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Sebastian Rotella: In U.S. Trial of Massacre Suspect, a Rare Chance for Guatemalan Justice

September 26, 2013

Following the federal trial of a former military officer from Guatemala’s 1982 civil war.

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Image from Flickr via State Library and Archives of Florida

By Sebastian Rotella
By arrangement with ProPublica

If convicted in the trial in federal court in Riverside, he faces a prison sentence of ten years.

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 1982.

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 ten 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. The witnesses against Sosa are expected to include as many as four fellow ex-commandos and Ramiro Osorio. Osorio survived the massacre as a five-year-old and was abducted and raised by a commando, Santos Lopez Alonso. Osario now lives in Canada and has testified in other prosecutions in the United States and Guatemala.

Prosecutors had also intended to use the testimony of Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, who survived the massacre at age three and was abducted like Osorio. Ramirez 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. He and his lawyer had met with investigators and prosecutors in recent months to prepare him as a witness against Sosa.

As the result of a judge’s ruling last week, however, Ramirez will not testify in Riverside after all, according to his lawyer, Scott Greathead. Greathead said Tuesday that prosecutors recently informed him that U.S. District Court Judge Virginia A. Phillips had upheld a defense motion seeking to prevent Ramirez’ testimony. Greathead said he did not know the grounds for the ruling. Because Ramirez was too young to remember the massacre, he would not be able to provide eyewitness testimony.

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.

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 Dos Erres on Dec. 7, 1982, 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, Gilberto Jordan, admitted to his role in the massacre and pleaded guilty to immigration charges in Florida in 2010; he is serving ten years in prison. Investigators found another ex-commando living illegally in California and deported him to Guatemala, where he was convicted in the massacre.

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.

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 twenty 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, Cesar Franco Ibañez and Fabio Pinzon, who live in an undisclosed country as protected witnesses, also will testify in Sosa’s trial. In addition, the witness list read in court Tuesday include Jordan, the ex-sergeant imprisoned in Florida, suggesting he may have agreed to testify against Sosa as well.

Ramírez, the younger Dos Erres survivor, 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. His father is expected to travel from Guatemala to testify about the DNA tests that proved he and Ramírez are related. Those test results 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 1985 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 1998. 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 1985. 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.

An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, Sebastian Rotella worked for almost 23 years for the Los Angeles Times, covering everything from terrorism to arts to the Mexican border. He served most recently as a national security correspondent in Washington, D.C., and his previous posts include international investigative correspondent and bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires, with assignments in the Middle East and North Africa. He is the author of two books: Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border, which was named a New York Times Notable Book in 1998; and the novel, Triple Crossing, published by Little, Brown/Mulholland Books in August, 2011.

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