Taking on the rich

<strong>The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?</strong>

Francisco Goldman <em>At

The Roman Catholic Church in Latin America is a powerful but tortured creature - proud of the outstanding valour of many of its members in the face of tyranny and persecution; ashamed of the treachery and backsliding of others keener to maintain their historic privilege and social position and happier to truckle to tyrants than to be faithful to the gospel they were called to spread.

Francisco Goldman's book is a study of how the valorous and the treacherous behaved in the infernal conditions that obtained - and still obtain - in Guatemala, a country that a few fools and many knaves continue to call part of "the free world".

In 1954, this small central American state had its gentle, democratically elected reforming government overthrown in a military putsch backed - as many similar ones in Latin America were - by the US government. The act brought on decades of war and a genuine, 24-carat genocide in which, according to the UN, 200,000 people were slaughtered. Most of them were indigenous peasants, personae non gratae to the white and near-white minority in Guatemala. As in similar massacres in Indonesia, their names were difficult to write and pronounce, their two dozen different languages were devilishly exotic, and thus their fate never attracted the attention of western journalists attentive to reporting the Cold War.

Indeed, many cold warriors, anxious to maintain the central American Establishment, wrote off indigenes' effort to escape their centuries-long racial slavery as nothing more than the machinations of Moscow and Marxism. For their part, in their ideological ignorance, the Kekchis, Kaqchikels and the rest would doubtless have taken "Moscow" and "Marxism" as referring to some odd species of European cactus or some strange ball game.

Into this bloody political blancmange came Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera in 1967. He decided to help the indigenous and other people at the bottom of society even if that meant challenging the state and its armed forces. Nettled, the Establishment massacred Mayan peasants in his remote rural diocese and tried to assassinate him in 1980, a few months after their comrades-in-arms in neighbouring El Salvador had murdered Archbishop Óscar Romero. Gerardi went into exile but then helped to publish Guatemala: Never Again, a serious and sensational documentation of the genocides. He was murdered by the presidential guard on 26 April 1998, two days after the report's appearance.

Goldman, a US-Guatemalan novelist, casts aside the official whitewashes of the murder and compellingly and accurately chronicles the bravery of those who dug for the truth and sometimes lost their lives doing so. The story tells of many traitors and backsliders, notably Father Mario Orantes, an assistant to Gerardi and Guatemalan Liberace whose wardrobes contained 60 shirts, a gold Cartier watch worth £1,700, 12 leather jackets and four bottles of Dunhill cologne. This disgrace to the cloth was humoured by his ecclesiastical superiors - including those in the Vatican and its diplomatic service - who tried in vain to save him from standing trial with a colonel, a captain and a sergeant major for the murder. Orantes's 20-year jail sentence, imposed on him in 2001, was confirmed on appeal in April last year.

The Art of Political Murder is a reminder that Latin America and its church are not in a ferment for nothing. The turmoil that has brought in reforming leaders, such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Lula da Silva in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia, exists because hundreds of millions at the bottom of society are no longer willing to accept lives of poverty amid the luxury of a minority. The sometimes hysterical demonisation of these leaders by North Atlantic spin doctors is unlikely to affect the leaders' drive for change.

Though Goldman's compelling work does not seek to rival the intellectual rigour of Teresa Whitfield's Paying the Price, that marvellous examination of the murder of the six Jesuits and their two housekeepers in San Salvador in 1989, it is a powerful book. I suggest that the papal nuncio sends a copy to the Vatican - where the likes of Archbishop Romero, Gerardi, the Salvadorean Jesuits and many other heroes are routinely and scandalously belittled - in his next diplomatic bag. It needs to be read there.

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This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn