, brim with unexpected hilarity. This burst of humor in sadness brings to mind Bishop Gerardi himself, whose “stories were famously amusing and sometimes off-color,” as Goldman notes on the first page of his book.

My edition of The Art of Political Murder contains an epilogue that opens in the summer of 2007 with General Otto Perez Molina winning the second place candidate for the Guatemalan presidency.  Perez Molina is a former general and CIA asset, who trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. During the Civil War, he led a military battalion in the war’s most violent massacres in the northwestern highlands. These events have likely yielded testimonies included in the REHMI Report.  Reading Goldman’s epilogue, I wondered, what does it mean for Guatemala that Otto Perez Molina was elected president in 2011?

I had wanted to write a well-crafted analysis answering this question, one that would parse how the Molina administration affects Guatemalan. But all I can do is draw from the words of others. Perhaps I will be better able to answer my own question in two weeks time. For my window into Guatemala will open once again. I will visit Guatemala City, Xela, and Antigua to participate in The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission’s week-long delegation “Women in Resistance: Defending our Bodies, our Rights and Mother Earth.”

In this delegation, I will meet Guatemalan women in their communities, learn about their struggle for justice, and witness their inspiring work to protect their rights to their bodies and natural resources. I am so eager to meet these women and my fellow delegates, I am counting down the days until the delegation’s arrival. The author Anais Nin has a quote that captures my excitement, feelings of how encounters and connections can open up new worlds.  This quote also expresses how it was through a window of friendship that I discovered the world of  Guatemala. “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

Source Notes

1. Goldman, Francisco. The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? 2007.

2. Mizgata, Jennifer. “The Case of Bishop Juan Gerardi: Challenging Impunity though the Guatemalan Justice System.”  May 20, 2006. Upside Down World. http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/271-the-case-of-bishop-juan-gerardi-challenging-impunity-though-the-guatemalan-justice-system

3. Bathanti, Jacob.  “Bishop Gerardi: A Life Devoted to Social Justice.”  2008. http://www.ghrc-usa.org/AboutGuatemala/TimelineGerardiWebsite.pdf

4. “Guatemala: Remembering Bishop Gerardi and His Report ‘Never Again!’” Global Voices. May 6, 2008.http://globalvoicesonline.org/2008/05/06/guatemala-remembering-bishop-gerardi-and-his-report-never-again/

5. “Guatemalan presidential candidate Otto Perez Molina and the Ixil Triangle massacres.”  Latin American Data Base/Latin American Institute. 2011  http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Guatemalan+presidential+candidate+Otto+Perez+Molina+and+the+Ixil…-a0264365892

6. “For Women’s Right to Live: Delegation to Guatemala.” Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. 2012.http://www.ghrc-usa.org/Programs/ForWomensRighttoLive/Delegation.htm 


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