Document Friday: Escape to a Foreign Embassy
Under what circumstances is a country’s sovereign territory not its sovereign territory? Recent news about the use of foreign embassies as places of refuge has caught my attention as it brings up fascinating nuances of diplomatic law and international political protocol.
The two most notable recent cases being that of Chinese human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who spent 6 days in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and Wikileak’s founder Julian Assange who is currently camping out in Ecuador’s embassy in London. Eventually, Chen Guangcheng was offered a fellowship at New York University, and the Chinese government allowed him to travel to the U.S. with his family to accept the position because he was facing persecution from the Chinese government for his human rights work. Just yesterday, the Ecuador government granted Assange asylum because “Assange faces a serious threat of unjust prosecution at the hands of U.S. officials.” As of today, it is still unclear whether or not British officials will allow Assange to leave the country.
All of this has reminded me about an amazing story of a Guatemalan labor union leader, Álvaro René Sosa, who escaped capture and sought refuge in the residence of the Belgian Ambassador in Guatemala City in March of 1984. Today’s spotlight document is a Department of State Cable from March 14, 1984, that recounts the harrowing incident.
To briefly set the context, from 1960-1996, Guatemala was in the middle of an intense internal armed conflict in which approximately 40,000 people were disappeared, and nearly 200,000 were killed. The UN Truth Commission report, Memory of Silence concluded that during the conflict, the Guatemalan security forces committed acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan people. In the late 1970s and early 1980s right-wing death squads closely linked to government security forces wreaked havoc among the urban political dissident groups and the leftist movement. In February 1984, about a month before Álvaro tested foreign embassy sovereignty laws, a U.S. embassy memo warned of a “new wave of violence” and death squad activity.
On March 11, 1984, Álvaro was captured by a group of men while he was walking on the street in Zone 11 of Guatemala City; he recognized one of the men to be a Guatemalan military official. Álvaro had become one of the 40,000 disappeared. However, four days later, on March 13,Guatemala security forces were driving Álvaro around the city so he could identify other political dissidents for the security forces to abduct. When the vehicle stopped to attempt to capture other suspected dissidents, Álvaro jumped out of the vehicle and over the low wall of the residence of the Belgian Ambassador while his captors fired at him, wounding him…
The Belgian Ambassador was able to secure him safe passage to the hospital to undergo surgery on his gunshot wounds; he was also treated for injuries sustained from torture that was a part of his interrogation during his detention. It ended up being the Venezuelan Embassy that provided Álvaro with assistance in leaving Guatemala because the Belgian Embassy did not have and asylum agreement with Guatemala. On March 21, eight days after the incident, Álvaro was able to leave Guatemala for Canada where he was granted political asylum. Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico had also offered him political asylum. Two years ago, Álvaro returned to Guatemala to accept a formal apology and pardon from the Guatemalan government.
The story does not end there. In 1999, an anonymous source gave the National Security Archive a secret Guatemalan military document, the Diario Militar (Military Logbook) that lists the capture and fate of over 183 of Guatemala’s disappeared. In the process of analyzing the Diario Militar, National Security Archive analysts used declassified US documents and human rights reporting to prove the authenticity of the Diario. This Department of State Cable was used to corroborate the validity of the Dario Militar because Álvaro’s capture and escape is listed in the Logbook.
The fact that Álvaro was able to escape and bring himself back from being one of the 40,000 disappeared was a miraculous feat. His testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights provided invaluable information about the Guatemalan government’s practices of forced disappearances, interrogation, torture, and extra-judicial execution. He was able to identify other victims in the detention facility, enabling families to discern the fates of their loved ones, including labor leader Amancio Villatoro. Had it not been for the diplomatic laws regarding embassy sovereignty, asylum agreements, and the good will of other nations, Álvaro would have remained one of the 40,000 disappeared, and we wouldn’t have this amazing story today.
** The document featured in this “Document Friday” is available in the National Security Archive’s published collection, Death Squads, Guerrilla War, Covert Operations, and Genocide: Guatemala and the United States, 1954-1999. The collection is available by subscription, so be sure to check your local or university library system for access.
 Amnesty International, Guatemala: The Human Rights Record (London, Amnesty International Publications, 1987), pgs. 119-120, 126
 Amnesty International, Guatemala: The Human Rights Record (London, Amnesty International Publications, 1987), pgs. 119-120