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.
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