After Two Months of Hearings, the First Trial Related to 1980 Deadly Siege of Spanish Embassy in Guatemala is Due to Close Before Year’s End

On October 1, 2014, a so-called “high-risk” court in Guatemala began to hold hearings about a notorious 1980 fire at the occupied Spanish embassy that killed 37 protesters, diplomats, and others after security forces laid siege to it. The embassy had been occupied earlier that day by largely indigenous Guatemalan activists protesting abuses in the Guatemalan highlands by state security forces. Below is a summary of earlier hearings that took place in this case. The next hearing is scheduled for December 9, and the trial is expected to close before the end of the year. 

October 1 Hearing

On the first day of the hearing, the defendant, Pedro García Arredondo, declined to make a substantive declaration, claiming only: “I am innocent. I am innocent. I am innocent.”

The tribunal also opened with the testimony of Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Rigoberta Menchú whose father was one of the deceased protesters and whose organization is one of the two civil parties in the case. The other is Sergio Vi, whose father also died in the blaze. Both continue a fight they carried for more than 30 years before national and international courts to obtain justice.

Rigoberta Menchú testified about the constant fear and insecurity in Guatemala’s rural communities at the time of the occupation, and the generalized persecution they had to bear from the national army following the occupation. Sergio Vi told the tribunal about how the fire affected his family who had to flee to the mountains in the aftermath.

October 2, 13, 24, and 30 Hearings

During the following four days of hearings, the prosecution, and the civil parties presented fifteen witnesses, including seven experts.

Among others, a witness directly identified the defendant as among the security forces who attacked the students during the funeral protest; and various direct witnesses, present at the time of the siege, testified that security forces prevented representatives of the Red Cross from providing assistance to those trapped inside the Embassy.

Marco Tulio Alvarez, former Director of Guatemala’s no longer operational  National Peace Archives, and a student at the time of the Spanish embassy fire, testified that he participated in the mass funeral for the embassy fire victims, witnessed the death of the two students, and clearly identified the defendant as part of the security forces that attacked the protesters.

Cesar Augusto Escalante, a former embassy employee inside the embassy when the events took place, testified that he was outside the ambassador’s office and witnessed the security forces finally succeed in breaking open the door permitting former Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal to flee. In his testimony, Escalante affirmed that he saw a police agent entering with a cylindrical device and heard one of his colleagues telling him “to burn everything inside so that no one shall survive.” When asked by the defense attorney, Escalante acknowledged that he could not identify the defendant as having been at the scene.

Gustavo Adolfo Molina, son of Guatemala’s Foreign Minister and prominent lawyer by the same name, who died as a hostage during the siege, confirmed that the defendant was physically present at the embassy and appeared, from his attitude, to be in charge of the police intervention.  Molina testified that he begged Arredondo not to enter the embassy to avoid risking the lives or security of the hostages, but that Arredondo asserted in response that he was responding to higher orders that he could not challenge. Molina also testified that those ultimately responsible were the occupiers and former Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal, and that security forces were not responsible for the progression of events.

Forensic expert Abel Girón Ortiz who conducted the autopsies, testified that most of the victims died from third or fourth-degree burns, while others died asphyxiated and one from a gunshot wound. Archival expert Ada Mirlena Melgar, described documents from the National Police Archives, with which prosecutors attempted to demonstrate that Arredondo was directing the police operation on this fatal day. Based on those documents, she established the command chain within the National Police in general during this period and on January 31, 1980 in particular, identifying at the defendant as in charge of the operation.  Marina de Villagran, a psychosocial expert, provided a report related to the medical attention afforded to the survivors’ relatives, demonstrating that the events related to the occupation of the Spanish embassy had a major impact the relatives, and more broadly on Guatemalan society.

Various direct witnesses, present at the time of the siege, testified that security forces prevented representatives of the Red Cross from providing assistance to those trapped inside the Embassy.

November 3 Hearing

On November 3, the sixth day of hearings, the prosecution presented six additional witnesses.

Victor Manuel Ferrigno, a former student and member of the Robin Garcia Front, directly identified the accused, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, as part of the group who exchanged gunfire with the students during the mass funeral of the Spanish embassy victims, killing two students. During the cross-examination, the tribunal repeatedly challenged the defense attorney for questions such as: “Are you seeking justice or vengeance?” Ferrigno also provided contextual information about the work students had done with the indigenous campesinos to raise public awareness of their plight in Guatemala’s highlands.

Two witnesses provided testimony as to whether the police brought a flame-thrower into the occupied embassy. Jaime Fuente Gonzalez, a Spanish civil servant who left early in the occupation, testified that he witnessed a uniformed police officer enter the embassy carrying a cylindrical device; and that in an investigation the day after the fire, he observed neither the floor to the ambassador’s office nor wooden furniture had burned. A police subordinate, who testified via videoconference with his identity protected, identified Arredondo and others as present at the embassy during the siege in a review of video footage presented to the court. He also identified the vehicles as the ones used by the “Command 6,” of which Arredondo was then head; and declared that the cylindrical firearm carried out of the Embassy by a uniformed policeman was a flame-thrower. On cross-examination, he admitted seeing this type of firearm only once during his military service and, responding to an image shown by the defense, he identified incorrectly a tear gas distributor as a flame-thrower.

At the request of prosecutors, Arredondo sat behind a screen during the testimony of two police witnesses to avoid improper communication. Both Francisco Guillermo Monterroso, part of the judicial police (cuerpo de detectives), and Otilio Cabrera Corado, testified that they did not know what happened and could not identify Arredondo as involved. Guillermo Monterroso was an observer; Cabrera Corado worked for “Command 6,” but declared that he did not take part of the operation. Rember Larios Tobar testified as an expert witness concerning police structures, suggesting that the siege on the embassy constituted a special operation planned by the National Police with the participation of “Command 6.” The judges, however, unanimously rejected his conclusions as additional information to that formally admitted as evidence.

November 13 Hearing

On November 13, the seventh day of hearings, the court heard pre-recorded testimony from Ambassador Máximo Cajal, who was the only survivor of the fire and its aftermath but who died in early 2014.

On April 25, 2012, the prosecution pre-recorded declarations of former Spanish Ambassador Cajal, his wife Beatriz de la Iglesia Kaifer, and Pedro Bermejo Marin, Director General of the Ibero-American politics area of the Spanish Foreign Ministry at the time of the siege, to serve as evidence should the case come to trial, in accordance with Guatemala law. In his testimony, Ambassador Cajal testified that the occupiers arrived with what he thought were artisanal bombs, but that they did not show any active violent attitude, and rather came to present their plight in an otherwise peaceful occupation. He specified that he never requested the intervention of security forces. When he asked to negotiate with security forces, they insulted him and alleged that he was part of the “terrorist group” who occupied the diplomatic building. Cajal recalled that the policemen used axes to violently enter the embassy and that they were “armed to the teeth.” His declaration did not clearly identify who initiated the fire and how. Finally, he testified regarding his visit to Quiché to offer support to Spanish priests working in the region the day before the occupation.

However, the sound quality of all three testimonies was poor and, in response to a defense protest, the tribunal noted that the objection and the sound quality would be considered in relation to its probative value.  Ambassador Cajal died April 3, 2014.

Orlando Sandoval Rivera, a volunteer firefighter for the past 35 years who was present to assist those inside the Spanish embassy on the day of the occupation and siege, recounted that policemen prevented firefighters from reaching those calling for help from the second story window before and after the fire started. He recalled that he arrived before the fire started and heard an explosion and the occupants yelling. The firefighters were only able to approach the building by breaking through the barrier created by the police corps who initially prevented them from approaching the burning building. When they finally were able to reach the victims, they were dead and seriously burned. Sandoval testified that only one person was alive, barely, and found under dead bodies. On cross-examination, Sandoval acknowledged that he could not identify that Arredondo was at the scene, and that Arredondo did not to his knowledge personally prevent his ambulance from accessing the Embassy.

José Efrain Elias Tarano, a journalist at the time of the Embassy siege, testified that he was in Joyabaj, a small town located in the Quiché region, with a friend, Father Faustino Villanueva, a Spanish priest working in the area. Father Villanueva told him about a meeting the day before with the Spanish ambassador who came to offer assistance and protection to Spanish priests working in the region, following the rising violence. This is relevant as the government of General Lucas Garcia asserted at the time, and the defense asserts today, that the Spanish ambassador traveled to Quiché the day before the occupation to organize the occupation with the campesinos.

Prosecutors also endeavored to provide a declaration allegedly given to the press by Gregorio Yuja Xona, who occupied the embassy and survived but was subsequently kidnapped from his private hospital bed, tortured, and killed. The quality of the sound was extremely poor, and it was not possible for the court to either identify or clearly understand his statement.

The defense, out of the normal order of the testimony, presented to the tribunal a video compiling various 1980 press accounts asserting that a terrorist group, armed with machetes and artisanal incendiary bombs, and responding to a pre-established plan, occupied the Spanish embassy and set themselves on fire, killing the hostages, when they realized security forces were entering the Ambassador’s office which they occupied.

November 24 Hearing

During the eighth day of testimony, the prosecution presented its last witness and the defense presented its first witnesses. The defense position is that the security response to the occupation was poorly managed in a difficult context but that the defendant is not ultimately responsible for the resulting deaths.

Rony Ivan Véliz, a former student leader, testified for the prosecution that he was at the mass funeral when security forces allegedly killed two students.  Véliz testified that he passed in front of the defendant who was armed and watching the funeral protest on a street corner. Half a block later, Véliz heard gunshots from behind; he saw two students lying on the ground as he was running away. He could not confirm fired the deadly bullets.

The defense presented its first witnesses. Jorge Alejandro Palmieri, former Guatemalan ambassador in Mexico when the events occurred, testified that he was in Guatemala on the day of the occupation for a meeting. He testified that, after having lunch with then President Romeo Lucas Garcia where he learned about the embassy occupation, he stopped at the embassy. He declared that, from what he witnessed from outside the embassy, the security forces did not fire any weapons at any time and all the gunshots came from inside the embassy. He later asserted, on Mexican television, that the “terrorists” were responsible and that Guatemala needs to defend itself from becoming a communist state. He asserted that the fire was caused by the explosion of the artisanal bombs introduced into the embassy by the occupiers. He affirmed that former Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal planned the occupation together with “terrorists;” that the embassy lost its immunity due to its occupied status; and that the state was obliged to intervene to ensure public order. When cross-examined, Palmieri acknowledged that his affirmations were based on media accounts.

Francisco Rolando Archila, former Deputy Secretary of Public Relations for the Presidency, testified that he accompanied his superior to the official press conference and, from his experience at that time, was aware of the objects found in the embassy brought by the occupiers, including artisanal bombs, a satchel, backpacks, and pamphlets, including an alleged plan elaborated by the Guerrilla Army of the Poor.

Luis Alberto Mendizabal, owner of a shop near the embassy testified that he did not notice any security cordon impeding rescuers from reaching the embassy.

Iris Portillo contributed to this summary.