Copyright 2001-2008, James J. Belcher.  All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 James J. Belcher.  All rights reserved.  

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 Finishing Brushstrokes


Chapter 2

  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. 

"If 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. 

"I’d 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?" 

"It 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 did." 

She 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." 

For 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 clues." 

            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. 

"I 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.  

"Sr. 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.'  

"I 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. 

"The 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.'" 

She looked quizzical.  "That's a decent answer.  What caused you to pursue things further, and why did you take the course you did?" 

I 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." 

"Please 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.' 

"That’s 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.' 

"I 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.' 

"That 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. 

"'Sr. 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. 

"'But 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." 

"'Sr. 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 am aware. 

"'There 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. 

"'But 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.' 

"With that, he stood up and shook my hand, handing me back the copy of Sr. Gomez’ document." 

I 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?" 

I realized I had shown some real gumption when that had occurred.  

 "Well, 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.  

"And 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. 

"It 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. 

"The 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.' 

"I 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 standards. 

"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.

"He 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.' 

"I 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. 

"'No Señor, es verdad.' ['It is the truth, sir.'] 

"As 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 peasant clothes.' 

"He 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.' 

"While he let these words sink in, I scribbled my notes on a reporter’s pad." 

Felicia asked the last question of the interview.  "So what then?" 

"I 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?'  

"That was the scary part.  His body answered before his words came.  He just nodded and said simply.  'Without a doubt.'" 

I looked at Srta. Herrera.  "And I'm more scared now than I was when he first answered that question." 

"You 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." 

I 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."