Friday, January 16, 2015

The Spanish Embassy, 34 years later

On January 31,1980, peasant and student leaders, mostly from the department of El Quiché, occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City as a way of making visible their demands upon an unresponsive government, as security forces had already begun to launch attacks against community leaders. State security forces surrounded the embassy and cut off power, and then there was a massive blaze and nearly all of those inside, Embassy employees as well as protestors, died. Only two people escaped alive, and one of those '-- a Guatemalan who had helped the Ambassador flee -- was assassinated shortly afterwards, as he was recuperating from his injuries. For over 30 years the case lay dormant but in October of last year, the slow wheels of the Guatemalan justice system began to crank again and, nearly 35 years after those events, the prosecution started to unfold its case against Pedro Garcia Arredondo, who at the time was a police commander. Over 30 witnesses have been called in the last few months,and I had the opportunity to witness what was supposed to have been the last day of testimony (two witnesses who had been called by the defense did not appear and so there was another day of testimony set for Monday of this week, but I was not able to attend as I was en route to Huehuetenango). 

Because I had no press credentials, my friends advised me to give them my camera and tape recorder since non-journalists were generally not permitted to tape or photograph, and they handed them back when we were inside (I gave them copies of the audio recording so it wasn't entirely bogus, and stayed close to the other photographers and videographers so that I would not stick out (any more than I would already stick out as a frizzy-haired gringa). There was a panel of three female judges (one thing that I will say about Guatemala's legals system is that there are a lot of female attorneys and judges, although one of the qualifications to be a female attorney in Guatemala seems to be wearing extremely high stiletto heels). The chief witness was the former Spanish ambassador, who had been dispatched to Guatemala immediately after the fire, arriving on February 1 and beginning an investigation that resulted in a pretty hefty report to the Spanish government. He was a tall, reserved and yet quietly powerful figure, speaking very thoughtfully and at times forcefully. He laid out his investigations in painstaking detail, at time relying upon the report and consulting other notes he had brought. I will not go back over all my notes and repeat everything I wrote down, but some of the key points he presented were the presence of some kind of chemical that had a paralyzing effect. In other words, they had sent for a toxicology report and it seemed that something had been used to paralyze the victims. Another point he raised was evidence of an accelerant, and what I understood was that both this and the other chemical were not garden-variety substances but more specialized, not something that you could pick up at the corner store. Also, some of the bodies had bullet wounds. He was very clear and unswerving in his testimony

When it came time for the defense to cross examine him, they tried unsuccessfully to find holes or contradictions, or force him into a corner. They were reduced to asking what seemed to be pretty silly questions and the judge seemed to concur, supporting many of the other sides objections that the questions were irrelevant, or telling the defense attorneys that the witness had already answered their question.  They asked him about his relationship to the diplomatic service and whether he was no longer in the service. He explained patiently that while he was not an active member, and was not serving as an ambassador to anywhere, he was still a member of the diplomatic corps and would be until he died, and that he carried a diplomatic passport and still enjoyed the privileges of being a diplomat. They asked him who had paid for his trip and his lodging. He answered that the foreign service of Spain had paid for his ticket since they felt that his presence was important since it was, after all, their embassy that had been burned and their employees who had perished. The current ambassador, he added, had offered to put him up (the current ambassador and a few other embassy officials sat directly behind the witness).  The defense attorneys then turned to one page in the report and asked about a specific phrase that the ambassador had used: that when these events had occurred and there was an international outcry, the Guatemalan government reacted like a wounded animal.  What did he mean, asked the attorney, by the phrase, like a wounded animal.  Like a wounded animal, he replied. The defense attorney persisted, but what did you mean by that.  Like a wounded animal, he replied, a bit more testily. I think what I wrote is completely clear. The attorney asked, But what does that mean to you? He retorted quickly, What does it mean to YOU? At this the judge intervened and said, It seems that they do not understand what you were trying to say. Can you rephrase it for them? And then he said, It reacted like a cat (and I didn't catch the entire phrase but I think it was something like a cat whose tail had been stepped on). This was met with a generalized chuckle or laugh, and the judge would not let the defense attorneys persist with this questioning.  

The next witness was a doctor who specializes in forensics. He was not especially impressive. He simply interpreted some of the medical reports that had been prepared at the time, and in a few cases declined to offer much interpretation.

The last two witnesses were called by the defense, and they were both relatives of victims. One was the son of a woman who had been the private secretary of the Ambassador and had worked at the embassy for many years. He had heard about a disturbance and left his work to drive over. He reported that the protestors had locked the embassy and were not letting people in but he managed to slip inside one of the doors. He said that he tried to offer himself in place of his mother, whom he saw as a hostage but that the peasants who were there, whom he said had machetes and molotov cocktails, said that no one was leaving and he eventually was forced out. He said that he stayed outside and watched, and then there was an explosion, the implication being that the peasant leaders had ignited bombs, and then the building went up in flames. In response to the other side's questions he said that he did not hear any gunshots. At the end, he was allowed to make a statement about why he was there, which I thought was highly unusual. He said that he had not spoken to anyone or participated in any events that were organized by victim's families for 34 years, but that he was tired of people using his mother for their own benefit and to support their own causes. When he was done he shook hands with all the defense attorneys and the defendant and then turned and curtly waved to the other side.

The last witness in some ways contradicted the first one, as he claimed to have heard gunshots but did not hear an explosion. He was an elderly man, fairly infirm and frail, who came in a wheelchair and had to be helped into the witness chair. He was full of fury, and started to launch into a diatribe as soon as he was asked to identify himself. The judge had to tell him that the only thing he was being asked to do was state his name and identity, and would have to wait to answer questions. His testimony was long winded and repetitious, and the defense kept asking him to repeat the same details about how he came to the embassy and what he saw. He insisted on calling the protestors guerrillas and the judge allowed that to stand. She allowed him to get away with a lot of pontificating, in my view. His testimony was so repetitive that a few of us nodded off during it. He insisted that the Spanish ambassador was the main person at fault along with the guerrillas who had molotov cocktails in their morales (woven or crocheted bags worn over the shoulder). How he saw inside their bags when he was in the street outside the embassy is not clear. However, at the end of his testimony, the judge allowed him to make a statement attacking Rigoberta Menchu, who was there as one of the two plaintiffs. He went on about how wonderful the Maya culture was and how in the past everyone got along and there were no problems and now it was Maya against Maya, implying that it was because of people who wanted to stir things up. Especially Rigoberta, who wasn't deserving of the title because she was not for peace. Very hateful and again, surprising that the judge let him rant on.Not only did she let him rant on but she invoked religion and apologized to him on behalf of the Guatemalan government and offered him comfort for his suffering. All of which again seemed highly unusual.

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