The Miami Herald
Mon, Jan. 31, 2005

25-year quest for justice in fatal protest intensifies

A 1980 Guatemalan upheaval, in which 37 demonstrators died during a clash with police, is the focus of a march today.

Special to The Herald

GUATEMALA CITY - Rigoberta Menchú will march through the this city's streets today with a black and red scarf tied around her neck, just above her Nobel Peace Prize medal.

The scarf is just like the one her father wore 25 years ago today, when he was part of a Maya peasant group that occupied the Spanish Embassy here to denounce military massacres.

Thirty-seven people -- including Menchú's father and three Spanish citizens -- died at the embassy later that day in a fire that began when police clashed with the demonstrators.

Today's is not the first march to demand justice for the 1980 incident. But it may well be the most hopeful.

After a 25-year quest for justice, the first arrest warrant was recently issued. In December, a Spanish judge asked Mexican authorities to arrest former Guatemalan Interior Minister Donaldo Alvarez for the deaths of the three Spaniards. Alvarez, believed to have been living in Mexico City, has not been apprehended.


With this arrest warrant, Guatemala became the latest country in the region -- after Chile and Argentina -- to be targeted by Spanish judges investigating human rights abuses in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s that were never prosecuted by the governments here.

''What happened in Chile and Argentina and [with] this recent arrest warrant reveal the weakness of the justice systems in . . . Latin American countries,'' said political analyst Renzo Rosal. ``In the near future, we could see a whole wave of Spanish arrest warrants for former Guatemalan military leaders accused of rights violations.''

The Spanish warrant was not universally welcome. Jorge Palmieri, who was Guatemala's ambassador to Mexico in 1980, harshly criticized the conclusions of a U.N.-backed Truth Commission report that Guatemalan police used flamethrowers against the embassy occupiers.

Palmieri, who witnessed the fire, maintains that the Spanish ambassador at the time was a socialist who conspired with the peasants to allow them to take over the embassy, and that it was their gasoline bombs that ignited the blaze.

''The people behind this case in Spain are doing this to seek vengeance and because if they weren't guerrillas themselves, they were sympathizers,'' he told The Herald. ``Alvarez wasn't responsible for what happened. He didn't send the police in with the objective of burning everyone.''


But even some of the harshest critics of Spain's recent decision admit that Guatemala's justice system is weak and prone to corruption and influence peddling.

That is precisely why Rigoberta Menchú, who won the Nobel prize in 1992 for her work on behalf of human rights in Guatemala, and others have looked outside the country's borders for justice and filed the complaint against Alvarez in Spain in 1999.

The case, which also involves the deaths of Spanish citizens in other incidents, also accuses three former army generals -- Romeo Lucas Garcia, Efraín Ríos Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores -- who ruled consecutively during the bloodiest era of Guatemala's decadeslong civil war.

The conflict between leftist rebels and the military ended in a 1996 peace accord, after about 200,000 people, mostly Maya Indians, were killed or disappeared. A Truth Commission concluded that the military and paramilitary groups committed genocide during the early 1980s, yet no one has stood trial for those crimes to date.

A special commission from Spain's courts is expected to arrive in Guatemala in coming months to interview some of the accused and witnesses.

Activists hope this will lead to more arrest warrants. They also say Spain's initiative may cause a boomerang effect in Guatemala's own justice system.

''The support of judges outside a country can trigger investigations back at home and creates the right environment for local judges to do their job,'' José Miguel Vivanco, the Washington-based executive director of Human Rights Watch America, told The Herald in a phone interview.

Since the unsuccessful attempts to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pincohet in Spain, Chilean courts have reversed a decadeslong stance and ruled that Pinochet can stand trial in Chile.

And after the Spanish arrest warrant was issued for Alvarez, a Guatemalan judge ordered prosecutors to reopen the local investigation into the embassy fire.