Yesterday, a Guatemalan high-risk court convicted Pedro Garcia Arredondo, former head of “Command 6,” a special investigations unit of the now-defunct National Police, of homicide and crimes against humanity for his leadership of the 1980 siege of the Spanish embassy, which killed dozens of indigenous and student activists and diplomats. This notorious event during the Guatemalan internal armed conflict ruptured Guatemala’s relationship with Spain for years and preceded an intensifying conflict and further atrocities committed against indigenous communities and human rights activists. Thirty-five years after the events, this is the first time the case was heard before a court.
The court also found Arredondo guilty of the attempted murder of protester Gregorio Yuja Xona and former Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal, the only survivors of the fire. (Xona was later tortured and executed.) The three-judge panel further found Arredondo guilty of the murder of two students during a mass funeral organized to honor the victims of the siege. In finding Arredondo guilty of crimes against humanity, the court noted that he let the protesters and hostages burn to death while preventing emergency intervention.
A crowd of indigenous victims gathered early outside of the courthouse to perform a Mayan ritual and to hear this historic verdict.
The Defendant’s Final Statement to the Court
In the morning, Arredondo made his final statement, once again claiming his innocence and appealing to the court for an objective decision. He acknowledged that the fatal embassy fire was a tragedy but said that the prosecutor had not made a sufficient case for his culpability. Among other things, he asserted that no witness demonstrated that Arredondo himself was responsible for giving orders that led to the deaths.
Arredondo had also made a statement at the opening of the hearing alleging that “terrorists” were responsible for the fatalities at the embassy.
After Arredondo’s final statement, the court closed the case officially, reconvening in the afternoon to issue its verdict.
On January 31, 1980, protesters took over the Spanish embassy to complain about the abuses committed by security forces against indigenous communities in the Guatemalan highlands. Guatemalan security forces responded with great force. When they stormed the building, protesters and their hostages – embassy staff and visiting diplomats – barricaded themselves in the ambassador’s office. In an ensuing fire, 37 protesters and hostages died. Two protesters were killed on the February 2 funeral march. Until yesterday, no one had been held accountable for these deaths.
Before announcing the verdict at the Supreme Court, Judge Jeannette Valdes, the president of the three-judge tribunal, acknowledged the long-unresolved case and expressed the court’s hope that the judgment would be “water that will extinguish the flames.” Judge Sara Yoc Yoc read the court’s verdict. The court had convened for sixteen hearings since the trial opened in October 2014.
The Embassy Siege
The court found the police ultimately responsible for the fatal outcome as they responded to the occupation with overwhelming force. The police prevented negotiations and cut off communication, which could have otherwise resulted in a peaceful conclusion to the standoff.
The court found that the President Romeo Lucas Garcia and Interior Minister Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz responded with violence despite knowing that the protesters were engaged in a peaceful occupation and did not present a danger. They issued an order to force the removal of the occupiers from the embassy and mandated that “no one shall escape alive.”
Despite Arredondo’s protestations of innocence, the court found that the prosecution had indeed demonstrated his personal responsibility: Arredondo ordered his subordinates to comply with this command though he was aware of the likely fatal consequences of such compliance. Video footage proved he was present at the scene during the siege; he bore command responsibility as then chief of the National Police’s Command 6; and historical archives of the National Police identified those responsible for the operation as Arredondo, as well as Reynaldo Paniagua, third chief of National Police, and Gonzalo Pérez, the first chief of the First Corps.
The court also cited the testimony of a confidential former Command 6 official who identified Rodolfo Cruz, Arredondo’s right-hand man, as having introduced into the building a weapon that intensified the fire. The court further concluded that Arredondo did not take the hostages’ lives and safety into consideration in the brutality of their response.
The court did not issue a finding as to who started the fire but affirmed that that question did not need a resolution for a finding of guilt. The court did find, however, that the third- and fourth-degree burns suffered by the victims and the intensity of the fire could not have resulted from self-immolation by the victims as the defense had asserted.
On the other hand, the court did find sufficient evidence that Maximo Cajal, the now-deceased former Spanish ambassador, was implicated in the occupation: he knew the occupiers’ plans, was sympathetic to their cause, had organized a meeting with prominent Guatemalan diplomats at the time of the occupation, and may have intended to serve as an international mediator. The court nonetheless affirmed that this did not justify the siege of the building or the failure to protect the lives and safety of the ambassador, hostages, and the occupiers.
Finally, the court found that police forces violated Article 22 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations when they entered the embassy without Ambassador Cajal’s permission.
The Killings at the Mass Funeral
With regard to the two student protesters killed at the mass funeral march two days after the embassy siege, the court found that witness testimony and archival documents established that Arredondo was present at the march, characterized the student protesters as internal enemies, and members of Command 6 under Arredondo’s command were responsible for the killings.
The courtroom erupted in applause at the close of the court’s reading of the verdict. Arredondo, who has been incarcerated since August 2012 for the 1981 enforced disappearance of student Edgar Saenz Calito, returned to prison. The court will reconvene on January 22 for a hearing concerning reparations in this case.
Meanwhile, outstanding questions remain about the status of the genocide trial against former head of state Efrain Rios Montt. An investigative judge, Carol Patricia Flores, ordered a weekly evaluation concerning the health of Rios Montt, whose second trial was interrupted on January 5 when he successfully sought the recusal of one of the trial court judges.
A case concerning sexual slavery at the Sepur Zarco military installation during the internal armed conflict is also still on hold as a result of a defense challenge. The defense in the Sepur Zarco case is challenging the impartiality of investigative judge Miguel Ángel Galvez.