On January 31, 1980, police firebombed the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, killing 37 people, among them embassy personnel and protesters. One of those killed was Vicente Menchu, a community activist and the father of Rigoberta Menchu, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on behalf of indigenous peoples.
Thirty four years later, Rigoberta sat before a panel of judges in a Guatemalan courtroom, describing the events of that day and the effect they had on her and her family. .
Trial started yesterday in the case of the Embassy bombing. The defendant, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, is already in prison for the disappearance of a student leader. At the time Garcia Arredondo was the head of the police unit that ordered the firebombing. According to the prosecutor, he ordered that no one be allowed to escape the resulting fire.
This trial is notable for several reasons. First, because of the significance of the event, which was largely seen as the opening salvo in what became a genocidal campaign against the indigenous peoples of the country’s northwest. Vicente Menchu and his fellow protesters had occupied the Spanish Embassy, hoping to enlist the ambassador in making their concerns about army repression in the area known. The brutal response set the stage for an escalation of attacks on protesters and communities. Thus, in one sense the trial is a follow-up to last year’s genocide trial of former president Rios Montt and his intelligence chief, albeit focused on the predecessor regime of Romeo Lucas. It is one of the “emblematic cases” of the conflict.
Second, the international ramifications are significant. The Spanish ambassador had specifically called on the police to desist, and when the fire started, had escaped by jumping out the window. (The ambassador, Maximo Cajal, died earlier this year, but gave a sworn video statement to prosecutors that will be used in the trial). Spain broke diplomatic relations with Guatemala for many years over the incident, and the Spanish ambassador is now sitting up front at the trial. A Spanish judge has been investigating this case and others since 2006.
Third, some of the evidence comes from the national police Archives, discovered in 2005 in an abandoned police station. The archives, which are in the process of being digitized by researchers, according to the prosecutors’ office contain reports of the police action, linking Garcia Arredondo and others to the decision to burn people alive.
Finally, this is the first major trial of the human rights-related crimes committed during the 1980s since the departure of the former Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz.
It may be intended to show that the current attorney general, known for her close links to the ruling party, intends to continue at least some prosecutions in this area, something that is important to the country’s international image. This prosecution, in that sense, is less politically charged, because it concerns the discredited Lucas regime, and doesn’t touch still-powerful figures close to the current government. Another investigation of a figure from that era, former Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas (brother of the former president) is reportedly underway.