RIVERSIDE, California (AP) — A former Guatemalan soldier was convicted Tuesday of lying on his application to become an American citizen about his role in the massacre of at least 160 people more than three decades ago.
A federal court jury found former Guatemalan army officer Jorge Sosa guilty of making false statements and obtaining citizenship unlawfully. The 55-year-old former second lieutenant could face both a prison sentence and loss of his U.S. citizenship when he is sentenced.
Prosecutors said Sosa was a member of a special forces patrol that went to the village of Dos Erres in December 1982 on a search for weapons believed stolen by guerrillas. The weapons were never found and prosecutors say the patrol decided to kill the villagers, throwing their bodies into a well, after some of the soldiers began raping the women.
More than two decades later, Sosa failed to mention his military service or role in the massacre on his application to become an American citizen even though the paperwork inquired about affiliations and past crimes, prosecutors said.
Sosa’s lawyer, Shashi Kewalramani, said authorities knew Sosa was in the military because he told them about his service when he unsuccessfully sought asylum in 1985, and referred to this application when he later sought to naturalize. He said prosecutors failed to prove Sosa knew other former soldiers were being tried in Guatemala for the killings in Dos Erres.
While not a war crimes trial, the case brought haunting accounts of the 36-year long civil war that claimed 200,000 lives in Guatemala to the courtroom in Riverside County, where Sosa previously lived and taught martial arts classes.
During the trial, two former soldiers testified they saw Sosa standing near the well in Dos Erres where they were ordered to bring villagers to be killed and that he fired his rifle at the screaming, dying victims inside. One of the few survivors of the massacre recounted the horror of watching soldiers bash small children into a tree and toss their bodies into the well and seeing his mother yanked from the family as she pleaded for her life.
Sosa listened to a Spanish translation of the testimony through headphones and appeared to take notes.
Sosa left Guatemala in 1985 and sought asylum in the United States, claiming he was fleeing Guatemalan guerrillas. When he was denied, he went to Canada, where he became a citizen. He later married an American and got a green card, and applied to naturalize in 2007.
Sosa is one of four former soldiers allegedly involved in the Dos Erres massacre who have been arrested by U.S. homeland security officials. One of them is serving time for lying on his naturalization application about the killings while another has been held as a material witness in the case against Sosa.
A fourth was deported from the U.S. and prosecuted in Guatemala. He is one of five former members of the special forces who have been sentenced there to more than 6,000 years in prison for the killings.
Guatemalan authorities say they hope Sosa will be extradited to face similar charges.
In 1994, Guatemala opened an investigation into the Dos Erres massacre and several years later authorities issued arrest warrants for more than a dozen former soldiers. But the cases languished until the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2009 ordered Guatemala to prosecute the perpetrators of the killings.
The following year, the U.S. — which had supported Guatemala’s military governments during the country’s civil war — arrested three former soldiers and searched Sosa’s home before he left for Mexico and later Canada. He was arrested there and extradited to the U.S. last year.