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The Killer as Candidate: Guatemala's Upcoming Presidential Run-off
September 17, 2007

In Francisco Goldman's recently published The Art of Political Murder, a non-fiction account of the investigation into the murder of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998, Goldman states his conviction that General Otto Pérez Molina, former head of the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), was the intellectual author of the bishop's slaying. The bishop was murdered two days after he published a 1400-page report titled Guatemala: Never Again regarding the many human rights abuses perpetrated by the military during that country's decades-long civil war. (Over 200,000 civilians died during this conflict, and most of the victims were members of the country's indigenous poor.)

Goldman ends his book on a guardedly optimistic note, noting that in late April 2007 guilty verdicts against three defendants charged with the bishop's murder had finally been upheld. "At last the second stage of the investigation can begin," remarked one of the prosecutors on the case (who at one point was forced into exile due to his pursuit of the truth). This second stage would involve the attempt to get the convicted defendants (two EMP officers and a conservative priest with family connections to the military high command) to provide testimony against the higher-ups in the EMP believed to be responsible for the murders—including General Pérez Molina.

Prosecutors recognized that the bishop's murder and the extrajudicial killings conducted by the military during the civil war had the same pedigree, and that cracking the Gerardi case would inevitably shine a light into the darkness that cloaked the military's involvement in human rights abuses throughout the conflict—an opportunity that the general amnesty law had all but obviated by exonerating all those who had committed atrocities during the war.

There's one difficulty with this scenario: General Pérez Molina ran for the office of president this past year, and collected enough votes to earn a run-off with Álvaro Colom, a center-left businessman. If the general wins the runoff, one can reliably predict that any further investigation into the Gerardi murder will come to an immediate and definitive halt.

The shame of this extends beyond the bishop's case. Guatemala is on the verge of becoming a failed state, with spiraling crime and corruption, much of it linked to narcotics traffickers. (An intelligence analyst with the U.S. Southern Command likens present-day Guatemala to Colombia twenty years ago.) The general promises a firm hand—la mano dura—to bring the homicide rate down, much like his political bedfellows in El Salvador and Honduras have in the recent past. But these draconian laws have had little real effect on crime levels. The real consequence of these laws, if not their secret purpose, is to stifle civil dissent, and they have been used to that effect in El Salvador twice this past year, in arresting protestors in anti-privatization demonstrations relating to the water system and the health system. Their target is not crime so much as disorder, specifically in the form of political opposition to those who have traditionally controlled the reins of power in the region.

What one can expect from the general if he is elected is a focus on the maras (gangs) as the chief if not sole source of crime in the country, ignoring the more socially and politically connected mafias comprised in many cases of former military officers. The immunity from prosecution such mafias enjoy, plus the obscene amount of drug money they are able to use to bribe judges and other officials, will only hasten Guatemala's descent into corruption, and a retreat from democratic government under the guise of getting tough on crime.

If that happens—and recent polls in the region reflect that people are increasingly despairing of democracy's ability to deal with the seemingly intractable problems people face there—then the glimmer of hope offered by Goldman will be snuffed out, perhaps for good, as one more Latin American country searches out a caudillo, a strongman, to deliver it from its fate. The region's history is filled with such men, and all too often that history has been written in blood.

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