January 20, 2015
By Jackie McVicar
Almost thirty-five years after the burning of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, former head of the Comando Six unit the now defunct Guatemalan National Police, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, was declared guilty yesterday of murder, attempted murder and crimes against humanity for ordering the fire that was set on January 31, 1980. The fire engulfed the embassy and killed thirty seven students and peasants who died from smoke inhalation and first and second degree burns. They had come to the Spanish embassy to denounce serious human rights violations that were occurring in the Quiche department, including murders, kidnappings, rapes and torture against the country’s majority indigenous Maya population. In December 1979, peasant leaders sent a letter to dozens of officials outlining the allegations and asking for something to be done to stop the violence and aggression, as they had tried all means known to them to denounce what was happening. As a result, however, military violence in the region increased, sparking the protest that lead to the embassy to speak with the Spanish Ambassador, Maximo Cajal y Lopez to plead with him to do something via diplomatic channels.
Upon hearing that the embassy was occupied by peasants and students from the nationalized University of San Carlos of Guatemala (USAC), the Commando Six Unit, under the direction of Garcia Arredondo, circled the building and began attacking. According to the verdict, Garcia gave order to burn the embassy and according to testimony given during the trial, he was heard over police radio ordering, “No one gets out alive.”
Ambassador Cajal y Lopez and peasant Gregorio Yuja were the lone survivors from the attack and both were taken to the hospital to be treated for their injuries. Two days later, Yuja was kidnapped from the hospital and tortured before his dead body was thrown on the steps of the university rectory, symbol of the leftist student movement of the day. Ambassador Cajal recovered and gave his testimony two years ago before passing away of natural causes. His testimony was used as a key piece of evidence in the trial. In it, he recalled the day as a, “chaotic terror.” The three judge panel unanimously declared Garcia Arrendondo guilty and sentenced him to 90 years in prison. Judge Sara Yoc Yoc resolved it a, “just sentence.” Garcia Arrendondo is already serving a 70 year sentence from 2012 when he was declared guilty for the forced disappearance of university student leader Edgar Saenz Calito on June 9, 1980.
During the trial, witnesses asserted that the same Comando Six unit was present at the funeral of the peasants and students and opened fire in an attempt to silence and threatened those present. Twenty three days after the burning, the investigation was closed and buried deep in the police archive. Dr. Rigoberta Menchu, whose father and cousin were killed in the fire, was co-plaintiff in the case. Menchu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 after denouncing the violence in her community of Chimel, Uspantan in the Quiche department, and throughout the country in her autobiography, “I, Rigoberta Menchu.” She first denounced the burning of the embassy in Spain in 1998 and later in Guatemalan in 1999 and has been the spokesperson for the victims from the onset. Last night, outside the National Palace of Justice, just minutes after the verdict against Garcia Arredondo was read, she was surrounded by families of the victims, peasant leaders, politicians and members of civil society. “Thank you for having patience for the past thirty five years, for not resting from demanding justice. Now, the truth has been legitimized by State institutions. Today, justice has triumphed. The truth has been heard. This truth that they hid 35 years ago, that they tried to erase, to archive.”
In July 2005, the National Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office discovered 80 million secret police documents, stored in what was previously a police hospital in zone 6 of Guatemala City. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1996 that officially ended Guatemala’ internal armed conflict, the State had denied that the almost 8 linear kilometers of documents existed. Once the archive was found, with documents ranging from 1882 to 1997, the National Human Rights Ombudsman’s office took to cleaning, organizing and electronically documenting the contents which were in a state of deterioration. Later this task was commissioned to Historic Archive of the National Police (AHPN), under the guise of the Ministry of the Interior.
In 2009, AHPN changed hands from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Culture and Sport, under the direction of the General Archive of Central America. This same year, the Access to Information Unit began functioning to make available to the public more than 12.5 million documents which have been digitized to date. These documents have proven to be key pieces of evidence in the important trials like the infamous forced disappearance of Fernando Garcia, student and labour leader, in 1984. In the two trials (2010 and 2013) against National Police commanders for the crime, crucial evidence in the form of hundreds of documents from the archive have been presented, leading to convictions against police officials.
Menchu noted the significance that the Historic Archive of the National Police had in helping find key documents that were used against Garcia Arrendondo. She also noted that this evidence would help show how the military government of Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcias gave orders for the attack. “The National Police Archive recovered a lot of information. (Now) we are going to show the responsibility of the state.” The military and police of the time often worked together in joint operations leading to over 50,000 documented forced disappearances and 250,000 murders during Guatemala’ internal armed conflict (1960-1996).
The National Police was officially shut down in 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords, in an attempt to de-militarize the institution. Until that point, the National Police kept a notorious presidential intelligence service and used its officers to torture and disappear student and union leaders in Guatemala City. At the same time in the country-side, the military took the lead role against the indigenous Maya population, also considered a threat to the military state. The cold-war era ideology to eliminate so-called subversives and the threat of a combined group of indigenous peasants and university students demanding justice at the Spanish embassy, lead to the 37 dead on January 31, 1980. An indignant yet poised Menchu recalled, “They said they were subversives and they deserved to die. They have said they were communists and they deserved to burn. They have said they were leftists and that’s why they should die. They have also said we were liars. And for that, it was very important that we have documented the truth.”
Since the creation of the National Civil Police (PNC) in 1997, with civilians instead of military commanders leading the apparatus, corruption has plagued the institution. Police offers have been tied to drug and human trafficking, gangs, murders, extortion and rape. Since becoming president in 2012, former military General Otto Perez Molina, who was implicated in the 2013 genocide trial against former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt, 12,000 new police officers have been trained and are set to join the forces. Guatemalan will then have close to 45,000 police officers in the line of duty, the largest force in Central America. At the same time, Guatemala continues to be one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere with a murder rate of 34 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Menchu noted that justice for the massacre at the Spanish Embassy did not come quickly. It took more than 16 years since the first complaint was filed, not to mention the 35 years since the fatal burning occurred. Yet, the family members of the victims have continued their struggle for justice and truth. The verdict against Garcia Arrendondo is a testament to the perseverance of witnesses, survivors, families of victims and civil society that despite a vilely corrupt justice and political system, they have managed to bring to justice perpetrators of mass human rights abuses, including massacres, sexual assault, rape and slavery, forced displacement, and forced disappearance during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. In 2013, Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power from Lucas Garcia through a coup d’etat in March 1982, was found guilty of genocide and war crimes that occurred in the Maya Ixil region of the Quiche department during his brief and terrifying reign until August 1983. For many, this was a feat that seemed impossible under the conditions of a continued militarized state. Though the sentence was later annulled and a new trial is forthcoming, the Association for Justice and Reconciliation has vowed to continue to pursue justice.
Menchu also declared to continue the legal struggle against the State and the intellectual authors of the massacre at the Spanish Embassy. “Today, it’s Garcia and the chain of command and people who participated. But we must still show the role of the state. The state has responsibility.” Garcia pleaded innocence throughout the trial, not denying his presence that day, but reiterating that he was following orders. General Lucas Garcia, then de facto president, died in 2006 while living in Argentina. His brother, and other members of the Military High Command of the day who are alive and living in Guatemala, could face indictment for their role in ordering the massacre at the Spanish Embassy that day.
Before leaving the crowd huddled around a sacred fire outside the courts, Menchu closed with a word of encouragement and subtle warning to the State. “No one thought that 35 years later we would be here. But today, we are alive. Today, we are here. And we are going to continue.”