Washington, DC, United States (ProPublica) – by Sebastian Rotella
In a historic case with international repercussions, a federal trial begins today in Southern California of a former Guatemalan military officer accused of playing a lead role in the massacre of 250 men, women and children in the village of Dos Erres during Guatemala’s civil war in’82.
Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former lieutenant in an elite commando unit, faces charges that he concealed his involvement in the massacre from U.S. immigration authorities years later, when he obtained permanent residency and citizenship.
Although he cannot be tried in the United States for the killings in Guatemala, U.S. prosecutors must prove his complicity to show that he lied on immigration forms when he said he had not served in the military or committed a crime. If convicted in the trial in federal court in Riverside, he faces a prison sentence of 10 years.
Units in the U.S. Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement specialized in investigating human rights violations have devoted considerable resources to the first U.S. trial related to a Guatemalan war crimes case of this type. Fifteen witnesses against Sosa will include fellow ex-commandos as well as Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, who survived the massacre at age three and was raised by the family of an officer who led the killer unit. ProPublica told the story of Ramírez, now a Boston restaurant worker and father of four, last year.
Sosa, a 55-year old karate instructor, denies guilt. In an interview with ProPublica last year, he said that he did not take part in the attack on Dec. 7,’82, a hellish day of rape, murder and destruction. Sosa said he was working on a civil affairs project 100 miles away. He accused prosecutors and human rights activists in Guatemala, where he faces criminal charges, of framing him. His lawyer has argued in court filings that Sosa did not knowingly lie on federal immigration forms because the questions were vague and he had reasons to believe his wartime actions were covered by Guatemalan amnesty laws.
The Dos Erres case has become emblematic of the fight for justice in Guatemala, where the impunity of the past and the impunity of the present intertwine. Many military officers implicated in atrocities in the civil war, which claimed more than 200,000 lives before ending in the mid-1990s, have eluded punishment because of the protection of corrupt security forces and powerful criminal mafias.
During the past two years, Guatemalan prosecutors succeeded in convicting five members of the 20-man elite unit that destroyed Dos Erres. Efraín Ríos Montt, the nation’s former dictator, has also been charged in the case as the mastermind of a military campaign that resulted in hundreds of similar mass killings in rural areas. In a separate prosecution in May, a Guatemalan court found Ríos Montt guilty of genocide, but his conviction was quickly thrown out on procedural grounds. Whether he will be retried remains uncertain.
The U.S. government, which once backed Guatemala’s armed forces as a Cold War bulwark in Central America, has conducted crucial investigations of its own. In addition to tracking down Sosa in Canada in 2011, federal investigators arrested three other commandos from the unit who had migrated to the United States. A former sergeant admitted to his role in the massacre and pleaded guilty to immigration charges in Florida in 2010; he is serving 10 years in prison. Investigators found another ex-commando living illegally in California and deported him to Guatemala, where he was convicted in the massacre.
And a third former soldier, Santos Lopez Alonso, will testify in Riverside as part of an apparent plea agreement for charges of illegally re-entering the United States after deportation. Alonso will likely provide eyewitness testimony against Sosa, who was the fourth-highest ranking officer in a special strike force comprised of 20 commando instructors, according to Guatemalan court records.
In court testimony in Guatemala and during interviews last year with ProPublica, two other former commandos alleged that Sosa fired his rifle and threw a grenade into a village well that was piled with living and dead victims. U.S. authorities have said that those two veterans, who live in an undisclosed country as protected witnesses, also will testify in Sosa’s trial.
Ramírez, the Dos Erres survivor, was 3 years old in’82 and has no memory of the atrocity. He grew up thinking he was the son of a heroic lieutenant in the Kaibiles, as the Guatemalan commandos are known. Ramirez came to the United States illegally as a young man. Only in 2011 did he learn from Guatemalan prosecutors that the man he believed to be his father had abducted him and led the massacre in which his mother and eight siblings died.
As a result of the investigation, last year Ramírez met his real father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who survived the rampage because he was in another village. Ramírez has been granted political asylum. He and his father are expected to testify and tell their remarkable story as well as describe the DNA tests that proved they are related and bolstered the evidence against the former commandos.
While Ramírez lived in the shadows as an illegal immigrant, Sosa obtained citizenship in both Canada and the United States thanks to bureaucratic breakdowns and a lack of scrutiny, according to documents and interviews. As the former lieutenant points out, he described his military service in detail – without mentioning Dos Erres – when he requested political asylum in San Francisco in’85 on the grounds that he feared persecution by the guerrillas and the military in Guatemala. U.S. authorities rejected his application, but he promptly went to Canada and gained political asylum there – an official decision that has been questioned by U.S. and Canadian human rights advocates.
Sosa later moved to New York, married a U.S. citizen and obtained permanent residency in’98. He told U.S. immigration officials that he had not served in the Guatemalan military, according to prosecutors, and the officials failed to detect his previous account of his combat experience on his asylum application from’85. That information also slipped by when he obtained citizenship in 2008 in Southern California, where he ran several karate schools, U.S. officials say.
The trial is expected to last two weeks.
– Provided by ProPublica.org