New York Times

February 1, 1980


36 Said to Die in Guatemala Protest


A fire killed at least 36 people today in the Spanish Embassy, where Indian peasants had been holding the Ambassador and several others hostage, according to the Red Cross.


The only survivors of the fire, which authorities speculated was started by a gasoline bomb accidentally dropped by one of the Embassy occupiers, were Ambassador Maximo Cajal y Lopez and an unidentified man.  Both were reportedly injured.


Among the people initially reported as dead were the former Guatemalan Vice President, Eduardo Caceras Lehnhoff, and a former Guatemalan Foreign Minister, Adolfo Molina Orantes, as well as Mr. Cajal’s secretary, Jaime Ruiz del Arbol.


“The bodies were burned so badly we can’t tell the peasants from the embassy people,” said one Red Cross official as he poked through the rubble of the mission’s second floor, where most of the victims were found.


A United States Embassy spokesman, Jack Gallagher, said, “The second-story windows had bars, which resulted in a tragedy.”  He said there were unconfirmed reports that at least five of the Indians were “armed terrorists.”


The Red Cross said it had found 36 bodies.  At least four appeared to be embassy employees and one was identified as one of the peasants who had taken over the embassy and captured the hostages at about noon.


The peasants, Indians from the Quiche region 186 miles west of Guatemala City, had been demanding a meeting with Government officials to air their complaints of army repression against Quiche Indians.


Witnesses, contradicting earlier Red Cross reports that the fire started shortly after policemen stormed the building, said the blaze was well under way by the time police rushed inside in an apparent attempt to help the victims.


Some 2,000 people, many of them poor Indians, have been killed in political violence in Guatemala since May 1978, according to a report releases last September by Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization.