Guatemala's Indigenous Countryside
Drives Election Victory Over Atrocity-Linked General
Amy Goodman interviews Francisco
AMY GOODMAN: Guatemala, where the centrist
candidate Alvaro 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 Perez Molina
on Sunday's runoff election.
Colom ran on an anti-poverty platform,
won close to 53% of the vote. In his victory speech, Colom thanked
0. PRESIDENT-ELECT ALVARO 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%, and we won by 5.2%.
AMY GOODMAN: General Perez 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. Perez Molina conceded defeat in a
news conference after the results were announced.
0. GENERAL OTTO PEREZ 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 Alvaro 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 Perez 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.
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Hi, Amy.
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 Perez 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, rightwing-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, Perez Molina. Can
you briefly summarize who he is again?
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: General Perez Molina
was, during -- you know, during Guatemala's thirty-six-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
And General Perez 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 UN 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-Perez
Molina media in Guatemala kept it out of the mainstream news down
there. But it found its way into the population by other routes,
AMY GOODMAN: Once again, talk about the
evidence you have for Perez Molina, the general, being implicated
in the death of Bishop Juan Gerardi, the man who had just released
the "Nunca Mas" 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
Perez 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 Perez Molina.
The last government, which was a rightwing
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 Perez Molina had been involved,
when I spoke to him when he was in exile in Mexico. I later confirmed
that with the head UN investigator, a former Spanish intelligence
agent, who ran the UN mission's investigation in Guatemala, who
had his own reasons for believing that, including an account which
kind of challenged Perez Molina's alibi that he had been in Washington
the week of the crime so that he couldn't have been responsible.
But the UN knew that he had, in fact, had dinner with the chief
of the UN mission three days after the murder, and he had warned
-- he said, "Don't pay attention to General Perez 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 Periodico, 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 UN investigator
about Perez 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 Perez Molina, involved in not only the
death, the murder of Bishop Gerardi, but so many others? 200,000
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 Perez 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, UN 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 Perez 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 UN 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 US involvement in a number of these
killings, US 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 Perez Molina being
linked to narco traffickers, coming out in the Guatemalan paper
El Periodico. 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 Corazon." 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
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 Atitlan and other
towns, young Catholics had downloaded that interview from the
internet, the interview in which we spoke about the charges against
Perez 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 Perez Molina, the defeated presidential candidate
now, and narco-traffickers.
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Right.
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 frontline, 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% 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 Perez 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 narco-traffickers 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 Perez Molina to surface in the last days of the crime.
As these allegations against Perez 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 US support for the death squads in Guatemala through the
FRANCISCO GOLDMAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: The UN report on the killings
did not talk about the United States. Did "Nunca Mas,"
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 Perez 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 frontline, you know, Cold War proxy state,
they empowered these military intelligence units to guard US interests,
and they became a kind of Frankenstein monster that got away from
US control and became what they are today. And their roots are
directly in that kind of US 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 US CIA-backed coup
deposed Jacobo Arbenz 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 Hector Tobar in the Los Angeles Times.
What about the significance of this? Of course, in 1954, when
Arbenz was overthrown, it was done by the United States with the
support of United Fruit Company -- or rather, to support the United
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 Arbenz 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
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.