by Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
Published February 10, 2014
A United States federal judge sentenced a former Guatemalan Army officer to the maximum 10 years in prison Monday for immigration crimes, ruling that the ex-commando obtained U.S. citizenship by concealing his role in the massacre of 250 men, women and children in a Guatemalan village in 1982.
Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, 55, in recent years had worked as a karate instructor in the desert suburbs east of Los Angeles. In October, a jury convicted the former lieutenant of unlawful procurement of naturalization and making false statements on immigration forms when he concealed his service in the Guatemalan military and asserted that he had never committed a crime.
Although immigration fraud usually results in minimal prison time, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips agreed with prosecutors that the case was extraordinary. Sosa’s actions as a commander of the squad that carried out the slaughter in the jungle hamlet of Dos Erres — one of the worst atrocities in the recent history of the hemisphere — called for harsh punishment, the judge said.
“She said the sentence was appropriate because of the seriousness and criminality of the conduct that lay behind his lies,” said lawyer R. Scott Greathead, who attended the hearing in Riverside, Calif., along with his client, Oscar Rámirez Castaneda, a survivor of the massacre.
Before the sentencing, the judge heard a victim statement from Rámirez, a restaurant worker and father of four from Framingham, Mass., whose odyssey since the event has been chronicled by ProPublica and elevated the international profile of the Sosa case.
The 34-year-old Rámirez told the judge he was only 3 when the commando squad killed his mother and eight siblings during the rampage. Rámirez lived because he was abducted by another lieutenant, whose family raised him.
Rámirez migrated to the Boston area as a young man and did not learn his true identity until 2011, when Guatemalan prosecutors tracked him down and used DNA tests to reunite him with his real father, who was not in Dos Erres on the day of the attack. As a result of the case, the U.S. government granted political asylum to Rámirez, who was an illegal immigrant.
“Because I was so young, I do not remember the terrible things that happened during the massacre, and I have no memory of my mother and sisters and brothers,” Rámirez said in court. “Along with killing my family, Mr. Sosa and the Guatemalan soldiers he led took the memory of my family away from me.”
“I ask you to consider the pain and terrible suffering that Mr. Sosa and the Guatemalan soldiers he led caused to my mother and my sisters and brothers, and to all the people of Dos Erres,” Rámirez said. “I ask you to consider the pain of my father’s life in the 32 years since he learned that his wife and children were murdered.”
Rámirez also urged the judge to consider political conditions in Guatemala that could impede efforts to bring accused war criminals to justice. The Dos Erres case remains the only massacre in Guatemala’s bloody, 30-year civil war in which military men have been convicted.
Guatemalan courts have handed down long prison sentences to five soldiers in the case. But seven other suspects from the squad of Kaibiles, as Guatemala’s elite commandos are known, remain at large in a country where accused war criminals are often protected by corrupt military officers and organized crime. Those fugitives include two lieutenants who were senior to Sosa in the squad.
The government of President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general and veteran of the civil war, has shown waning enthusiasm for pursuing atrocities of the past, according to Guatemalan and U.S. human rights activists. The government criticized the prosecution of former dictator Ríos Monttfor genocide and crimes against humanity, and Montt’s conviction was nullified last year, as Rámirez noted in court.
Critics of the government say powerful figures are trying to pressure the reformist attorney general to step down before her term ends in November.
“Claudia Paz y Paz, the courageous attorney general who prosecuted the five Guatemalan soldiers for the crimes they committed at Dos Erres and ex-General Ríos Montt for genocide, will be required to leave office before the end of 2014,” Rámirez said. “Many predict that her replacement will decide to stop the prosecutions of ex-soldiers for these crimes. If Mr. Sosa is given only the minimum sentence that he seeks and then is allowed to return to Guatemala, he may escape prosecution.”
Judge Phillips also stripped Sosa of his U.S. citizenship. He faces deportation after his prison term ends, and Guatemala recently requested his extradition, according to Greathead.
“Oscar is happy it’s over,” Greathead said of Rámirez. “I think he feels very good about having made a statement that the judge heard and that is now in the public record. He feels justice was done.”
Sosa did not testify during his trial, but on Monday he gave a long statement in which he declared his innocence and said the truth had not come out in court.
The conviction of Sosa resulted from a crackdown by the U.S. Justice Department and Homeland Security Investigations, which have used immigration laws to pursue Dos Erres fugitives who migrated to the United States.
Former sergeant Gilberto Jordán also received the maximum 10-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2010 and confessing his role in the massacre. Jordán testified against Sosa in the trial last year in Riverside, describing how the lieutenant oversaw the systematic extermination of villagers, encouraged him to throw a small boy to his death into the village well, and fired his gun into the well piled with living and dead victims.
U.S. authorities deported another suspect to Guatemala, where he was convicted of the massacre. Deportation proceedings are pending against a fourth suspect in Southern California.
Unlike Jordán, Sosa showed no remorse. In an interview with ProPublica before the trial, he denied being in Dos Erres the day of the slaughter. His lawyer did not repeat that defense during the trial.
Before the sentencing, the judge rejected a defense motion to throw out the conviction on grounds that another former commando, a protected witness living in an undisclosed location, had given false testimony.
Sosa’s lawyer, H.H. Kewalramani, asked for a prison sentence of no more than one year. He argued that Sosa had already spent more than three years in prison since his arrest in Canada, where he fled after federal agents searched his home.
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Lawyers Without Borders press release on the Canadian detention of Sosa Orentes
Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala, on F&O, Dispatches
Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Neil Wittmann’s ruling (pdf)