Who killed Auxiliary Bishop José Gerardi of Guatemala? Almost 20 years after the murder, a documentary by George Clooney at the Cannes Film Festival

Constance Vilanova, Guatemala, May 10, 2019

A woman pays tribute to Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi on the 12th anniversary of the murder in April 2010 in Guatemala City.  (Photo by MOISES CASTILLO/AP)


Nineteen years ago, Auxiliary Bishop Juan José Gerardi of Guatemala was beaten to death in his presbytery, near the presidential residence.

The murder occurred two days after the publication of the bishop’s report, “Guatemala: Never again.” In the report, he documented the crimes committed by the army during the 36-year civil war (1960-1996) that ravaged the country and caused 200,000 deaths.

A documentary about the murder, entitled The Art of Political Murder, will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, which opens on May 14. It has been produced by none other than the American actor George Clooney and his production company, Smokehouse Pictures.

Speaking to the American online media outlet, Deadline, the director of another production company – Independent – that jointly financed the project, stated: “The twists and turns of the investigation unfold in front of us like a powerful detective story and we are propelled into a dark world full of secrets, lies and murder. In today’s world of media cover ups and government irresponsibility, this will be a must watch film.”

The Art of Political Murder

On May 8, the American TV network HBO, which produces television series as well as films, announced that they had bought the rights to broadcast the documentary. It is based on the book of the same name, published by the Guatemalan journalist and novelist, Francisco Goldman.

The novelist, who first wrote about the murder for the New Yorker in 1999, focused on the involvement of Father Mario Orantes, a crime scene witness who was thought to have participated in the murder. He lived in the presbytery with Bishop Gerardi.

This theory was also upheld by the Guatemalan courts, Human Rights associations and the Church.

Moreover, in 2001, the Catholic Church of Guatemala instituted civil proceedings during the trial in order to prove that the bishop’s murder was not simply a violent crime but a political assassination, ordered by those in the highest echelons of the army.

At the end of the trial, Orantes was found guilty, along with an army captain, a sergeant and a corporal. All were imprisoned. 

A court case in 2001, but several theories still exist

The murder of one of these men, Captain Byron Lima Olivia, during a prison riot in July 2016 renewed speculations about the murder of the bishop, a committed defender of human rights.

In February 2018, when rumors of the documentary were beginning to circulate, the American anthropologist David Stoll, an expert on Guatemala, expressed his doubts in an article published in the Miami Herald, supporting a different theory.

According to this theory, put forward by two journalists, Maite Rico (El Pais) and Bertrand de la Grange (Le Monde) in another book – “Quien Mato al Obispo” (Who killed the bishop?) – the murder was orchestrated by rival officers in the administration at the time.

The documentary risks opening the wounds of the civil war, in a country where the threat of a new crisis has been looming since 2017.


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