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Arrest Warrant Issued 25 Years After Spanish Embassy Fire in Guatemala


It has been 25 years since 37 peasants, university students and employees were killed in a fire at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City. Now, a Spanish judge has issued an arrest warrant for a former Guatemalan Interior Minister believed responsible for the 1980 incident. The move makes Guatemala the latest country to be the object of justice probes in Spain and puts it at the center of a growing tendency towards international justice.

At a march to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the embassy fire, a speaker explained how Mayan peasants occupied the Spanish embassy to denounce to the world the military massacres in their villages. The speaker said the police arrived on the scene and set fire to the embassy with the intention of killing everyone inside.

Celestino Sic Tum's father died that day. On Monday he marched through the streets of Guatemala with a small, black, cardboard coffin and a white cross with his fathers name on it.

The police did not think about the lives of the people who died there, he says. They were peasants fighting for their rights, they went in peacefully.

Nearly everyone inside the embassy died that day, among them the father of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Rigoberta Menchu and three Spanish citizens.

In response to a criminal complaint that Ms. Menchu filed in Spain in 1999, a judge issued in December the first-ever arrest warrant in relation to the incident. The warrant is for former interior minister Donaldo Alvarez, who was last seen in Mexico. He is now a fugitive of justice.

Ms. Menchu received the news of the arrest warrant with great relief.

She says that she had feared that the case would be shelved in Spain like it was in Guatemala 25 years ago, when justice officials failed to investigate the incident. She says the Spanish arrest warrant is a great precedent for justice in Guatemala and that it breathes life into the entire accusation.

The accusation includes seven former government officials, three of whom are former generals, Romeo Lucas Garcia, Efrain Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores.

The generals ruled Guatemala consecutively during the bloodiest era of the nation's decades-long civil war. The war between leftist guerrillas and the army ended in a 1996 peace accord. The Spanish courts are focusing on the deaths of Spanish citizens during this era.

But there are some people who believe that the Spanish arrest warrant is a grave injustice. They maintain that the police were not to blame for what happened at the embassy.

Jorge Palmieri is one of them. He was a witness to the fire and a member of the government at the time. He says the occupation cannot be considered a peaceful protest considering that the peasants were carrying Molotov cocktails. It was the gasoline bombs, he says, that started the fire.

The people behind this case in Spain are doing this to seek vengeance, he says. Alvarez was not responsible for what happened that day, he says, because he did not send the police in with the objective of killing everyone inside.

But something most everyone here seems to agree upon is that Guatemala's justice system is weak and prone to corruption and influence peddling. And this is why rights activists insist that it is important for Spanish courts to look into war crimes in Guatemala.

On Monday, the demonstrators at the 25th anniversary march, with their cardboard coffins in hand, spent a few moments outside Guatemala's prosecutor's office demanding justice.

A U.N.-backed truth commission concluded that military and paramilitary groups committed genocide against the Maya Indians in the early 1980s, but no one has stood trial for these crimes.

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