Copyright 2001-2008, James J. Belcher. All rights reserved.
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2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 James J. Belcher. All
Guatemala City, Guatemala
June 14, 2004
Some few days after this reporter unearthed The Story, I was myself
interviewed. I remember sitting
across the table from Felicia Herrera, a female staffer four years my senior in
age with least that many more years in journalism experience.
The Story had suddenly transformed me from an absolute nobody to a world
class somebody, and the realization was inebriating.
I sipped a glass of water. Felicia,
whom I always admired but never had the nerve to open my mouth in front of, was
smiling and I felt inadequate. I
took another unneeded sip of water. It
was time to talk.
I hadn’t grown up in a nowhere pueblo in a Central American country, I never
would have had my first lead on the story.
I’m sure a thousand other journalists overlooked it, because it’s not
normal for people to associate absurdities in differing pueblos to anything
bigger than the places they come from. If
I’m right, it’s the biggest conspiracy of all time, and it involves the
highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church.
Well, to be honest, for the life of me I can’t figure it out and I
haven’t any evidence to support a theory that it involves anything criminal or
even unethical. It does, in a way,
represent the largest land grab of all time, but no land has changed hands yet
and, if anything, the price to be paid is overly generous.
Anyway, it’s big, it’s huge, it involves countries in Central and
South America, the Church is involved, and it’s damned strange."
This wasn't the beginning she expected.
She hadn't asked me a question, but I nervously rambled on as she glanced
at the tape recorder and scribbled a few notes.
better go back to the beginning and what I know.
I was 13 in 1995 when it happened, or to explain it more fully, that was
when father returned from a bar one night with some unexpected money that paid
for candies for my brother and me for Christmas.
Papa told us what had happened that night, about Oscareyo.
"To us kids, Oscareyo looked really old, maybe sixty, but he was in
his late forties according to my Papa. He
looked the same every day, and so he must have looked that way to us that day
when the priest called him aside. He
had a deformed leg, and there must have been a great deal of pain when he
walked, dragging that mangled limb. We
all heard him grunt, we saw him wince with each step, we kids made fun of him.
He never talked much, and some local man heard that Oscareyo had once
been a good student and even awarded a scholarship to the university in the
capital, but those same stories said he moved to our pueblo one year before his
expected graduation, trailing that awful leg he never explained.
His parents had given him one of those normal, noble names, Oscar Eduardo
Viquez Rodriguez, but he became Don Oscar before he left for Guatemala City. In our pueblo, San Isidro de Bosques, he settled down to a
shack, by himself. He was never
seen with a woman, or another man. He
lived as a hermit. Twice a week he
walked north, bad leg and all, the distance of the full kilometro from his shack
to the iglesia, to Mass. The priest
always smiled when he saw him in those same clothes, worn but freshly washed,
arriving ahead of time, never late. Many people in the pueblo attend Mass on
Sundays, but generally only the nuns from the convent four kilometros to the
north came on Thursdays, unless you count him, Oscareyo, the name the kids
starting calling him years ago, the one that stuck."
She interrupted me. "You're
getting ahead of me. How do he get
the name Oscareyo?"
started out as 'Oscar Viejo, borracho' (Old Oscar, the drunk) because of the
strong smell of alcohol that was on him most of week, but never on Thursday or
Sunday mornings. Soon it became the
derisive 'Oscar, Rey Viejo' (Old King Oscar), then just Oscareyo.
But the priest saw something in that ugly old man that none of us ever
was looking at me in a romantic way, as I look back, but I was so absorbed in my
storytelling that I didn't notice. "Tell
me about it."
some reason I reverted to the teenager I had been nine years earlier.
I was speaking in the way I spoke to my betters when I had only patched
clothes and no self-esteem.
"It happened sometime in 1995, perhaps in the fall, no one quite
remembers. It was a Thursday
morning and Mass was over and the nuns silently filed out of the iglesia with
the barely recognizable pink paint on its outside, faded with the dust of
decades, much like the rest of San Isidro.
Señor Gomez swore he saw the priest and Oscareyo talking excitedly, but
Sr. Gomez was known for tall stories and he bought more tequila than anyone else
in town did, even if he was the biggest landowner.
Sr. Gomez also swore that the priest must have given Oscareyo the
envelope, the one that Carlito says was torn open when Oscareyo used the
telephone at Carlito’s bar to make a telephone call, the only time anyone can
remember that Oscareyo ever used a telephone.
There isn’t much to talk about in San Isidro, and Oscareyo kept his
voice low and stared at Carlito when Carlito tried to overhear the conversation. It was a collect call, so it cost Carlito nothing and
Oscareyo never uttered a word, except to smile as well as grunt when he bought
the bottle of cheap guara from Carlito, the same as always after Mass.
"It is a long car ride to the capitol, and only Sr. Gomez owns a car
in our pueblo. It takes Sr. Gomez
more than four hours each way. There
is a highway about six kilometros away, two north of the convent, a fine road
that stretches nearly one hundred kilometres.
But from the highway to Carlito’s bar there is just the unpaved road,
the gravel compressed into the earth until only the red soil from the volcano is
visible. It is seven kilometros to
Oscareyo’s shack and seven back, passing Carlito’s bar and the iglesia both
times. A large green American car
did that one day, and Carlito thinks the car passed going south just a few
minutes before it passed again, with someone in the rear seat.
The windows were tinted, but Carlito thinks the passenger was Oscareyo.
Carlito normally opens up at ten in the morning, but the car came early,
maybe eight-thirty or nine, so it was only that Carlito had drunk too many
cervezas himself the night before and woke up to eliminate his bladder that he
spotted the car from his apartamento above the bar.
The car’s noise woke Carlito up and its roaring engine on the return
trip caused him to look out the window from his toilet room and see what he
thinks was Oscareyo in the back seat.
For his part, Oscareyo never said.
"It was in December that Sr. Gomez and Oscareyo came together in Sr.
Gomez’s car to Carlito’s bar. There,
Sr. Gomez explained that Oscareyo had inherited a great deal of money from a
cousin, money that was in a big brown bag.
He told the four patrons of the bar to go and fetch every campesino who
owned even a fraction of a hectare to come and make money from Oscareyo like he
had. When they hesitated, Sr. Gomez
emptied more money on the big table in the center, the one with six chairs, than
anyone had ever seen. Within an
hour, more than sixty men were crowded in and around Carlito’s establishment,
most of them outside the tavern trying to listen to Sr. Gomez. It was Oscareyo’s money but Sr. Gomez did all the talking.
He was sober, and so was Oscareyo."
She leaned forward, still looking deeply into my eyes. I continued.
"Sr. Gomez explained a strange dream of Oscareyo’s, and the crazy
old man just nodded his head as Sr. Gomez explained the concept of a real estate
option. Oscareyo dreamed there
would be oil wells all over San Isidro in ten years, and Sr. Gomez said that
Oscareyo was willing to pay 100 pesos for every hectare of land that night for
merely the right to buy the land ten years later at a price per hectare that was
at least eight times what Sr. Gomez said was a fair price.
Sr. Gomez explained he had been to specialists in the capital and told
there was no oil in San Isidro, but Oscareyo was willing to give up all that
money on the table, betting it on his crazy dream.
"There were papers to sign and Carlito had inherited five hectares,
so there were free cervezas, but Oscareyo went home without drinking even one.
He carried with him those papers with the right to pay more money, more
than the land was worth, ten years later, something only a fool would do.
If anything, his reputation as a drunk and an old fool was worse for the
night Sr. Gomez did all the talking and Sr. Gomez and Oscareyo were both sober
and drank nothing. Life is strange
and rarely fair.
"When Oscareyo died last year, his body had rotted and the insects
had done much damage before the stench in his shack attracted the attention of
others. Even his failure to attend
Mass did not cause the priest to comment or anyone to check for those two weeks.
Oscareyo was a nobody, and those who searched his shack were disappointed
with their loot. Those papers signed in 1995 were nowhere to be found.
I’d like to think that he did something noble that night, but I had no
I was obliged to give credit where credit was due. I had mainly been the recipient of several lucky breaks,
knowledge of others, happenstance. I
felt compelled to state my role in the discoveries that came about.
probably should just be glad that I, Carlos Gonzales Arenas, had parents that
forced me, sick or well, tired or rested, six or sixteen, to do everything in my
power and theirs to go to school and do my best, forgetting sports, girls or the
needs of our little plots of green. I
made good grades and was allowed to go to the colegio for the sixth through
eleventh forms. It was eight
kilometros each way, a walk of almost two hours.
After those six years, I achieved something beyond my wildest
expectations, the scholarship to the university where I obtained a degree in
journalism. During my third year,
my favorite professor helped to get me a job with a newspaper here in the
capital. I, Carlos Gonzales, was on
the staff of El Diario de Guatemala, Guatemala’s
largest newspaper, as an investigative reporter.
My parents were so happy when I returned home in June of last year, my
written job offer in hand.
Gomez visited us at my parent’s home at that time; he told me the whole pueblo
was very proud. Oscareyo’s body
had been discovered the week before, and my father reminded me of the 'funny
form' he signed that night in 1995. I
asked Sr. Gomez and he piqued my curiosity with his reply, 'Maybe that old fool
had a good idea for the wrong reasons. La
Paz de Costa Rica has brought prosperity and much higher land values.
I may have sold my birthright for a bowl of pottage.'
asked further, but he shrugged and smiled and went away with a strange look,
perhaps one more of puzzlement than anything else.
It caused me to ask my new boss at El
Diario for permission to investigate the story.
He gave me seven days to acquire more information. I’m sure now that he thought nothing would come of it, and
he was just being kind by letting me pursue something I personally found
unusual. 'Couldn’t hurt' was
likely his thought, but 'Let the kid try.'
Luckily, I did just that.
story was over eight years old when I started.
I had already asked the priest, who told me nothing and discouraged my
checking further. 'Why stir up
people over the follies of an old man, one you children mocked enough while he
was alive?' When I asked if he had
any role, he evaded a direct answer. 'I
am a priest, and we have given vows of poverty.
Talk of oil and land options is not of our concern – our interest is of
the life to come, the one through JesuCristo.'"
looked quizzical. "That's a
decent answer. What caused you to
pursue things further, and why did you take the course you did?"
was honest, probably because I am basically guileless.
"No reason, just stubbornness, and a desire not to blow the first
assignment generated from my own interests."
understand, I was just out of the university.
I was realistic enough to know I needed help and I couldn't lose face by
asking others at El Diario.
So I went back to my favorite professor at the university and she gave me
good advice. 'You will learn where to look and where not to look.
You seek to tell the truth, if there is a truth of substance.
There is no story in a crazy old man and some alleged silly papers with
silly promises. There is no story
in San Isidro de Bosques. You have
no papers, and they are your link.'
why I went to visit Sr. Gomez. As a
businessman, he kept records. Unlike
the campesinos, he had a copy of the form he signed, a copy he made, a copy
Oscareyo [and others] would not have tolerated.
Sr. Gomez gladly used his machine in his oficina to make me a copy.
A corner had apparently been torn from the original and its outline was
on both of the copies. I asked Sr. Gomez. 'The
old fool would not even spend the money for an abogado, a lawyer, to use the
fine paper on which my attorneys prepare documents for me. Cheap paper, copied
with a primitive copier, one sheet with words on both sides of the paper, with
only the name of the person and the pueblo left as blanks, along with lines for
the signatures. It tore easily,
that cheap paper, and so one corner is missing.
Fortunately, there were no words on that little corner.
I had my attorneys check and they dismissed the paper and its words as
insignificant works of a worthless old man.
Me, I don’t know.'
was not content with that answer; it didn’t have the ring of truth. Something about the car and the priest in the old story, the
one Sr. Gomez says now he has forgotten. I
went back to my professor, Sra. Ocampo Viquez, and she again was helpful.
'If there’s a story, and I mean if, a legal scholar should examine the
papers. There are many such persons
in the School of Law and the Dean is my friend.
I will call in your behalf and arrange an appointment with a specialist
in real property law.'
afternoon I saw Dr. Mena Vilazgues in his office at the University’s School of
Law in another part of Guatemala City. At
first he seemed dismissive and frowned when I described the story as I knew of
it. When I handed him the copy Sr.
Gomez made, his face wrinkled up and then went through a number of scowls before
he read and reread every word and then looked up at me.
Gomez’ attorneys have ignored basic rules in the construction of legal
documents, that substance governs over form, that outward appearances are
unimportant compared with the intent of the parties, and that recitals in the
documents are presumed valid, despite contrary statements and testimony of
unwitting parties. It is, of
course, possible that the documents, assuming they all are of the type you have
shown me, were the work of an innocent man unaccustomed in the preparation of
such things, a cheap abogado willing to listen to an old crazy for a few pesos
and crank out inept work.
I don’t think so, for three reasons. (1) If Oscareyo thought there was oil,
why didn’t he have drilling leases prepared rather than land options? (2) This
document uses the language of the common people, not the usual legal phrasing,
but with just enough precision that the rules of legal construction would, I am
certain, make them enforceable before the justices of our country. (3) Finally,
there is a reference to something I am not familiar with, "This document is
subject to The Long Term Land Option Fairness Guidelines."
Gonzalez, real estate law is my specialty and has been so for over twenty-five
years. In contracts, including one
like this affecting real estate, capitalized terms refer to specific documents,
which usually are defined within the instrument itself.
That is not the case in this instance.
In that case, the words generally refer to a legal act, such as a law
passed by the National Assembly, but no such legislation has ever been enacted
to my knowledge and I should know. Therefore,
under ancient rules of interpreting legal documents, the words are given their
meaning as enunciated in court decisions or customary practices.
But here again, those words refer to no decisions or practices of which I
is only one other standard by which I could breathe life into those words.
If a legal document with precisely that title, "The Long Term Land
Option Fairness Guidelines", were recorded in the Office of Public Records,
either in the district office or in the provincial capital or here in the
national capital, at or contemporaneous to the timing of the execution of the
documents such as these, then it would explain what is meant.
that is a significant problem. Recording
such a document here in Guatemala City would have nationwide meaning, but an
unnecessary act for just one pueblo. To
apply to San Isidro de Bosques, it could have been recorded in Zarcero, the
district where San Isidro also is located.
But San Isidro is within the province of Catalan, and it could have been
just as effective, and explanatory over a wider area, if recorded in Tecuquan,
the provincial capital. So there
are three possible places, with many documents.
And only in Guatemala City would documents be computerized.
Good luck on finding what you are looking for.'
that, he stood up and shook my hand, handing me back the copy of Sr. Gomez’
hung my head, ashamed. I had just
admitted I had been a schoolboy learning lessons, not a reporter interviewing.
I think she understood my feelings, and she started to reach out with her
hand before deciding better. She
drew it back, adjusted her eyeglasses, and asked, "After that longwinded
tutorial, what did you do?"
realized I had shown some real gumption when that had occurred.
just because someone says something is unknown, or maybe unknowable, I didn't
give up. I imagined myself as an
investigative journalist, like Henry Stanley searching for Dr. Livingston.
investigative reporters are supposed to use up shoe leather quickly.
At least a phone call told me the location and office hours of the
Department of Land Records, National Registrar, in the capital.
Thank God for good public transportation.
In only one hour, for a mere 20 centavos, I was seventeen kilometros away
in that city suburb that was home to the new National Government office I
sought. I just uttered a silent prayer that what I was looking for
was in that office, not in Zarcero or Tecuquan.
After all, there were just three days left.
took me two days and ten hours in that office to uncover a seven-page legal
document recorded on 30 November 1995 with precisely the name Dr. Mena and my
copy referenced. It was a
handsome thing, on long sheets of stiff paper with 50% cotton rag content,
according to the watermark of the paper imported from the United States.
It was of the variety known as “foolscap” in the paper industry, as
the staff member explained to me, precisely 8.5” by 14”, an American
dimension, with double red vertical lines one inch from the left margin and a
single red vertical line one inch from the right margin.
There were no typewritten or computer-generated names, just the customary
large, illegible flourishes of the important people in the city.
research aide said she could provide no help.
'It is of a type not requiring a notary’s signature, so there is no
stamp or seal. The signatures of
the witnesses could be American, but I am not sure.
The author of the document has a signature suggesting he is an attorney,
for this instrument was surely prepared by an attorney of the highest order.
I don’t recall seeing that signature before, but I see dozens of new
documents daily and this one is nearly nine years old.
I’m sorry I can’t help you.'
left her office carrying a copy of my newly discovered document, together with
my notes of what she said. It was
enough to convince my boss to give me more time.
He said I would in time develop a 'nose for news' and gave me another
week, for the research and a story, 1500 words, to go into the 'Around the
Country' section of the special Saturday edition.
It would go under his name, of course, not mine.
But I was happy; getting the opportunity to write something I could keep
in a scrapbook, my first story, and 1,500 words, a very long story by newspaper
"I was back in Dr. Mena’s office, another appointment, but this time due to my call and not that of his colleague and my professor. 'I have what you described, but perhaps it is another mystery. The research aide at the National Registry of Land Records could not identify its author.' I handed it over, and to my surprise, Dr. Mena asked to again look at the first document I showed him, the copy of the land option given by Sr. Gomez to Oscareyo. He spent many minutes reviewing the new document, and was not the least surprised when I told him of the watermark and the paper on the original, recorded instrument. Then, without allowing me any further questions, he took the first copy in his other hand, compared the two, and turned his swivel chair so I only saw his back. I anxiously waited while he said nothing for what seemed a very long time. I looked at my wristwatch, a university graduation present from my parents, several times during that interval.
slowly turned around in that chair and again faced me, a broad smile belying
other, deeper emotions. 'As I
suspected, this second instrument is the product of the same genius that
produced the first.'
was shocked and my jaw dropped. The
first document was just something of Oscareyo’s, written in the ordinary
Spanish of pueblo Guatemalans, with strikeovers from an old typewriter. The second was a grand and noble work, the excellent grammar
and phrasing that of a superior university education, with legal phrasing and
Latin words totally incomprehensible to me.
Señor, es verdad.' ['It is the truth, sir.']
I looked in disbelief, he expostulated as only legal professors can do.
'The two are complementary, with the second explaining and not adding,
from a legal standpoint. In other words, the second gives a fuller meaning to
relatively simple and plain terms. It
does so in such an extraordinary way that one in my position naturally accords
it great respect. In so
doing, I truly recognize the ingenuity of the first document, a queen garbed in
continued. 'It is especially
important that the second document was recorded here in Guatemala City, not in a
provincial or district capital. For
now it would give meaning to any other documents signed in all our nation at
about the same time if they referenced this document by name.'
"He removed his glasses and looked me directly in the eyes.
'This was no academic exercise any more than it was the work of a foolish
old man. The care it took, the
elegance of the work product, these are not a product of Guatemala.
Only in such a place as Mexico City are there the superb legal minds who
could craft instruments so unassuming that peasants would naturally be eager to
sign while they reference legal concepts alien to all of Latin America, if not
the world. The second instrument is the proof. Grand designs, designs beyond my present understanding, were
behind the drafting of these papers.'
he let these words sink in, I scribbled my notes on a reporter’s pad."
asked the last question of the interview. "So
stared at my notes like I hadn't heard his words.
I wasn't sure, but I sensed there was a question I should ask.
As I looked at them again, it just came into my mind.
The question, the one I needed to ask.
And I feared the answer. It
caused the professor to chuckle as I haltingly asked it. 'Do you think there
could be other Oscareyos?'
was the scary part. His body
answered before his words came. He
just nodded and said simply. 'Without
looked at Srta. Herrera. "And
I'm more scared now than I was when he first answered that question."
see, it was my first real assignment and I was unsure where it would lead me.
Something deep inside said it was better for me not to know.
But I'm a journalist and I'm not allowed to give up.
And I'm still afraid."
ended the interview with the enigmatic. "Finding
out answers will likely take me where no one wants to go, but I must.
And publishing those answers might mean questions and worries that won't
just sell newspapers. It's like a
conscript ordered to charge up the hill in spite of enemy gunfire.
I have no choice now."