Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

A Small Step Towards Justice in Guatemala

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty on Monday of murder, crimes against humanity, and attempted murder—and sentenced to 90 years in prison for his involvement in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire in Guatemala City.

On January 31, 1980, 37 people lost their lives during the fire, set by Guatemalan police after Indigenous campesinos took refuge in the embassy after traveling to Guatemala City to protest against state repression in Quiché during the country’s civil war.  Arredondo was head of Commando VI, the now defunct Special Investigations Unit (Sección de Investigaciones Especiales) of the national police.  After security forces cut power and communication to the embassy, they stormed the residence, ignoring pleas from the Spanish government, ambassador and protesters.  Soon after, a fire started in the ambassador’s office.  Red Cross nurse Odette de Arzú heard on the police radio, “Get them out by any means!”  Other witnesses testified to hearing, “Let there be no one left alive!”

In the aftermath of the massacre, one of the two known survivors of the fire, Gregorio Yuja Xuna, was kidnapped from a private hospital room.  He was tortured and killed; his body was dumped outside of the rectory at Universidad de San Carlos (University of San Carlos—USAC).  A note was found in one of his pockets saying, “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Then, on February 2, during preparations for the mass funeral of the fire’s victims, two students were killed in a shootout at USAC’s auditorium with police.

On Monday, Arredondo was convicted of crimes for his involvement in all three incidents. In her summary, Judge Sara Yoc said, “The defendant executed orders from superiors—the order to kill everyone in the embassy.  He was responsible ordering the burning of the embassy.”

Yoc is part of the three-judge tribunal that also includes Judges Irma Jeanette Valdés and  María Castellanos, who recused themselves from serving on the trial of former president Efraín Ríos Montt two weeks ago.

The judges concluded that two fires started at the embassy that day—the second reportedly began when Adolfo Cruz Tepez, a police officer and Arredondo’s right-hand man, entered the embassy with a gas cylinder.  However, the cause of the first fire has never been adequately explained. At the time, authorities were quick to blame campesinos for starting the fire with homemade Molotov cocktails. 

Witness A—whose identity was hidden because he was working for Arredondo  at the time— said by video conference that he believed the fire was set off with a flamethrower. An expert witness suggested that the weapon was Israeli-made and could be used to deliver knockout gas.  The majority of the victims died of third and fourth degree burns: the fire was so powerful that many of the victims’ internal organs had disintegrated while their feet remained intact, giving rise to theories that an accelerant had been used. The only person who didn’t burn to death was shot in the throat.

Spanish ambassador Máximo Cajal, the only person to survive the fire and its immediate aftermath, died six months before Arredondo’s trial began in October 2014.  He refused to blame the protesters for the events, and said that they arrived with a peaceful mentality.  Indeed, a mix of student and campesino protesters had staged similar protests at the Brazilian and Swiss embassies in Guatemala City.  Cajal managed to find safe passage to the U.S. Embassy, and was smuggled back to Spain from there.

Arredondo emphatically denied his part in the deaths at the embassy.  “They [the prosecution] could not prove my responsibility. I’m still the only innocent [party]. I will repeat again, I am innocent,” he said.  After the verdict was read, he said that his lawyers would file an appeal.

Arredondo was already serving a 70-year sentence for his part in the disappearance and murder of agronomy student Edgar Enrique Sáenz Calito, but his conviction can be viewed as another step toward acknowledging crimes committed during Guatemala’s brutal 36 year civil war. 

Nobel prize-winning Guatemalan political activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum lost her father Vicente and cousin Francisco in the blaze. She said, “What happened today is a reflection that justice does exist.  I know that the death of 37 people saved many lives, because from that day, the international community turned on Guatemala.” 

Yet despite Arredondo’s conviction, the masterminds of the crime—and other acts of state terrorism in Guatemala at the time—remain untouchable.  Guatemalan ex-president Romeo Lucas García—who governed Guatemala from 1978-1982, during the time of the embassy fire—died in exile in 2006 in Caracas, Venezuela just before he was due to be indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The director of the national police, Germán Chupina Barahona, died in a military hospital in Guatemala in 2006 while wanted on an international arrest warrant for genocide and state terrorism.  Former Minister of the Interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz has been a fugitive from justice since 1999, and as a result, the prosecution has asked to start a trial in his absence.

Given the amount of time that has elapsed since the crimes themselves, the chances that these men will face justice diminishes by the day.  What remains is a handful of convictions for mid-level managers while many of the intellectual authors remain free or have died before trial.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that events such as the 1980 embassy fire will never be repeated.  As Judge Valdés said in her ruling, “The sentence is the water that quenches the fire of the search for justice. It is a precedent for how our officials should behave.”


Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Tags: Guatemala, Human Rights, Pedro García Arredondo
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter