Rigoberta Menchú: A New Court Ruling


Rigoberta Menchú was born in Quiché, Guatemala on January 9th 1959 to indigenous Mayan parents. After leaving school she became an activist campaigner, lobbying against the human rights violations that were perpetrated during the 1960-1996 Guatemalan Civil War, by the national Guatemalan armed forces. 

Menchú’s father, Vincente Menchú, was a leading member of the Guerilla Army of the Poor – a Marxist-Leninist communist organization, which campaigned for the rights of indigenous people against Guatemala’s ruling dictatorial regime. Menchú’s father was amongst the 36 killed in the Burning of the Spanish Embassy in 1980. He had been occupying the building alongside other indigenous peasants and their allies when the police raided and burned down the building, in an event that is now considered one of the defining events of the Guatemalan Civil War. Her mother and brother were also murdered by the Guatemalan military.

In 1981 Menchú fled to Mexico after being exiled from her home country. In Mexico she was able to publish her autobiography, I Rigoberta Menchú, which found global acclaim and made her an international icon in light of the ongoing conflicts in Guatemala.

Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her work as an indigenous rights activist. However this accolade brought her under the hostile scrutiny of historians, anthropologists and other academics that sought to discredit her testimony – a testimony that implicated US complicity in the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan regime. Menchú was also accused of lying about the details of the 1980 Burning of the Spanish Embassy– one accuser argued that the event had in fact been a “revolutionary suicide that included murdering hostages and fellow protesters” in order to make the government look bad. As has been noted by Greg Grandin in The Nation, this allegation had the effect of transforming the public image of Menchú’s father as a fighter for civil rights into a seemingly crazed suicidal jihadi.

However on Monday 19th January 2015 – just short of the 35th anniversary of the Embassy massacre – a Guatemalan court convicted the former head of the now-defunct armed forces, Pedro Garcia Arredondo as guilty “of homicide and crimes against humanity for his leadership of the 1980 siege of the Spanish embassy, which killed dozens of indigenous and student activists and diplomats.” This verdict marks an important date in Guatemalan history, as it is still rare for courts to rule in favor of indigenous rights. The long-due ruling also exonerates Menchú, absolving her of the discrediting accusations that followed her 1992 Nobel Prize win, as well as more broadly vindicating the Mayan people in relation to their involvement with the events of the 1980 massacre