[(essay date 7 July 2008) In the essay below, Popper documents the enormous impact of Goldman's coverage of the Gerardi case, including the role of The Art of Political Murder in the 2007 Guatemalan presidential election, the retaliatory crusades of the alleged conspirators, and the countertheory of the murder proposed in ¿Quién mató al obispo (2003), by European journalists Maite Rico and Bertrand de la Grange.]
Early last November, the novelist Francisco Goldman was shouldering his way through the Texas leg of a reading tour for his first nonfiction book, The Art of Political Murder. Published by Grove Press in September, the book had received glowing reviews in newspapers and magazines nationwide, and it would soon be included by The New York Times Book Review in its list of the 100 Notable Books of the Year. On November 5 Goldman was relaxing in his hotel before a reading at a Houston Barnes & Noble when his BlackBerry pinged with an e-mail from an innkeeper in the Guatemalan town of Santiago de Atitlán. One day earlier, Guatemalans had voted in a general election, and the winner of the presidential contest was Álvaro Colom, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat and head of the National Unity of Hope (UNE) Party. Quite unexpectedly, Colom had come from behind in the polls to defeat Otto Pérez Molina, a salt-and-pepper-haired general who had campaigned on the slogan of Mano Dura (Firm Fist), a sturdy platform in a country that was ruled by the military and repressive right-wing parties almost without interruption from 1954 until the late '90s. As it happens, the election was also the subject of the e-mail Goldman received from the inn-keeper, David Glanville: The Art of Political Murder, Glanville wrote, may have been a decisive factor in Pérez Molina's loss.
Goldman's book is about neither the election nor the candidates. The Art of Political Murder is an investigation of one of Guatemala's most notorious and gruesome killings. On a Sunday night in April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been bludgeoned to death just two days after publishing a report about the Guatemalan military's responsibility for civilian massacres in the country's recently concluded civil war. In the midst of investigating the case, Goldman found sources who told him that on the night of the murder, Pérez Molina was hanging out in a convenience store near Gerardi's church with a few conspirators in Gerardi's murder. That scrap of information is mentioned--but not heavily scrutinized--by Goldman in his book.
The Art of Political Murder was available only in English, but during the campaign the news it contained slowly spread through Guatemala: in some places disseminated by priests, in other places by UNE officials at election rallies. In Santiago de Atitlán, a small indigenous town on the shores of Guatemala's most beautiful lake, word had arrived in the form of a pamphlet featuring three photos--two of Gerardi and one of the cover of The Art of Political Murder--and a line from the book, translated into Spanish, about...