The Art of Political Murder tries to document the reasons that led to a catastrophe, events, and testimonies of the witnesses, from the fateful evening of 26th April 1998. The Guatemalan Roman Catholic Bishop, Juan Gerardi, was brutally murdered on this day while he was entering his living quarters in the premises of the Saint Sebastian Church.
The documentary has been directed by Paul Taylor and is based on the book by Francesco Goldman, of the same name. The Art of Political Murder analyzes the different facets that made it extremely difficult for the rule of law to prevail in Guatemala. It talks about the experiences of those who were involved and witnessed the whole ordeal firsthand. But most importantly it talks about the sacrifice of a champion human rights activist named Bishop Juan Gerardi and the foundation he laid for the present Guatemalan generation.
“Truth is the primary word and what will break this cycle of violence and death and open a future of hope and light.”
This was exactly what Bishop Juan Gerardi believed in. He believed in speaking an uncompromised truth, even if it meant going against the big bulls.
From 1960 to early 90s Guatemala was in a state of civil war. Especially from 1981 to 83 several attacks were carried out by the army on the indigenous people of Maya descent, who accounted for around 42 per cent of the population. On 25th Feb 1999, based on their findings, the United Nations said in their report, that the attacks carried out on approximately 400 Mayan villages in the period between 1981 to 83, would qualify as being genocide.
Juan Girardi knew the ground reality when he started doing research and collecting data for the REMHI (Research of historical memory project) report. Once he started going to the villages to get first-hand accounts from the natives, he realised that there was an involvement of the political will. Not only genocide but there were widespread and systematic attacks that did qualify as being Crime against Humanity.
The thousand-page REMHI report spoke about the atrocities of the army on the civilians, how anyone who spoke against them was either killed or sent to exile. There was an environment of fear and terror. The illusion of democracy was given when in reality it was a dictatorship.
Just two days after presenting this detailed report, Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated by an unknown person. His head was brutally smashed with a concrete slab. The images that came out in the media were disturbing. The representative of justice had perished, fighting against an austere regime. The light, made of a thousand suns went off, leaving everyone in darkness.
There were a lot of conspiracy theories floated by the media houses. Some said that it’s a case of gang rivalry given the presence of Ana Lucia Escobar on the crime scene and some said that the political enemies of the state killed the bishop. The one which got the most attention was that it was a crime of passion. This superfluous assumption was even taken into consideration by the Public Prosecutor, Otto Arden. Arden was known for his close relations with the army and henceforth was seen as an obstacle in procuring justice. A theory was levitated that the Bishop had homosexual relationships with his co-priest Father Mario Orantes. When the bishop came home that night he saw Father Orantes with another man. In the heat of the moment, Father Orantes made his German Shepherd bite and seriously injure the Bishop.
What was even more shocking was that the body of Monsignor Juan Gerardi was exhumed, to run an autopsy for dog bites on it.
Ronald Ocheata, the second in command to the Bishop in their human rights committee said that
“Monsignor was killed the second time.”
Impunity in the System
The Art Of Political Murder underlines that there was some “political will” behind this murder. This was no act of passion. When Amnesty International took the investigation in their hands, Jack Palladino was called in to investigate the crime. He ruled out all the floating conspiracy theories and drew everybody’s attention to the main issues.
A person named Ruben Chanax was identified as being the key and primary witness. He took the name of three army officials and pointed out that these men were behind the crime.
Former Presidential bodyguard, Sergeant Major Jose Obdulio Villanueva, former head of military intelligence, Colonel Disrael Lima, and Lima’s son, Captain Byron Lima, were named by Ruben Chanax. Still, it was difficult to convict these high ranked officials due to their hold on the system. Everybody fighting for the prosecutors started receiving death threats. They either left the country or refrained from being associated with the case.
It was ascertained that these three would easily walk out due to lack of evidence.
Pluck or Foolishness?
You might call it merely foolishness or the audacity of two individuals that sealed the fate of the three army personals involved in the assassination of the Bishop. One was the key witness Ruban Chanax and second was Justice Yasmin Barrois.
After giving his first testimony, Ruban again came to the court to confess that he was not present at the crime scene by coincidence but he was hired by the intelligence agencies to keep a check on the movement of the Bishop. In the process of telling the truth, he not only incriminated himself but also risked his life by bringing the organized crime into the light.
Prior to the final hearing, two grenades were thrown inside Justice Barrios. The perpetrators intended to scare the judge so that she leaves the case. But she didn’t. The next day itself she came for the hearing. It was the might of these two individuals and several others who risked their lives that the accused army personals were charged with 30 years of life imprisonment.
Till date it hasn’t been ascertained that on whose orders those army personnel’s acted. The fight still goes on.
But amidst the ongoing struggle, the Guatemalan people do not fail to acknowledge the little victories, the harrowing losses, the selfless acts of those who fought for a cause, a conscience-driven witness, a brave judge and most importantly a man who lived for the people and gave his life fighting for the people, Bishop Juan Gerardi. It is no less than thriller drama and one cannot afford to miss it.
The Art of Political Murder is streaming on HBO Max.
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