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GUATEMALA
Former police chief sentenced for assault on Spanish embassy
Louisa Reynolds*
1/29/2015
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Thirty seven people died burnt in the Spanish embassy in 1981 on the orders of dictator Romeo Lucas García and senior police officers.

On Jan. 31, 1980 a peasant organization, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) together with a group of students from the Robin García Student Front (FERG) occupied the Spanish embassy. Long before the advent of social media and with news corporations heavily censored by Romeo Lucas García’s military regime (1978-82), occupying embassies was a desperate strategy often used by guerrilla organizations to draw the world’s attention to the massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan army in the highlands.

Shortly after they entered the building, residents of Guatemala City’s zone 9 district, where the Spanish embassy was located, saw a thick cloud of smoke coming out of the building and heard the screams of agony of those trapped inside. As they watched the scene in horror, police officers cordoned off the building and prevented firemen from entering the premises.

They were following strict orders from their superiors: no one should be allowed to leave. No one should be spared. Those orders were given by dictator Lucas García who died whilst in exile in Venezuela in 2006; Interior Minister Donaldo Álvarez Ruíz (currently sought by Interpol); the head of the National Police, colonel Germán Chupina, who turned himself in to the police in 2006 and died in hospital in 2008; and former special investigations chief, Pedro García Arredondo,

Thirty seven people died in the fire, among them peasant leaders such as Vicente Menchú, Spanish consul Jaime Ruiz and former vice president Eduardo Cáceres. Only two people survived: a peasant, Gregorio Yujá Xona, and Spanish ambassador, Máximo Cajal. Yujá was kidnapped from hospital the day after the fire and his body was dumped on the campus of the University of San Carlos with a note threatening Cajal with the same fate. The ambassador narrowly escaped death after he sought refuge in the US embassy and was smuggled out of the country.

Burnt alive with a flame thrower
Thirty five years later, García Arredondo walked into a courtroom in Guatemala City, the First High Risk Tribunal B, handcuffed. He faced charges of homicide and crimes against humanity.

Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, daughter of peasant leader Vicente Menchú, watched the proceedings from the front row. In 1999, she launched a lawsuit against García Arredondo and all of those responsible for the murders but the wheels of the justice system have moved sluggishly and it wasn’t until Oct. 1, 2014 that she came face to face with one of the men who ordered her father and 36 other innocent civilians to be burnt alive with a flame thrower.

For years, the military establishment denied responsibility for the murders and insisted that peasant leaders had immolated themselves using hand grenades. However, during the course of the trial, photographs, videos and eyewitness testimonies proved that García Arredondo’s assistant had burst into the embassy with a flamethrower. Forensic evidence also showed that the victims’ bodies were charred from the knees upwards but that their feet had remained intact, proving that they couldn’t have been killed as a result of hand grenades exploding on the ground.

One of the firemen who attended the emergency calls made by bystanders told the court that when he arrived at the scene, the police forcibly prevented him from entering the building.

The court also heard Cajal’s testimony, recorded in Spain in 2012, in which he likened the assault on the embassy to a “horror movie” and stated that the police busted through the roof and broke the door down, armed with guns and axes.

The water that would quench the flames
On Jan. 19 this year, Judge Jeannette Valdez began the sentencing hearing with a metaphor: a fire had been blazing since Jan. 31, 1980 and the sentence would be the water that would quench those flames.

As protesters outside chanted “Murderer! Murderer!,” Valdez read the sentence: García Arredondo will serve 90 years in prison although it is likely that he will only have to serve 30 years because thtat was the maximum possible sentence at the time of the assault on the embassy.

“I have fulfilled my duty towards my loved ones,” Menchú told Guatemalan reporter Rodrigo Veliz after the sentence was read. “We are exhausted after all the hearings. It’s been very hard but we’re happy. This shows that we should resort to justice and work towards achieving it. The length of the sentence is not what’s most important to us; for us what’s importance is that the truth came to light.”

In a separate trial in 2012, García Arredondo was convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison for the 1981 disappearance and torture of university student Edgar Sáenz Calito.

Throughout the proceedings, the former special investigations chief sat alone with no relatives or friends to offer support, unlike former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) who was accompanied by a large entourage of family members, attorneys and army sympathizers throughout the entire trial that sentenced him for genocide in 2013.

Referring to the way in which the verdict against Ríos Montt, who was acused of genocide against the Mayan Ixil people, was overturned in May 2013 as a result of intense pressure from President Otto Pérez Molina — a retired army general — and Guatemala’s wealthy business elite, Salvadoran journalist  Rodrigo Baires tweeted: “When Arredondo stood trial, I didn’t see the private sector react, I didn’t see paid adverts in the newspapers and I didn’t hear government officials ranting. A pawn is still a pawn.”—Latinamerica Press

* International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2014-2015


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Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, during the trial of Pedro García Arredondo, found guilty of the murder of her father and 36 other people in 1981. (Photo: Rodrigo Arias)
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