International Justice Monitor

A project of the Open Society Justice Initiative

Never Before Heard Testimony Describes Dramatic Rescue of the One Survivor of Guatemala’s Notorious 1980 Embassy Fire

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 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. In riveting and never before heard testimony on Wednesday, November 26, a firefighter testified about his apparent secret rescue from the building of the one protester who barely survived the fire—before he was kidnapped from his hospital bed and killed soon after. Two other witnesses testified as the first trial related to the deadly siege approaches its end.

Anibal Tellez, a firefighter at the time, testified for the defense that he arrived before the start of the embassy fire and, on arrival, a police agent told him, using derogatory language, that they will get the occupiers out of the embassy no matter what—with the implication that they will either capture or kill them. More firefighters arrived when the fire started and, according to Tellez’ testimony, the rescue teams were not blocked by any security forces from entering the burning building. Tellez also testified that, after entering the building himself, he extinguished the last sources of fire in the ambassador’s office. From under a pile of corpses, a hand grabbed Tellez’ leg. According to his testimony, Gregorio Yuja Xona, who survived the fire but was executed soon after, told him then that “things went wrong for the Spaniard,” referring to the ambassador, and begged Tellez for help fearing that “his companions would kill him.” Tellez also explained how the rescuers managed to get Yuja Xona out of the building without the security forces noticing. On cross-examination, Tellez acknowledged that they had to secretly remove Yuja Xona from the embassy for fear that police forces would attempt to kill him. He stated that, though he never received any direct threats, he never previously provided his testimony out of fear.

Mario Garcia Velasquez, then director of “Here, the world” (Aquí el mundo), the most popular TV news program at the time, testified for the defense about the footage he received from the three camera teams deployed at the embassy. He did not witness directly the embassy occupation or siege, but testified that two of his cameramen were on the other side of the ambassador’s door, at the ambassador’s request, and heard an explosion and saw the ambassador flee.

Finally, Claudia Lopez, Guatemala’s Deputy Human Rights Ombudsman ratified her expert report on the application of international humanitarian law in the case. In her conclusions, she stated that Guatemala, as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and also according to the so-called “Martens Clause,” had an obligation to protect civilians during the embassy siege, which it failed to do, infringing Common Article 3 of the Conventions and fundamental humanitarian law principles. Lopez affirmed that humanitarian law requires that, in case of doubt as to whether a population constitutes civilians, the population must be treated as civilians with the right to protection. Further, she concluded that, regardless of who initiated the fire, the state obligation was to protect those burning inside, and that state actors did not effectively do so.

The next hearing is scheduled for December 9, where material evidence will be presented to the court. Following that, two further witnesses, currently out of the country, will testify for the defense after December 18 before the court hears closing arguments.

Note: Emi MacLean contributed to this summary. Tomorrow we will post a summary of earlier hearings in this case.

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