George Clooney Confronts a Catholic Bishop’s State-Sponsored Assassination
The new HBO doc “The Art of Political Murder,” executive produced by George Clooney, examines the murder (and cover-up) of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi.
Guatemala’s civil war between the right-wing military government and leftist rebels raged for 36 years, taking the lives of approximately 200,000 civilians. When it was nearing its completion, the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Church (ODHA) started investigating atrocities committed during the brutal campaign, most of which, it determined, were perpetrated by the army. The ODHA’s work culminated with 1998’s Recovery of Historical Memory project (REMHI), a report about those crimes against humanity, which was spearheaded by a brave, crusading bishop, Juan José Gerardi. Since 1988, Gerardi had been part of the government's National Reconciliation Commission, and he championed the REMHI findings as the first step toward a “liberating truth” that would let the nation come to terms with its history, take responsibility for what had been done, and safeguard against the recurrence of this nightmare.
Two days after presenting the REMHI report to the public, Gerardi was found dead in his garage, the victim of an assassination that shook the country to its core.
Executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and based on Francisco Goldman’s non-fiction book of the same name, The Art of Political Murder (debuting Dec. 16 on HBO) revisits that tragedy with thoroughness and urgency. Working in chronological order, and employing interviews with many of its story’s principals, director Paul Taylor’s documentary begins with Gerardi’s execution in the garage of the San Sebastian Church parish house where he lived alongside, among others, priest Mario Orantes. A bloody piece of concrete appeared to be the murder weapon, and Orantes was the first to discover his comrade’s body, although it was initially difficult to identify Gerardi, so brutally disfigured was his face. Within days, wildly speculative reports began spreading that Gerardi was the victim of a “crime of passion” that might have been related to a homosexual love triangle between him, Orantes, and a third man who did the horrific deed.
That notion was furthered by eyewitness testimony from Ruben Chanax, a homeless man living in the park adjacent to San Sebastian Church, who told investigators that he had seen a shirtless male exit the garage in the middle of the night, followed by Orantes appearing briefly in the same doorway. The press ran with this sensationalistic angle, and went altogether ape-shit over the subsequent theory—born from physical evidence that would later be refuted—that Gerardi had in fact been attacked by Orantes’ German Shepherd Balu. Before long, Balu was front-page news, especially once authorities arrested the dog, turning the entire affair, as one person says, into a “carnival.”
No amount of distracting fanfare, however, could drown out the anguish of the Guatemalan people over Gerardi’s death, nor the obvious suspicion that the army had contracted this hit as retaliation for REMHI, which pointed a finger at the military for acts of genocide against the Maya people. It was a clear-cut case of authoritarian violence against a prominent dissenter. The problem, though, was that in this tumultuous social and political climate, proving the army’s culpability was far from easy—especially since the crime scene was ruinously mismanaged (leading to no usable forensic evidence), the public prosecutor, Otto Ardon, was in tight with the army, and no Guatemalan military officer had ever been found guilty of a state-sponsored execution.
Augmented by extensive archival footage, The Art of Political Murder wades into this morass of murder and corruption with its eyes trained firmly on the mechanisms of tyranny. Those range from using state apparatuses to carry out covert crimes, to making death threats to keep adversaries silent, the latter of which is epitomized by a phone call recording in which a man promises to shoot a “motherfucking f-g” investigator in the head if he keeps looking into Gerardi’s demise. Such real and imminent danger also manifested itself in person—Ronalth Ochaeta, the director of ODHA and a close friend and colleague of Gerardi, explains that he fled the country after his four-year-old son had a gun stuck in his mouth by an intruder looking to dissuade Ochaeta from continuing his work.
Taylor’s doc is, on the one hand, an exposé about the way in which state-sponsored terror is carried out and covered up. Yet it’s also a tale about the bravery required to combat it. The Art of Political Murder retraces the steps of various ODHA human rights investigators as they comb through leads and evidence to deduce the truth about this heinous situation. As revealed by interviews with a handful of these sleuths, their efforts ultimately led back to Chanax. The fact that this key eyewitness was held for months in a secret location by the army suggested that he had even more crucial testimony to offer. And by the time Chanax finally got on the stand courtesy of new prosecutor Leopoldo Zeissig—who’d taken over from both Ardon, who was thrown off the case, and his predecessor Celvin Galindo, who had to leave Guatemala because of threats—he had quite the story to tell.
Chantax’s courtroom bombshell was that he wasn’t really homeless; instead, he had been squatting in the park as an undercover informant tasked by military intelligence with spying on Gerardi. Moreover, on the fateful night in question, he’d been recruited by three army officers—Col. Byron Lima Estrada and his son Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, as well as Oliva’s right-hand man José Obdulia Villanueva—to help with the crime. The trio received 30 years behind bars, while Orantes (convicted of being an accomplice) got 20.
What The Art of Political Murder becomes, ultimately, is a portrait of accountability as the central bulwark against government corruption and cruelty. As this sorry episode in Guatemalan history demonstrates, a fair and reliable justice system is vital to the operation of a true democracy, providing a counterbalance to the vicious intimidation and violence that despots would otherwise be only too happy to wield in service of their own political aims. The convictions of Gerardi’s killers were thus a hopeful sign that the guilty might still be punished, and that the truth can be freely spoken. Although the fact that no one has yet been put behind bars for ordering Gerardi’s assassination also proves that the struggle for justice remains an ongoing one.