GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A former police officer went on trial Wednesday charged in the deaths of 37 people more than three decades ago when the Spanish Embassy burned down during this Central American nation's bloody civil conflict.
Pedro Garcia Arredondo, the 69-year-old former special investigations chief for the Sixth Commando of the National Police, is accused of homicide and crimes against humanity for allegedly ordering officers to keep anyone from leaving the diplomatic mission as it burned on Jan. 31, 1980.
Protesters from Indian, student, peasant, labor and other groups had taken over the embassy to call attention to massacres during the 1960-96 civil war. Police surrounded and sealed the facility.
When the fire broke out, Arredondo "ordered police agents under his command to destroy windows with the only intention of causing the death of those inside because they were considered internal enemies," prosecutor Hilda Pineda said. "The people inside were screaming in pain because they were burning."
Arredondo declined to testify but proclaimed his innocence in brief remarks.
"The truth, before God and Earth, is that I am innocent," he said.
The first witness called was 1992 Nobel peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu, whose father, Vicente Menchu, was one of those killed in the blaze.
"May we finally be able to close a cycle of pain and suffering," said Menchu, who is a complainant in the case.
"I can say that until now, ever since the massacre occurred, I felt powerless. I felt not fear but rather anger, frustration," she added tearfully. "They had destroyed a family."
Former Spanish Ambassador Maximo Cajal y Lopez, who survived the fire, died earlier this year. However, he left testimony that will be presented at the trial along with the accounts of at least 23 other witnesses.
At least 245,000 people died or disappeared in Guatemala's 36-year armed conflict, according to a U.N. report.