Yesterday we saw that justice, though slow in coming, is not impossible in Guatemala.

Nearly 35 years after the attack on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people, former police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty of orchestrating the 1980 burning of the embassy. Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for crimes against humanity, murder and attempted murder. He received an additional 50 years for the murder of two students after the massacre occurred — for a total of 90 years in prison.

Rigoberta Menchú addresses the crowd outside the courtroom before the reading of the verdict

On January 31, 1980, a group of Maya K’iche’ farmers and their allies, protesting assassinations and disappearances in the department of El Quiché, took over the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. The occupation was the last in a series of unsuccessful actions to raise awareness about the repression and violence that indigenous communities were facing. In response, security forces encircled the building and began an assault, quickly occupying the first and third floors — despite the ambassador’s warnings that to do so violated international law. The attack ended with the burning of the embassy and the death of 37 people.

GHRC’s Dania Rodríguez was present at yesterday‘s sentencing hearing, and spoke to us about the mood in the court room, the importance of the case, and what the verdict means to her personally.

Q: What was the atmosphere like in the courtroom?

Dania Rodriguez: The courtroom was full of relatives of victims who passed away that January 31 in 1980, as well as relatives of other victims from the internal armed conflict from El Quiche, Chimaltenango, and other communities who were there expressing their solidarity. You could see a lot of emotion in the faces of Rigoberta Menchu Tum and Sergio Vi. They were the civil parties involved in the trial and, at that moment, were representing all relatives of the victims of the fire. The presence of Spain’s ambassador to Guatemala, Manuel Lejarreta, was also noticeable – he has followed the case since the beginning of the process and attended certain hearings. Above all, there were strong feelings of nervousness and of expectation because – after a trial that lasted more than 3 months – a verdict would finally be reached.

Q: Can you talk about how the case was initiated, and why it’s so important?

DR: Before entering the courtroom, Rigoberta Menchú mentioned that the lengthy process of bringing the case to court was initiated 16 years ago. In a press release from the beginning of the trial, Rigoberta Menchu, Sergio Vi and the relatives expressed, “…the empire of law and justice with due process is the only civilized path forward so that crimes against humanity and state terrorism do not remain in impunity.” This verdict is of great importance, especially in providing closure for relatives of the victims, who have waited 35 years for justice.

Q: How is the case important to you personally?

DR: This is without a doubt a very emotional moment. It was a long wait for those of us who wanted to enter the courtroom, and an hour more for the jury to enter the room. I was reflecting on how long it felt to wait those 4 hours, which is nothing in the face of the 35 years that relatives of those who died inside the Spanish Embassy waited for the court to recognize the case and hand down a verdict. This case, like the genocide trial, has given us much hope that the cases of human rights violations during the armed conflict can achieve justice.

For more information about the case and the trial, check out the Spanish Embassy page on our website.