Trial Court in Guatemala Hears New Evidence as Spanish Embassy Case Approaches Closure

On Friday, January 9, the high risk court overseeing the prosecution of high-ranking police official Pedro García Arredondo for the January 1980 deaths of 37 protesters, diplomats, and others in the Spanish embassy in Guatemala heard new evidence from both the prosecution and the defense.

The trial began on October 1, 2014. It was expected to conclude last year, but delays in presenting defense witnesses and requests to introduce new evidence by both the prosecution and the defense extended the trial.

Raynaldo Ramirez, a doctor from the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF), testified as an expert witness for the prosecution to interpret the forensic reports of the autopsies conducted in 1980. The forensic experts who conducted the autopsies have since died or are not physically or mentally able to testify. Dr. Ramirez testified that the wounds were of extreme gravity and the cause of death in most cases was third and fourth degree burns of sufficient intensity to damage internal organs and bones. Dr. Ramirez also testified that the body of Adolfo Molina Orantes, one of the hostages of the occupation and a former foreign minister and judge, suffered from gunshot wounds in the thorax. He testified that the forensic reports showed that Jesus España, a student killed during the mass funeral following the Spanish embassy fire, died from two gunshot wounds, including a fatal wound to the head causing a skull fracture and internal bleeding. Dr. Ramirez could not determine from the autopsy report whether España had been shot at close range.

The Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation (FRMT), the civil party representing the victims, introduced Spanish diplomat Yago Pico de Coaña as a witness. De Coaña was sent to Guatemala following the fire to investigate the facts on behalf of the Spanish government. In his contemporaneous report, he described the intervention of the security forces as a violent assault against the Spanish mission in Guatemala, protected by international law. He investigated the ambassador’s office, where the fire took place, and testified that the door was broken and some paper on the desk had not burnt. In testimony he collected at the time, de Coaña was told by three different people that a police officer entered the embassy before the fire with an unknown weapon. In his report, which included a photo of the police officer with the weapon, de Coaña concluded that the weapon was Israeli-made and could emit paralyzing gas that, at close range, could cause significant damage; and that a Molotov cocktail would not have been strong enough to burn 37 people in three minutes. De Coaña emphasized that nobody escaped despite the likely efforts of people to escape when on fire. He acknowledged that he did not identify the defendant as personally responsible in his report. De Coaña also recalled that in 1996, during an official visit to Spain at the close of the war, Guatemala’s then Foreign Affairs Minister publicly apologized to the Spanish population for the disgraceful events of the Spanish embassy fire.

The civil party also presented a tape recording from Marco Antonio Figueroa, a journalist who covered the events at the time. On the tape recording, victims were heard yelling.

The defense presented as witnesses two family members of hostages of the occupation who died in the siege. Rodolfo Barrias Wilken, son of former embassy employee Mary Wilken, was outside the embassy when the events unfolded as he had gone to the embassy earlier to bring medication to his mother. He testified that the embassy’s stairs were full of indigenous campesinos with an aggressive attitude when he arrived and that he observed bags containing what he thought were Molotov bombs. He told the court that when he left the embassy, he immediately called the Interior Ministry and stayed as the security forces intervened, but he could not save his mother.

Eduardo Cáceres, the nephew of former Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Cáceres Lehnhoff who also died in the fire, testified for the defense that he was outside of the embassy at the time of the fire and did not witness any of the security forces responding inappropriately. He said that an artisanal bomb was activated in the office where the occupants and hostages were convened as the siege intensified. Contrary to the testimony of the forensic expert, Cáceres testified that they all suffocated to death. He also asserted that the doctor who conducted the autopsy on his uncle told him that Cáceres Lehnhoff suffered from a gunshot wound, although there is no reference to this in the official written autopsy report. In this testimony, Cáceres blamed then Spanish ambassador Maximo Cajal for the siege and the deaths, and criticized Rigoberta Menchú—whose foundation is the civil party and whose father died in the fire—saying that as a Nobel Peace Prize winner she should advocate for peace instead of resurfacing tragic events from the conflict.

The defense still seeks to present two additional witnesses at trial. The tribunal thus ordered the national civil police to transport these last two outstanding witnesses to court today, after which the parties are expected to present their conclusions.

Arredondo, the former head of the now-defunct Command Six, is the only official currently on trial for the deaths. He is already serving 70 years in prison for the 1981 forced disappearance of university student Edgar Saenz. The tribunal is likely to present a sentence in the Spanish embassy case soon after concluding statements.