Who cares about Guatemala? Here is one of the most violent countries in the Western hemisphere, averaging 4,000 murders a year. Some 200,000 people were slaughtered during the 36-year civil war that followed the CIA-sponsored overthrow of President Arbenz in 1954. The UN report into this genocide declared the military responsible for 93 per cent of these deaths.
Surely, "if Guatemala teaches you anything," as the Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman notes in this powerful book, "it is never to poeticize or idealize reality". Yet for many the images Guatemala can evoke are of jungle-clad ruins cleansed of the Maya who built them. Tourist fantasies help eviscerate the present in a sanitised, romantic vision of the past.
Goldman's book is a factual account of Guatemala's most shocking political murder in recent years, that of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera two days after he launched a full accounting of the army's genocide. The murder of a Guatemalan bishop is not usually the sort of subject to set publishers' pulses racing, but in Goldman's masterful hands it defies indifference. Here is an inquiry into political evil, a morality tale which also evokes the struggle between elites and those under them which characterises much of Latin America's recent history.
A much-loved pastor, Gerardi was a hate-figure for the military and for the commercial and land-owning oligarchs. For years he had investigated massacres the Guatemalan army had inflicted on the Mayan peasantry. Released in April 1998, his report documented vile abuses. The military wanted to show that, despite democratic window-dressing, things would proceed as before. Gerardi was bludgeoned to death in his garage with a slab of concrete one night, just after returning from supper with his sister.
The army, and its notorious operations wing the EMP, were instant suspects. Yet they had decades of experience in camouflaging their murders. Each time one of their theories as to who killed Gerardi was discredited another would emerge. Thus a shirtless man was seen near the scene and rumours spread of a homosexual crime of passion; then it was said that members of the parish had been stealing church icons and had been caught by the bishop; then that members of Gerardi's human-rights office had been discovered embezzling money and had arranged the murder; then, that his housemate and fellow-priest, Mario Orantes, had orchestrated the crime.
Two journalists published a book declaring suspicions of the army to be a conspiracy of human-rights groups. Their distorted version was promoted by the influential novelist Mario Vargas Llosa in the Spanish newspaper El País.
It was to take nine years for the case to conclude. Goldman's account is gripping, and surreal. Key witnesses are homeless criminals who turn out also to be military informers. The suspect priest, Orantes, is an effete dandy with a sinister female chaperone. Another witness is a taxi driver who took a wrong turn on the night, his cab full of transvestites making for a gay bar. Suspects and witnesses were murdered. Others went into exile. Investigators found that "funeral music would play into their phones".
In such a twisted atmosphere, truth's pulse is weak. There is despair in Goldman's ruthless portrait of his country, destroyed by its history of violence, racism, and entrenched interests. Yet there is also consolation in the bravery of journalists, lawyers and activists who defy intimidation. These are the people, it turns out, who do care about Guatemala: those heroes in a world of self-interest and corrupted moral choices who are prepared to risk everything in the faint hope of a better future.
Toby Green's 'Inquisition' is published by Pan