Former Guatemalan Police Chief Convicted for Spanish Embassy Siege

Guatemala City
Guatemala City
Credit: Rigostar

On January 19, a Guatemalan court found Pedro García Arredondo, a former police chief, guilty of murder and crimes against humanity for his role in authorities’ attack on the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City in 1980. In this attack, 37 protesters burned to death when the Spanish embassy building caught fire and García Arredondo ordered the building to be sealed and instructed officers, “No one gets out of there alive!” [Amnesty International: Conviction; BBC] Among those killed was the father of human rights advocate Rigoberta Menchú Tum. [Guardian] The Guatemalan court sentenced García Arredondo to a total of 90 years in prison: 40 years for murder and crimes against humanity in connection with the embassy attack, and 50 years for the murder of two students at the embassy victims’ funeral. [BBC; New York Times]

Background: Embassy Attack and Aftermath

On January 31, 1980, indigenous rights and rural activists peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy to protest the State’s massacre of rural and indigenous peoples during the then-ongoing Guatemalan civil war. The Guatemalan civil war spanned from 1960 to 1996, during which time “almost a quarter of a million people were killed or forcibly disappeared.” [BBC]

Shortly after the protestors arrived, 400 police officers surrounded the embassy, although the Spanish ambassador told the police that their “presence was not required and indicated that diplomatic immunity was being violated.” See IACHR, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Guatemala: Chapter II: Right to Life, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53, 13 October 1981, para. D(7). The police used hatchets to break down the door, and witnesses heard three shots followed by an explosion, which caused a fire to break out. See id. The police reportedly did nothing, despite protests from people on the street. See id. Arredondo was found to have orchestrated the fire and was sentenced to prison for ordering officers to seal the embassy and prevent anyone from leaving the building. [BBC]

The Spanish ambassador and Gregorio Yujá Xoná were the only survivors of the attack. On February 1st, Xoná was kidnapped from the hospital and his corpse was later found bearing signs of torture, wearing a poster stating that he was a “terrorist brought to justice,” which was intended to threaten the Spanish ambassador. See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline. The next day, the Spanish government ended diplomatic relations with Guatemala. See IACHR, Report on the Situation of Human Rights in the Republic of Guatemala: Chapter II: Right to Life, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.53, 13 October 1981, para. D(7).

On February 2nd, a mass funeral march was organized in honor of the victims of the embassy attack; two student leaders were killed. See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline. Security forces allegedly shot the students on the street. [International Justice Monitor: Two Months of Hearings]

Guatemalan Trials of García Arredondo

In 2011, García Arredondo faced charges of murder and crimes against humanity for the Spanish embassy killings in Guatemala’s First Criminal Court. In 2012, the prosecutors brought a related indictment against García Arredondo for the murder of two students during the mass funeral. The judge accepted the murder charges related to the Spanish embassy killings and the funeral killings, but rejected the crimes against humanity charges. The prosecutors appealed the latter decision and requested that the case be transferred to a “high-risk court,” which was established in 2009 to handle “politically complex cases.” See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline.

The Guatemalan Supreme Court granted the request to transfer the case to High-Risk Tribunal B, where the judge accepted the indictment for attempted murder of the two survivors from the fire, and ordered the trial to begin in October 2014. See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline.

In this trial, García Arredondo was charged with crimes against humanity, murder, and attempted murder. [International Justice Monitor: Closing Arguments] He pled not guilty to the charges, but was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 90 years in prison. [BBC; Amnesty International: Conviction] The tribunal determined that Arredondo had given the order to set fire to the embassy, and that he was also responsible for the two murders at the embassy victims’ funeral. [Democracy Now!]

Rigoberta Menchú, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, lost her father in the embassy attack. She applauded the verdict, noting, “We need to create hope and justice, even if just a drop of it, and this is an example that shows we can go to the justice system and work with it.” [New York Times]

In 2012, García Arredondo was separately convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison for ordering the 1981 enforced disappearance and torture of Édgar Enrique Sáenz Calito, a university student who was detained and tortured for three months and was forcibly disappeared immediately after his release from police custody. [Amnesty International: 1980s Disappearance] The court found that torturing Calito while he was in detention constituted a crime against humanity, and that García Arredondo had “planned, cooperated with and aided in” Calito’s disappearance. [Amnesty International: 1980s Disappearance] Earlier in the day on January 19, 2015, the First Court of Appeals confirmed García Arredondo’s conviction for this crime, rejecting his appeal. [Prensa Libre (Spanish)]

Universal Jurisdiction and the Spanish Trial of García Arredondo

The principle of universal jurisdiction allows national courts to prosecute individuals for serious crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture. States’ authority to exercise universal jurisdiction may derive from national legislation or international agreements. See International Justice Resource Center, Universal Jurisdiction.

In 1999, Spain exercised universal jurisdiction to allow victims to file charges of terrorism, genocide, and torture against high-ranking Guatemalan officials in Spanish courts. This case became known as the Guatemala Genocide Case and it named García Arredondo as a defendant for his role in the Spanish embassy massacre. See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court recognized the Spanish court’s jurisdiction on July 1, 2006. The Spanish Judge, Pedraz, then ordered that all the defendants be arrested and their assets frozen because “there [was] sufficient evidence that the crimes of genocide, terrorism, torture, murder and illegal detention were committed by the defendants.” See Center for Justice & Accountability, Justice in Guatemala.

In November 2006, Judge Pedraz filed formal extradition requests against the defendants. García Arredondo was arrested in connection with the case and was detained for 13 months, but was never extradited to Spain.[Center for Justice & Accountability: Forced Disappearance] In 2007, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court held that the arrest warrants and extradition requests were invalid. As of 2008, the case has continued without cooperation from Guatemala. See International Justice Monitor, Guatemala Trials: Timeline.

Spain has recently narrowed its legal basis for exercising universal jurisdiction to cases that are not already before another competent jurisdiction and that also either involve Spanish victims, affect Spanish interests, or involve perpetrators who are located in Spain.

Similar Cases before the Inter-American Human Rights System

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has heard multiple cases concerning human rights violations that occurred during the Guatemalan civil war. For a list of relevant cases, see IJRC’s recent news post.

The Inter-American Court has also exercised jurisdiction over two similar cases involving security forces’ responses to the takeover of public buildings by protesters. In 2014, the tribunal decided the case of the 1985 Colombian Palace of Justice siege, in which authorities first left the building unprotected despite prior knowledge of a guerrilla group’s takeover plans and then killed or forcibly disappeared more than ten people when retaking the courthouse. See I/A Court H.R., Case of Rodríguez Vera et al. (Persons Disappeared from the Palace of Justice) v. Colombia. Preliminary objections, merits, reparations and costs. Judgment of November 14, 2014. Series C No. 287 (Spanish only).

Currently pending before the Inter-American Court is a case involving the 1997 takeover of the residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru; when soldiers retook the building to rescue the hostages, they executed three members of the armed group. See IACHR, Report No. 66/10, Case 12.444, Eduardo Nicolás Cruz Sánchez et al. (Peru), 31 March 2011, para. 228. The Inter-American Commission referred the case to the Court in December 2011. [IACHR Press Release]

Additional Information

To learn more about the Guatemalan civil war and the genocide retrial of former Guatemalan dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt, see IJRC’s recent news post. For more information on universal jurisdiction or the Inter-American human rights system, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.