Guatemala: trial starts in 1980 embassy fire

On Oct. 1 a Guatemalan court began hearing the case of Pedro García Arredondo, a former chief of the National Police who is charged with causing the deaths of 37 people in a fire at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980. "We finally want to close a cycle of our sorrow, of our suffering," indigenous activist and 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum told reporters the day before the trial was to start. "It's painful to carry this," said Menchú, whose father, campesino activist Vicente Menchú, died in the fire.

The incident at the embassy began when indigenous and campesino leaders from El Quiché department occupied the building to draw attention to atrocities by the military; this was during one of the most brutal phases of the country’s 1960-1996 civil war. While meeting with embassy officials, the protesters were surprised by the police, who blocked the doors. A fire broke out in the building, and the police refused to unblock the doors or allow firefighters to enter. Spanish consul Jaime Ruiz Arvore, former Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Cáceres Lehnhoff (1970-74) and former Guatemalan foreign relations minister Adolfo Molina died along with the protesters. One campesino survived the fire, but he was kidnapped and murdered by armed men after being hospitalized. The only other survivor was Spanish ambassador Máximo Cajal y López; he died at the beginning of this year but left videotaped testimony which is being used in the trial.

García Arredondo is already serving a 70-year prison sentence; he was convicted in 2012 of the 1981 kidnapping, torture and murder of a student, Edgar Sáenz Calito. Moisés Galindo, García Arredondo’s lawyer, claims that the prosecution is pinning responsibility for the deaths on his client while ignoring the role of people like the late president Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and the late National Police chief Germán Chupina Barahona. Last year the court trying the case successfully convicted former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) of genocide against indigenous peoples during his administration, but the May 2013 conviction was annulled 10 days later by the Constitutional Court (CC). Galindo is also Ríos Montt’s attorney. (Tico Times, Costa Rica, Sept. 30 from AFP; Adital, Brazil, Oct. 6)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, October 12.