More Than 30 Years Later, Guatemala’s Deadly Spanish Embassy Siege is on Trial in a Guatemalan Courtroom

On October 1, 34 years after the deadly fire that killed 37 protesters, diplomats, and others, Guatemalan judges for the first time convened to consider the culpability of a state actor in the notorious 1980 siege of the Spanish embassy. In eight hearings over the last two months, prosecutors presented 30 witnesses in its case against Pedro García Arredondo, the former commander of a notorious police investigative unit. Yesterday, the defense started to present witnesses and will continue to do so before the trial closes, likely at the end of December.

On January 31, 1980, campesinos and students entered the Spanish embassy in Guatemala to protest their grievances; their communities in the country’s northern highlands were under attack by state security forces. Guatemalan security forces quickly cut power and communication, and converged on the Embassy, resisting the cries of the Spanish government and those inside the besieged building—including both the ambassador and the protesters—to refrain from entering the protected diplomatic space. Soon after, a fire started in the Ambassador’s office where the protesters, embassy staff and visitors had decamped following the incursion by security forces.

Only hours after the start of the protest, thirty-seven carbonized bodies were taken out of the embassy. Two student protesters were killed at the mass funeral that followed, and one of the two survivors of the embassy fire was subsequently kidnapped by security forces from his private hospital bed, tortured and killed.

Prosecutors allege that Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former commander of the now-defunct National Police Special Investigations Unit, known as “Command 6,” is responsible for crimes against humanity and murder for the deaths of the 37 victims who perished in the fire; for the attempted murder of the two survivors, former Spanish ambassador Máximo Cajal and campesino protester Gregorio Yuja Xona who was subsequently killed; and for the murder of two students during the mass funeral two days following the embassy fire.

Arredondo is already serving 70 years in prison for his role in the 1981 enforced disappearance of university student Edgar Saenz Calito. Some of the others implicated in the Spanish embassy siege, such as former head of state General Romeo Lucas Garcia, and former General Director of the National Police Germán Chupina Barahona, are now dead. Former Interior Minister Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz is a fugitive.

The case is being heard by a panel of three judges in one of Guatemala’s so-called “high-risk courts,” responsible for complex criminal cases.

The prosecution and civil parties allege that Arredondo was present at the scene and directed the security forces and that those security forces were responsible for the deaths of the occupants. Defense lawyers allege that the occupants immolated themselves with Molotov cocktails and contest any direct involvement of Arredondo in the siege.

To support their case, the prosecution and the civil parties have presented the testimony of 30 witnesses. Rigoberta Menchú, whose father died in the blaze, was the first witness and testified about the systematic persecution of rural villages. Ambassador Máximo Cajal, the one survivor of the fire and its aftermath, was heard in a faint audio recording; he died only months before the start of the trial, but in 2012 pre-recorded testimony asserted that the occupiers were armed but peaceful, that he actively rejected any intervention of security forces in response to the occupation, and that security forces accused him of being part of a “terrorist group” when he endeavored to communicate with them to resolve the situation peacefully. Various witnesses present at the time of the siege, including a firefighter, testified that security forces prevented emergency medical and firefighting personnel from accessing the burning embassy until it was too late, and even earlier denied access to the Red Cross.

Three witnesses—one former Spanish diplomat, one former embassy employee and a police official testifying with his identity protected—provided some contested evidence that the police may have brought a flame-thrower into the building before it was set alight; the third identified Arredondo as present during the fire. Two former student activists identified Arredondo as part of the group who exchanged gunfire with students during the mass funeral of the Spanish embassy victims in which two students were killed. Gustavo Adolfo Molina, son of Guatemala’s former Foreign Minister who died in the fire, testified for the prosecution that he recognized the defendant at the scene and specifically asked him not to enter the embassy to avoid problems, to which the defendant answered that he had been ordered to enter. Molina asserted that the occupiers and former Ambassador Máximo Cajal were nonetheless ultimately responsible for the fire and the lives lost.

Forensic experts testified regarding the cause of death of the victims, concluding that most of them died from third and fourth-degree burns; one death was caused by gunshot. An archival expert introduced evidence from the national police archives, from which she identified the defendant as the person in charge of the police intervention at the Spanish embassy.

The defense began to present its case on November 24.  The defense position is that the security response to the occupation was poorly managed in a difficult context but that the defendant was not directly responsible for the resulting deaths. The first defense witnesses, including two former government officials, challenged assertions that security forces blocked entry of rescue crews to the embassy and contended that the occupiers were responsible for starting the fatal fire. The defense has also presented into evidence a compilation video of 1980 press accounts asserting that a terrorist group, armed with machetes and artisanal incendiary bombs, and responding to a pre-established plan, occupied the embassy and set themselves on fire.

The siege on the Spanish embassy was one of the more infamous acts of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. It disrupted diplomatic relations for four years, and was at the core of a genocide case in Spain brought by Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. The only person to stand trial in Guatemala now is one disgraced high-ranking police official, already incarcerated for the enforced disappearance of a university student. However, the case remains contested and the importance of bringing the facts before a judge cannot be overstated. This is particularly true at a moment when the future of Guatemala’s transitional justice processes is in jeopardy.