SECOND THOUGHTS: DEATH COMES FOR THE BISHOP | PAGE 2 OF 2 
 
 

The Bishop's report blames 80 percent of the war crimes on the military. It names names -not only of military personnel but of their patrons as well, people in business, government and law who promoted and protected the military. It describes systematic torture, the execution of children, captives forced to watch the burning of their friends' bodies. Much of the effort of the researchers went into convincing people to speak in the first place, to go on record about experiences they were terrified to describe for fear of evoking the same acts in the future. (During the three years of research, many people were threatened with reprisals.) 

It was Gerardi's intent that the report would be widely circulated, translated into the dozens of Mayan languages, explained in workshops, used as source material for monuments. So far, the report has been circulated in whole to only a very few people. (The full report has been leaked to Newsday, but has not yet been published.) When he made his presentation on April 24, Gerardi said, "This road was and continues to be full of risks."

Within 48 hours, he was dead. His family drove him home from a dinner, watched him walk into the garage and wave good-bye and saw the garage door close. Then someone inside the garage smashed his face and head in with a huge brick and dragged his 200-pound body across the floor in a trail of blood. The timing was carefully planned; perhaps it was the murderer who closed the garage door. His body wasn't found for many hours. 

No one in Guatemala, no one at all, believes that Bishop Gerardi was the victim of a random crime. His death is officially mourned, with flags at half-staff and hundredsof government investigators trying to solve the crime even as observers explicitly state their belief that it was a paramilitary assassination. Clearly, a parallel power still exists in Guatemala, an internal portion of the military and its civilian patrons who got fat and rich off the war, and for the most part, the people of Guatemala assume this power structure is responsible. 

Guatemala observers might have predicted that this act -not only the first murder of a bishop ever in Guatemala, but the first political murder since the peace accords 16 months ago- would instantly evoke the retreat and silence of the war years. Terror is useful, after all, because it terrorizes people. 

This has not happened. The people of Guatemala have seemed to rise up as one body, enraged at this act, and it seems at least possible that if this was an effort to silence those who will speak out about the war and its makers, it will backfire. The spontaneous expression of anger and grief about Gerardi's death is unprecedented. People are speaking openly about their beliefs and, in a country used to hiding, giving their names. Dozens of death notices have been placed in the newspaper, black-framed expressions of formal grief from civic organizations, businesses and individuals. One read, in part: "Guatemala está cansada, Guatemala ya no quiere más
sangre, los Guatemaltecos queremos vivir en paz." 

People were talking about it on the radio, the street, the phone: "On the phone!" Maralise said a few days later. "No one ever talked about anything of importance on the phone before." 

We were back in the city then, getting ready to leave, and on our last night took Julio and Maralise out to dinner. There was only one topic to discuss. They had been friends with the bishop for many years; Julio had met him long ago when he was a parish priest. 

Maralise remembered the second meeting of the Central American National Peace Commissions in 1988, where the bishop sat next to Gen. Gordillo, who had been responsible for the massacres in Quiche, the bishop's diocese. "I just had to ask him, how can he do it? How does he sit next to that man? What does he believe reconciliation to be? I remember he pulled me aside, we sat down on a bench and he looked me directly in the eyes. He told me that he knows there is the possibility that this person could still commit those kinds of crimes again. Yet it is only with the participation of those people that there is a real possibility of stopping the violence and solving the key issues for the Guatemalan people. I was surprised -no mention of faith in God. Just, 'You've got to face the reality straight on and work with it to make change.'" 

"What is that word?" Julio asked. He is fluent in English and very rarely needs to ask for a word. "What is that word -- impunity?" And we nodded. Yes, that's the word. Impunity. 

While we ate paella and drank good wine and laughed in between darker moments, while we felt alive and glad for it, 10,000 Guatemalans marched in the streets, holding flickering candles high and chanting, "nunca mas." There were so many people at his funeral the next day that they passed the fragrant funeral wreaths hand over hand through the great cathedral, until they were massed around his body in a blanket of flowers.

On our return, I was surprised to see how little was being said about this in the North American media. I have had to cobble together the few facts I have, compare one spare story to another, double-check the sparse details. I described it all to a few friends. One shocked me by saying, "Oh, what's the surprise? It's business as usual down there."

I understand why he thinks that is so. What news we do receive from Latin America is almost always news of death and terror. But he misses something important. Guatemala really has changed. A lot of people are spending a lot of time to make the peace accords bear fruit. People who suffered dearly in the war have been elected to regional and national office, and the governments of several other nations have pledged money to help keep the peace. 

More importantly, war and murder and terror can never be ordinary for anyone, anywhere. It's never normal to walk away from a burning town with only what you can carry, leaving behind your dead children. It's not possible to be used to sudden loss and constant fear. It is not business as usual to walk past the building where people you knew were tortured and killed and not remember. 

To the extent that North Americans turn away from this new outrage, thinking it is just more of the same, we are complicit. Silence is silence -- here, there, in our homes, in our hearts. Historical clarification is a global, continual process. This year has brought a strange plethora of testimony: from Guatemalans, Rwandans, South Africans, Cambodians: People who have for a long time been lost to history's official process are asking the world to listen to their stories. It is a process North Americans have never undertaken. We like to think our own history is an honest one, our newspapers and textbooks accurate, that there is nothing silenced here. But a possibility exists, in Guatemala and elsewhere, of writing history a new way.

In the eulogy he gave for Gerardi, Bishop Gerardo Flores said, "Someday soon, we hope that this country's people can sing, can cry out wholeheartedly, 'Guatemala! Guatemala! Never again!'" Instead of cowering, the audience applauded for a long, long time. 
 

SALON | May 14, 1998