Globe, Human Rights, Latin America, Politiks

Historic human rights victory against impunity: Guatemala

A guilty verdict has been handed down at the trial of former police chief who ordered the burning of the Spanish embassy in 1980, causing the death of 37 protesters who were occupying it.


 Graham Douglas


A court in Guatemala has returned a guilty verdict in the case of the Spanish Embassy massacre when 37 peasants and student activists who were occupying the building died after it was set on fire during a siege by police on 31st January 1980.

The former police chief Pedro Garcia Arredondo was found guilty of ordering the embassy burned and of the consequent murder of 37 people. For this and two separate murders he was sentenced to 90 years in prison.

One of the victims was Vicente Menchú, a peasant leader and father of Rigoberta Menchú who subsequently won the Nobel Peace Prize for her human rights work.

Only two people survived: he Spanish Ambassador, and one peasant whose tortured body was found three days later.

The trial has been going on for 16 years and the massacre happened 20 years before it began, so this is indeed a historic day as Rigoberta said in her interview with Democracy Now!, from which this The Prisma report is edited.

The embassy occupation was part of a campaign against murder and illegal evictions from land by the security forces, in the face of media silence and judicial passivity.

The Guatemalan story is historic as a victory against impunity, and it raises again the question of international jurisdiction, which was frustrated at the trial in 2013 of Guatemalan General Rios Montt, when the guilty verdict on charges of genocide was passed and then set aside.

During the trial attempts were made to denigrate the memory of the victims and even to suggest that they had burned themselves.

This question of memory is a crucial one for Rigoberta and also for Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis, whose film Granito also played a part in the successful prosecution of Rios Montt, after she realised in 2003 that some old reels of film she had stored for 20 years contained crucial evidence of his complicity in human rights abuses against the indigenous Maya people.

Their company, Skylight Pictures has set up a site where the victims’ stories can be recorded.

US complicity

In her Democracy Now! interview, Yates also pointed to the United States complicity in the military abuses in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, especially through their military training programmes, run by an institution called the School of the Americas, which now operates under a different name.

The grassroots campaign to close this school now involves activists from all over the world.

One of the countries they are concerned about is Mexico, where Nestora Salgado has been held in solitary confinement despite a court order to free her.

In Guerrero state where the public forces of law and order cannot be relied on to protect the local population, she helped organise community policing, and this is what the authorities are determined to repress.

News reports indicate that the issue was not discussed when Mexico’s president Peña Nieto visited Obama in the White House last week, but campaigners believe that their demonstrations and lobbying of US senators have been a big success.

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