RIVERSIDE, California (AP) — A former Guatemalan soldier suspected of helping to carry out a massacre during the country’s civil war is facing trial in the United States on charges of lying on his application to become an American citizen.
Federal prosecutors hope to strip 55-year-old Jorge Sosa of his U.S. citizenship, arguing he failed to disclose his participation in the brutal killings in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres in 1982. Opening statements could begin late Tuesday.
Sosa is one of four former Guatemalan special forces soldiers arrested by the U.S. in connection with the massacre that killed more than 200 people: one was deported, one is serving time for lying on his naturalization form and another is being held as a material witness in Sosa’s case.
Sosa, who was arrested in Canada and extradited last year, has said he was not in the village during the killings.
While Sosa is not charged with war crimes in the U.S., the trial in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, is expected to include testimony from his former comrades during Guatemala’s 36-year-old war and survivors of the massacre. About 200,000 people were killed during the war, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.
Federal prosecutors say Sosa was one of the commanders of a special patrol that descended upon the tiny village on Dec. 7, 1982, after the military suffered an ambush. Men, women and children were bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, their bodies falling into a well. Sosa fired a rifle and threw a grenade into the well to kill any victims who were still alive, according to federal court filings.
Sosa sought asylum in the U.S. after fleeing Guatemala in 1985 and was denied, heading to Canada instead. He later obtained a green card granting permanent residency status after marrying a U.S. citizen, and applied to naturalize in 2007.
Sosa, who previously lived in Riverside County, said in a letter that he disclosed his membership in the Guatemalan military when he sought asylum in the U.S. His lawyer, Shashi Kewalramani, said the case isn’t about what happened in Guatemala but whether his client knew he was accused of a crime when he applied to become an American.
If convicted of making a false statement and procuring naturalization unlawfully, Sosa also could face up to 15 years in prison.
Guatemalan authorities say they will seek to have Sosa extradited to face charges for crimes against humanity.
Other soldiers accused in the Dos Erres killings have faced prison time in the U.S. and Guatemala. Former special forces soldier Gilberto Jordan was sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in a U.S. prison for lying on his American citizenship application about his role in the massacre. Former soldier Pedro Pimentel, who was deported from the U.S., was sentenced in Guatemala to 6,060 years for the killings.