The Art of Political Murder: Who killed Bishop Gerardi?, by Francisco Goldman

Central America has rarely animated mainstream British politicians or public opinion. There was a brief moment in the 1980s when the David and Goliath clash between Nicaragua's elected Sandinista government and a US administration determined to discredit it as a dangerous Marxist insurrection had a certain cachet in liberal circles. But by and large, we seem to accept the US demand that we keep out of Central America because it is their "backyard".

There wasn't therefore a great deal of coverage of the murder on April 26, 1998, of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in Guatemala City, though the killing of a prominent churchman, in charge of the human rights office of the city's Catholic archbishop, did cause a flicker of interest. Two days before, Gerardi had published a 1,400 page report, Guatemala: Never Again, which investigated 50,000 civilian deaths and 410 massacres that took place during the country's civil war, which officially ended with UN involvement in 1996.

The report laid the blame for 80 per cent of the atrocities at the door of the Guatemalan Army and its collaborators within the social and political elite. Gerardi had hoped – with obvious echoes of Desmond Tutu's work in South Africa – to begin the process of national reconciliation. Clearly there were those who wanted no such thing and, if his murder has achieved anything in the decade since, it has been to delay or even derail that process.

In the United States, the Gerardi murder was big news. Among those it attracted to Guatemala was Francisco Goldman, an award-winning novelist with a Guatemalan mother. The Church of San Sebastian, where the bishop was bludgeoned to death as he got out of his car, had been her place of worship before she met her American husband.

The Art of Political Murder is an account of the battle to bring the bishop's murderers to justice. It is told from the inside, working with those in the archdiocesan human rights office who have made it their business to nail the culprits. It reads (and is categorised by its publishers) as "true crime", but in the hands of a subtle and fired-up author, this is a book that exposes the corrupt, brutal and ruthless political climate that the US has spent so many decades and so many millions of dollars maintaining in Central America.

Faced with international concern over Gerardi's death – there was a UN mission at the crime scene within hours of the killing – the Guatemalan authorities came up with a series of explanations. Their favourite was that Gerardi's assistant, Father Mario Orantes, had been discovered by the bishop in flagrante with a half-naked man seen fleeing the scene, and had then turned on the elderly cleric, assisted by his Alsatian, Baloo. It had all the right elements of titillation and sensationalism, discrediting the most formidable opponent of Central American oligarchs and generals, the Catholic Church.

But a team of international pathologists discounted the suggestion that there were dog's teeth marks on the corpse. Then the official prosecutors tried suggesting that a gang of violent teenagers, tenuously linked to a girl in the church on the fateful night, might have broken in and committed the crime. At one stage they even tried to implicate the lawyers working for the Church to find the real killers. Anything but admit the obvious: that the bishop had been silenced by those who had most to lose if his report did bring about radical change in Guatemala.

Finally in 2006, the country's highest court upheld guilty verdicts against two military officers, a father and son, for the bishop's murder, as well as judging that Father Mario had been their accomplice. As Goldman makes clear, there were many more who should have faced a court. The murder had been carefully planned and meticulously covered up. The fight for justice goes on.

With so many red herrings and so much detail to marshall, as well as the challenge of shaping what could be a list of facts into an engrossing narrative, Goldman gave himself a challenge. And met it. He has produced a hugely impressive account: passionate, involving and profoundly moving.

There is the courage of Bishop Gerardi, and those activists like him (religious or not) in Central America, who refuse to be threatened into silence. They accept the possibility – even probability – of death as the price they may have to pay to speak the truth. Mario Domingo, one of the lawyers who fought hardest to bring the culprits to court, eventually found sanctuary in America, but two weeks after the verdict his younger brother was snatched off the streets of Guatemala City and killed by having his arms and legs literally torn from his torso.

What lingers most from this important book is the consequences of the rest of the world's ignorance, of its acceptance that it can't have much impact in Central America, that the justification of "regime change" for launching a war is highly selective and deceptive. If the US wants to start rooting out poisonous political systems, it could do worse than start in its own backyard.

Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray is joining Strictly Come Dancing 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Double bill: Kookie Ryan, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Papou in ‘Nymphomaniac’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Big Blues - Shark' by Alexander Mustard won the Coast category

photography
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering