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Guatemala’s Indigenous Countryside Drives Election Victory over Atrocity-Linked General

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In an upset victory, Álvaro Colom, who ran on an anti-poverty platform, beat the hard-line retired General Otto Pérez Molina with close to 53 percent of the vote. We get reaction from Guatemalan-American writer Francisco Goldman. His new book, “The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?” implicates the defeated Pérez Molina in the 1998 murder of beloved Guatemalan human rights activist Bishop Juan Gerardi. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes, we’ll be going to Pakistan, but right now to Guatemala, where the centrist candidate Álvaro Colom has won the presidential election, this according to official election results released on Monday. In an upset victory, Colom beat the retired General Otto Pérez Molina on Sunday’s runoff election.

Colom ran on an anti-poverty platform, won close to 53 percent of the vote. In his victory speech, Colom thanked his supporters.

PRESIDENT-ELECT ÁLVARO COLOM: [translated] We won against all odds, against everything, because truth was on our side, because everyone’s work and each one of you was efficient, because we didn’t cheat or deceive. I said that we would win by between 4 and 7 percent, and we won by 5.2 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: General Pérez Molina, who led in the polls until last week, ran on an anti-crime platform. The ex-head of army intelligence, he promised to expand the police force by half and to use the military to fight crime. He commanded troops in one of Guatemala’s most violent areas and has been implicated in a number of political crimes. Pérez Molina conceded defeat in a news conference after the results were announced.

GENERAL OTTO PÉREZ MOLINA: [translated] We said we would respect the results given by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and that we would respect the will of the Guatemalans expressed through the ballots, and that’s what we are doing. We are present here.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the significance of the election and the task ahead for President-elect Álvaro Colom, we turn now to Guatemalan-American writer Francisco Goldman. His latest book is The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? It implicates the defeated presidential candidate, General Pérez Molina, in the 1998 murder of the beloved Guatemalan human rights activist, Bishop Juan Gerardi. Francisco Goldman joins us again, now from Houston, Texas. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Francisco.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. First, your response to the election results?

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: It’s — as a lot of my friends emailed me from Guatemala yesterday, Guatemalan democracy was saved. The country was on the verge of — people thought that this General Pérez Molina was going to be elected and possibly take them back to some equivalent of the hard-line military rule of 1980s. But the countryside, in this vote, defeated the city. And this is the first time in Guatemalan history, really, that the indigenous people in the highlands have really voted as a bloc and carried, by surprise, Colom to victory.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about the significance of this. Isn’t it the first time that the president did not win the city, but the countryside?

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: It’s definitely the very first time that the Indian population, the Mayan Indian population, the rural population, have really decisively backed one candidate. And everybody — the capital, which, as you know, is more mixed racially and economically, and etc., is quite separate in existence from its countryside.

And in Guatemala City, the media, all the television stations, virtually all the newspapers, which are all owned by pro-business, right-wing-type, you know, kinds of people who were heavily backing the general and, let’s say, not quite allowing news that might harm the general’s campaign to get into their media.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke last week before the election, and you gave quite a frightening profile of the candidate who has been defeated, the general, Pérez Molina. Can you briefly summarize who he is again?

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: General Pérez Molina was, during — you know, during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, it had probably — the army, which ruled and dominated throughout that war, gave Guatemala probably the worst human rights record in Latin America and among the worst in the world. 200,000 civilians were killed. A lot of the worst atrocities were committed by Guatemala’s intelligence units, especially the G-2 and the EMP, the Presidential Military Staff. That’s where the death squads came from. That’s where the illegal detention centers, the torture centers, came from.

And General Pérez Molina, a graduate of the School of the Americas and so forth, was a chief of both of those entities. And even in reporting in places like The New York Times, you know, very vicious crimes that he was responsible for have been reported on.

But in the 1996 peace accords, the army, as the victor, insisted as a condition for peace — and acquiescent guerrillas agreed — that there should be a blanket amnesty for all human rights crimes, which means that he really couldn’t be prosecuted for a lot of those crimes. That was eventually breached when the U.N. declared crimes against humanity had occurred in Guatemala. There can be no amnesty for crimes against humanity.

But impunity still reigns in Guatemala to a great degree, and the courts just haven’t been strong enough to carry human rights trials forward. So what really became the issue, though, in the general’s campaign were not his wartime crimes, but news beginning to filter out about his peacetime crimes, which included the allegations that are made in a part of my book about his involvement in the murder of Bishop Gerardi, but also corruption charges and involvement in other crimes. These kinds of things began to bubble up on the fringes, but the pro-Pérez Molina media in Guatemala kept it out of the mainstream news down there. But it found its way into the population by other routes, let’s say.

AMY GOODMAN: Once again, talk about the evidence you have for Pérez Molina, the general, being implicated in the death of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the man who had just released the “Nunca Más” report, the report of hundreds of pages that indicated that it was Guatemalan military, with its paramilitaries, who were responsible for the overwhelming number of deaths and disappearances in Guatemala through the ’80s.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Well, the evidence that we had — Bishop Gerardi, of course, with that report, presented the boldest challenge to the army’s, you know, “piñata of self-forgiveness,” as a lot of people referred to it as, the amnesty. And as the great sort of intelligence guru, General Pérez Molina, sort of seen as almost a father figure among the officer class that would be vulnerable if human rights prosecutions ever came forward.

And the evidence that we had, as eventually — and the book I wrote, of course, chronicles the long legal struggle of the sort of secular young people in the church human rights office to discover who was responsible for the crime and to eventually — and really a story of extraordinary triumph, how they eventually managed to get three military men convicted for the murder and investigations ordered into higher-ups, which could eventually include Pérez Molina.

The last government, which was a right-wing government, disbanded the office of the special prosecutor in the Gerardi to keep that case from going forward. But the key witness in the case told me that Otto Pérez Molina had been involved, when I spoke to him when he was in exile in Mexico. I later confirmed that with the head U.N. investigator, a former Spanish intelligence agent, who ran the U.N. mission’s investigation in Guatemala, who had his own reasons for believing that, including an account which kind of challenged Pérez Molina’s alibi that he had been in Washington the week of the crime so that he couldn’t have been responsible. But the U.N. knew that he had, in fact, had dinner with the chief of the U.N. mission three days after the murder, and he had warned — he said, “Don’t pay attention to General Pérez Molina’s alibi that he had a diplomatic passport that says that he’s in Washington. He’s an intelligence chief. He uses multiple passports.”

And then, after I brought this out in my book, Guatemalan newspaper reporters in the one honest, feisty newspaper in Guatemala, El Periódico, they took it further and discovered that, yes, indeed, he had seven passports registered under his name, just as that Spaniard had predicted. And also this reporter discovered that that witness had told the U.N. investigator about Pérez Molina’s involvement in the murder two days after it occurred, during their first interrogation.

AMY GOODMAN: Will there be trials of any of those, perhaps even Pérez Molina, involved in not only the death, the murder of Bishop Gerardi, but so many others? Two hundred thousand people died during that time.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Colom has said in his declarations that really the most important issue to him is ending impunity in Guatemala and strengthening the judicial system. When I spoke to him on the phone a few months ago, he told me that if he became president, he was going to reopen the office of the special prosecutor in the Gerardi case. So I really expect him to do that.

And it’s really important to mention that for the first time in its history, the United Nations has appointed a commission in Guatemala. It’s called CICIACS. It’s a special commission to go after these military intelligence units that General Pérez Molina headed. It’s a commission to go — it’s the Guatemalan commission against impunity, and they’re charged with going after clandestine security groups and their links to organized crime, which is what this story is all about. And so, U.N. secretary-general has appointed a Spanish judge, who can now assemble a team of foreign and national prosecutors to develop cases against clandestine security forces in Guatemala.

If General Pérez Molina had become president, it would have been — you would have had the bizarre scenario of CICIACS investigating him and his cronies for these kinds of crimes. Now, with President Colom, there’s going to be a civilian president who can work hand-in-hand with this U.N. commission to finally take impunity on in Guatemala. So I think it’s going to be — I hate to use the word “hopeful” in a country that has suffered as much as Guatemala, but this is really the most hopeful scenario I’ve seen there in decades.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Francisco Goldman, and we’re going to come back to him. He wrote the book The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? It’s just out. I want to ask about U.S. involvement in a number of these killings, U.S. backing the Guatemalan military and military intelligence, and also the role of the School of the Americas, and the latest news that was just breaking this past week of Pérez Molina being linked to narcotraffickers, coming out in the Guatemalan paper El Periódico. But we’ll talk about that with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be going to Pakistan to find out the latest there on what some have called a coup by the General and President Musharraf. But we’re staying in Guatemala right now with Francisco Goldman, who is the acclaimed Guatemalan-American novelist, who has written a nonfiction work called The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who had just released a human rights report in 1998. Two days later, he was killed. That report shook the country, naming names, people involved in the killings of — well, 200,000 people died in the 1980s in Guatemala.

Can you talk about the vice president, Francisco Goldman? You’re speaking to us right now from Houston. The vice president, a well-known cardiologist in Houston.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Well, he was kind of, I think — they call him “Doctor Corazón.” He was — I think that he gave a lot of intellectual and moral credibility to Colom’s campaign. He’s kind of a revered figure in Guatemala. And I thought that a lot of his — the few interviews I saw with him during the campaign were kind of prescient. He was just so eloquent in his — he was so shocked and stunned. He said, “How can Guatemala, after what this country has been through, even be considering turning power back to the military, to the very same people that plunged this country into such violence and held it there for so many decades?”

And I think that what he — I think that the countryside — and especially the message of this election was that the people in the countryside said, “No. Yes, we remember what the military did in this country, and we’re not going to forget it, and we don’t care what it says in the city and what the polls say and what the urban newspapers and TV stations are saying, we remember, and we’re not going to let it happen again.”

And I think — you know, I received some extraordinary emails. And even — just to give an indication of how the news got out, even our interview that we did last week on Democracy Now!, that began to circulate on the Internet, where, Amy, you and I spoke about the charges against Bishop Gerardi, and I got an email telling me that in Santiago Atitlán and other towns, young Catholics had downloaded that interview from the internet, the interview in which we spoke about the charges against Pérez Molina in the Gerardi case, translated it and stood outside the cemetery on the Day of the Dead with big photocopied piles of the transcript of the interview, handing it out to people, because the Guatemalan media wouldn’t report it. So people took it into their own hands to get the truth out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Francisco Goldman. You also said at the end of that interview last week, Francisco Goldman, that it was just breaking in a Guatemalan newspaper, links between Pérez Molina, the defeated presidential candidate now, and narcotraffickers.


AMY GOODMAN: What is that about?

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Well, you know, when you really talk about that whole world of military intelligence and the reason they’ve held onto power in Guatemala since, you know, the years of the war, right, because during the war the CIA empowered them essentially to be the Cold War front line, the clandestine groups that would really take the war, you know, to opposition figures, and that’s the death squads, and so forth and, you know.

Now, why in peacetime, despite the fact that the peace accords say that military intelligence — that intelligence should be in the hands of civilians, why do they so desperately hold onto power? The answer to that lies in the fact that even the DEA says that up to 70 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States comes through Guatemala. And the reason that happens is because of this clandestine world of military intelligence power. They basically went from working for the CIA to working for the narco cartels, essentially. And so, everybody in this world is kind of implicated. That’s what power is about: connections to organized crime, to mafias.

And Pérez Molina comes out of that world. And there’s been lots of stories and lots of strange incidents linking him to that. And so, some young reporters who had been investigating his ties to narcotraffickers found some evidence. I haven’t seen the story. They wanted to publish it. The newspaper decided not to publish it. No other Guatemalan paper would publish it. They began to get death threats. The newspaper they worked for began to get threats. And they went to the Human Rights Commission to denounce what was happening to them, and the story started to get out in wire services. And that was yet one more allegation against Pérez Molina to surface in the last days of the crime.

As these allegations against Pérez Molina began to surface in the last weeks of the election — it was really interesting — he suddenly went very quiet, and he ducked his last few debates. He didn’t want to answer questions about the Gerardi case or about any of the other allegations that were beginning to come out against him. And that might be yet another thing that cost him the election.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Goldman, the issue of the U.S. support for the death squads in Guatemala through the 1980s —


AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. report on the killings did not talk about the United States. Did “Nunca Más,” did Juan Gerardi’s report? And what is that, as we move into this month, November, where there is the annual protest at the School of the Americas outside of Fort Benning — now has a new name — where thousands of people go to protest?

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Well, you know, the highest man convicted in the Gerardi case, Colonel Lima Estrada, a graduate of the School of the Americas. General Pérez Molina, a graduate of the School of the Americas, also known to have been on the CIA payroll during the war years.

This is — you know, this is the — early on in the ’60s, when they decided that they were going to turn Guatemala into kind of a front line, you know, Cold War proxy state, they empowered these military intelligence units to guard U.S. interests, and they became a kind of Frankenstein monster that got away from U.S. control and became what they are today. And their roots are directly in that kind of U.S. support that goes all the way back to the 1960s and the immediate aftermath of the 1954 coup.

It’s important to remember that even now, with Colom, this is the first time that Guatemala — even though he’s left of center, this is the first time Guatemala has had a left-leaning leader since 1954, when the U.S. CIA-backed coup deposed Jacobo Árbenz as president of Guatemala.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about that parallel, if there is one, the new president, Colom, says his first meeting will be with leaders from the Mayan community and that he would implement the little-used provision in 1996 peace accord allowing the government to buy property to redistribute to landless farmers — this according to Héctor Tobar in the Los Angeles Times. What about the significance of this? Of course, in 1954, when Árbenz was overthrown, it was done by the United States with the support of United Fruit Company — or rather, to support the United Fruit Company.

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Right. Well, you know, I don’t think we’re going to see from Colom nearly as — I don’t think the political space is there for him to conduct the kind of land reform the Árbenz government did, you know, leading up to the 1954 coup. But Colom, that’s where his support is. He used to run FONAPAZ, which was an institute that was responsible for helping Indians and rural people to gain possession of land, even in, you know, the oppressive Guatemala of the recent past. That’s why he had — one of the reasons he had so much support in the highlands.

And I think he’s very sincere in his desire to do everything he can to get more land into the hands of Guatemala’s — you know, Guatemala has probably one of the most unequal land distribution rates in the hemisphere. It easily does. And I think that he’s going to hopefully push the envelope as far as he can in that respect. And he certainly owes the Mayan population in Guatemala everything. They gave him his presidency. So I would expect that he’s going to feel a great obligation to give as much back as he can. And this is one way to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Francisco Goldman, I want to thank you for being with us, acclaimed Guatemalan American novelist, now has written his first nonfiction book. It’s called The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? Francisco Goldman, speaking to us from Houston, where the new vice president of Guatemala, the well-known cardiologist, Dr. Espada, now the vice president of Guatemala, has run his practice.

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