Burning of the Spanish Embassy
The Burning of the Spanish Embassy (sometimes called the Spanish Embassy Massacre or the Spanish Embassy Fire) refers to the peaceful occupation of the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on January 31st, 1980, by indigenous peasants of the Committee for Peasant Unity and their allies and the subsequent police raid that resulted in a fire which destroyed the embassy and left 36 people dead. The incident has been called "the defining event" of the Guatemalan Civil War. Spain terminated diplomatic relations with Guatemala as a result.
In January 1980 a group of K'iche' and Ixil peasant farmers, recruited for a march to Guatemala City to protest the kidnapping and murder of peasants in Uspantán, in Quiché department, by elements of the Guatemalan Army. The peasants were organized, guided and joined by members of the Comité de Unidad Campesina (Committee of Peasant Unity) and a radical student organization known as the Robin García Revolutionary Student Front, groups associated with the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP, the Guerrilla Army of the Poor). The protesters were denied a hearing in Congress and their legal adviser was assassinated. On January 28, they briefly took over two radio stations.
At 11:05 in the morning on January 31, 1980, the peasants, joined by workers and students, entered the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City. According to police reports, some of the demonstrators were armed with machetes, pistols and Molotov cocktails.
Spain was considered sympathetic to the indigenous cause, especially after the Guatemalan Army came to be suspected in the murder of Spanish priests in the indigenous regions. Ambassador Máximo Cajal y López who had visited the Ixil and Kiche regions in the previous weeks, was holding a meeting with former vice president of Guatemala Eduardo Cáceres Lenhoff and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Adolfo Molina Orantes and lawyer Mario Aguirre Godoy, when the group entered the embassy. The protesters announced that they had come to peacefully occupy the embassy and that they would hold a press conference at noon. They presented the ambassador with a letter that read in part, "We ... direct ourselves to you because we know you are honorable people who will tell the truth about the criminal repression suffered by the peasants of Guatemala." In 1978 an occupation of the Swiss Embassy by factory workers in a labour dispute had ended with a peaceful resolution.
President Fernando Romeo Lucas García, Guatemala City police chief Germán Chupina Barahona, and Minister of the Interior Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz met in the National Palace. Despite pleas by the Spanish ambassador to negotiate, a decision was taken to forcibly expel the group occupying the embassy. Shortly before noon, and before the protesters could air their grievances, about 300 armed state agents surrounded the building and cut the electricity, water and telephone lines. SWAT police proceeded to occupy the first and third floors of the building over the shouts of the ambassador that they were violating international law in doing so. The peasants barricaded themselves, along with the captive embassy staff and the visiting Guatemalan officials, in the ambassador's office on the second floor.
An order was given to charge the ambassador’s office. Police breached the office door and introduced a substance, most likely white phosphorus, which together with the Molotov cocktails ignited a fire. Some academics and critics, including David Stoll and Jorge Palmieri, contend that it was the Molotov cocktails alone that started the blaze. Exactly how the fire started and who is responsible for it has been the subject of considerable polemics. As fire consumed the second floor and the demonstrators and captive staff of the embassy were burned alive, police refused pleas from bystanders to allow firefighters to combat the blaze. A total of 36 people died in the fire, including former vice president Eduardo Cáceres Lenhoff, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Adolfo Molina Orantes and activist Vicente Menchú, father of Rigoberta Menchú, a future politician and Nobel Peace Prize-winner. Spanish Consul Jaime Ruiz del Árbol also died in the fire, along with other Spanish citizens employed by the embassy.
Ambassador Cajal y López survived by escaping through a window. The only other survivor, demonstrator Gregorio Yujá Xona, suffered third-degree burns. Both were sent to Herrera Llerandi Hospital for treatment. On February 1, at 7:30 a.m., the police guard at Herrera Llerandi Hospital was withdrawn. Shortly thereafter a band of twenty armed men masked with bandanas, widely believed to be plainclothes members of the Judicial Police, entered the hospital and kidnapped Gregorio Yuja Xona. He was taken to an unknown location, tortured, and shot dead. His body was dumped on the campus of the University of San Carlos. Around his neck was a placard with a note that read "Brought to Justice for Being a Terrorist" and "The Ambassador will be next." Ambassador Cajal y López escaped the hospital with the assistance of other members of the diplomatic corps and eventually fled the country.
Aftermath and legacy
The Guatemalan government issued a statement claiming that its forces had entered the embassy at the request of the Spanish Ambassador, and that the occupiers of the embassy, whom they referred to as "terrorists," had "sacrificed the hostages and immolated themselves afterward." Ambassador Cajal denied the claims of the Guatemalan government and Spain immediately terminated diplomatic relations with Guatemala, calling the action a violation of "the most elementary norms of international law." Relations between Spain and Guatemala were not normalized until September 22, 1984.
Hundreds attended the funeral of the victims, and a new guerilla group was formed commemorating the date, the Frente patriótico 31 de enero (Popular Front of January 31).
In 1999, Rigoberta Menchú filed a criminal complaint in Spain accusing former government officials of responsibility for the incident, including former Presidents Romeo Lucas Garcia, Efraín Ríos Montt and Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores. In 2005, a Spanish judge issued an arrest warrant holding former Guatemalan Interior Minister Donaldo Álvarez responsible for the incident. Álvarez was last seen in Mexico and is considered a fugitive.
On January 30, 2009, the eve of the 29th anniversary of the incident, the Guatemalan government filed 3,350 criminal complaints alleging human rights violations against former soldiers and paramilitaries.
On January 20, 2015, former SWAT police chief Pedro García Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder and crimes against humanity, for ordering that no one should be allowed to get out of the burning building alive. He was also sentenced to 50 additional years for killing two students at the funeral for the embassy fire victims.
The names of those who died in the burning of the Spanish embassy are commemorated in Guatemala City's main square, along with other victims of the Guatemalan Civil War.
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