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Profiles in Courage: Guatemala's Untouchables (Los Intocables)
October 22, 2007

As noted in my Weekly commentary of 9-17-07, novelist/journalist Francisco Goldman, with his recently published The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, has written a brilliant non-fiction account of the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi and the ensuing investigation and trial of the persons responsible for the crime: a conservative closeted homosexual priest who was sharing the parish house with the bishop, and several military officers with the Presidential Military Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial—EMP) who are also linked to organized crime. Once the verdicts were confirmed, it was hoped that continuing investigation would pursue other officers believed to be linked to the murder, including General Otto Pérez Molina—now a candidate for president of Guatemala, who is facing center-left businessman Álvaro Colom in a runoff scheduled for November 4th. If he is elected, as is expected—the general has received a baffling nod of approval from our own embassy, due to his impeccable anti-Chávez credentials (better a killer and a narco than a leftist, one assumes)—this path to justice will get closed for good, unless the U.N. Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus (CICIACS) enters the fray with the authority it deserves.

At the heart of Goldman's story is the account of how a group of human rights investigators, lawyers, prosecutors and judges, a small circle of whom joking referred to themselves as Los Intocables—The Untouchables— pursued justice despite the onslaught of violence, threats, slander and condemnation hurled at them from virtually every direction: the military, politicians, defense lawyers, the press, even respected Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. One lost his brother to an unspeakably vicious death. Several had their homes bombed, or were forced into exile when military thugs followed their children to school to let them know how easy it would be to kill them. All endured countless death threats that they never disclosed to Goldman personally, out of an intrinsic sense of honor (he learned of the threats from other investigators, or by reading documents related to the case). But these people were true believers that justice had to be done, despite the cynicism of most of their countrymen. The story of that courage, plus the marvelous depictions of the inimitable characters involved, from ex-army street hustlers to inhabitants of Guatemala's gay demimonde, as well as an informed and daunting portrait of where Guatemala stands today—a country where criminal mafias led by military chieftains vie for control of the insanely lucrative narcotics, human trafficking, car theft and kidnapping rackets, and where "the line between crime and politics can be so fine as to not even exist"—and a clear-eyed analysis of the "schizophrenic" role of the United States in both some of the most galling and the most inspiring episodes in that country's recent history, make this a book that is simply too good to miss.

And Goldman himself is suffering his own slanders now. With his identification of Pérez Molina as one of the intellectual authors of the bishop's murder (witnesses placed the general/presidential candidate and two other officers at a tiny store near the crime scene shortly before the killing took place), the disinformation campaign has begun with all the ferocity and mendacity one might expect—to the point where the tragic death in late July of Goldman's young and gifted wife, Aura Estrada, is now being depicted as a murder, with guess who as the chief suspect. (For his part, Goldman shrugs off such things, for he knows what those closest to the case suffered and endured during the seven long years it took for justice to be achieved, and considers himself honored to count several of them now among his friends.)

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