In 1980 a group of 37 protesters in Guatemala –primarily indigenous Mayans, poor farmers and some university students, occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to denounce ongoing military repression by the Guatemalan state against their communities.
Police Chief of Guatemala City at the time, Pedro García Arredondo, ordered that the embassy be set on fire. All 37 protesters, and the Spanish counsel, perished.
A Guatemalan court will open a trial on Wednesday against Arrendondo, for causing the deaths of 37 peaceful protesters.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum, is following the case closely. Her father was one of the 37.
On learning that charges would finally be brought against Arrendondo, she said, “Our emotion right now is happiness, because we’ve had a lot of patience. ”
She and others have been struggling for decades to see justice take its course.
Arredondo, who is currently in prison, headed the National Police from 1974-1982. He was arrested in 2011 and convicted the following year on charges that he kidnapped, tortured and murdered a student, Edgar Sans Calito, in 1981. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
The court hearing the embassy case is the same tribunal that is charged with the ongoing genocide case against former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. In a historical ruling in May 2013, Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide charges and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The verdict was considered a landmark victory for the mostly indigenous Mayan victims of Ríos Montt’s brutal and brief rule in the early 1980s, two years after the embassy fire. But that victory was short-lived, as Guatemala’s Constitutional Court struck down the genocide verdict on a technicality a few days later.
Human rights groups have called the embassy attack one of the worst atrocities committed by the armed forces during the civil war, which lasted from 1960-1996. More than 200,000 people were killed or disappeared during the war, according to the United Nations.
“We want them to give us the opportunity to close a chapter that’s been open for 34 years, because I’m completely convinced that if we don’t close the open wounds that thousands of Guatemalans still have, it will be difficult to create peace,” said Menchú, a plaintiff in the case.
The only person to survive the embassy fire and its aftermath was then-Ambassador Máximo Cajal, from Spain. An indigenous protester survived the fire, but was later kidnapped from the hospital and murdered. His body was dumped on the campus of the San Carlos University.
Cajal died last April, but his testimony in the case has been documented in order to present it at trial, Menchú said.