US rounds up Guatemalans accused of war crimes

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The World

WASHINGTON — U.S. federal agents are today closing in on four former Guatemalan soldiers  accused of taking part in a 1982 massacre, which one law enforcement official called “the most shocking modern-day war crime American authorities have ever investigated.”

One former soldier alleged to have taken part in the massacre of 251 villagers in the rural Guatemalan hamlet of Las Dos Erres is already in custody in Texas. Another former soldier in Florida and two more in California are under active investigation.

Law enforcement officials close to the case acknowledged the four men are part of a probe by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency into immigration violations aimed at rounding up suspects named in a recently revived, landmark human rights case in Guatemala. If found in violation of U.S. immigration laws, the men would likely face deportation to Guatemala and a possible prosecution there for war crimes.

For years these men, who are all accused of serving in a notoriously brutal Guatemalan military unit, have lived in America, blending in to communities in Florida, California and Texas. One is a popular karate teacher. One is a cook. The man in custody is a day laborer who had allegedly abducted and then adopted a boy who was orphaned in the slaughter 28 years ago.

That boy, Ramiro Cristales, who was 5 years old at the time, is now a key witness in the case in Guatemala against the former soldiers and against the man who raised him.

In an exclusive interview with GlobalPost, Cristales, one of only two known survivors of the massacre, saw his entire family murdered. He said he was frustrated it has taken so long for the men to be brought to justice. But he said he hoped U.S. and Guatemalan officials might work together to make that happen.

“They have to do something... The only thing I ask is justice,” said Cristales, who is now hiding in an undisclosed location.

(Read the full interview with Cristales.)

The massacre in Las Dos Erres, where a total of 251 men, women and children were killed, is widely considered one of the darkest chapters of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that claimed some 200,000 lives, and in which the U.S. military played a shadowy role. One month after allegedly raping young girls and women during the massacre, one of the men under investigation, Pedro Pimentel Rios, began work as an instructor at the School of the Americas, the Pentagon-run training school for Latin American militaries, then located in Panama.

(Read about Guatemala's ongoing investigation of the Las Dos Erres massacre.)

The investigations in Guatemala and the United States raise questions as to how the men came to gain entry to America and then make lives here. For Guatemalan human rights activists, they also dredge up the broader history surrounding American military involvement in Latin America in the 1980s, and specifically the U.S. military training provided to soldiers who then carried out attacks on civilians.

Guatemala began investigating the massacre 16 years ago, but the case stalled in the country’s corrupt judicial system. Guatemala has recently renewed its efforts to move forward with prosecutions, but success is far from guaranteed and it's possible the only satisfaction the surviving victims will ever receive is in American courtrooms.

Yet in spite of the horrific accusations against the men, there is very little U.S. prosecutors can use against them.  The man already in custody, Santos Lopez Alonzo, has already pled guilty to illegally entering the country. He was fined $10, sentenced to time served and is due to be deported, where he may face arrest by Guatemalan authorities. The other three men, at least one of whom is a naturalized American citizen, are also suspected by investigators of immigration fraud.

Normally immigration violations carry small penalties. But because of the alleged aggravating circumstances, prosecutors could push for a maximum of 10 years in prison if the two men are charged, tried and found guilty. After that they would likely be deported to Guatemala.

Because the alleged crimes occurred before the passage of war crimes laws in the United States, prosecutors are not legally permitted to charge the men under any of those laws. This limitation in U.S. law has long frustrated federal prosecutors, who have only ever been able to denaturalize and deport even suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States.

U.S. officials began their investigation after the Inter-American Court on Human Rights decided last year that Guatemala’s 1996 amnesty agreement does not apply to serious human rights violations, including the massacre at Las Dos Erres. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice who monitor cases involving foreign-born human rights abusers decided to see if any of the accused killers were living in the United States.

GlobalPost has pored through documents, revisited trial transcripts and acquired U.S. Embassy cables, as well as interviewed witnesses and officials in the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, to chronicle a journey — still uncompleted — toward justice at Las Dos Erres.

The suspects

The massacre in the village of Las Dos Erres has become one of the most notorious from Guatemala’s civil war, which was the longest-running conflict in the Americas in the 20th century and claimed the highest casualty rate. The vast majority of those killed were indigenous Mayan civilians and a U.N.-sponsored truth commission termed the war a genocide.

While some of the alleged killers from Las Dos Erres remained in Guatemala, others appeared to disappear into thin air. They headed north, to what they thought would be safe and comfortable lives in the United States, law enforcement officials say and documents confirm.

The four men under investigation in the U.S. have left varying degrees of public traces of their lives here.

One of the suspects is a well-known karate instructor from Riverside, Calif. Witnesses in Guatemala have told prosecutors there that the man, Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, smashed civilians in the head with a sledgehammer and threw a hand grenade into a well full of living and recently murdered civilians.

Of the four men, Orantes had the highest rank in the Kaibiles, the Guatemalan special forces. He was a second lieutenant. He is also the one of the four who has left the most public traces since his time in the Guatemalan military, largely thanks to his prominence as a karate master. (Orantes appears to have dropped his last name and now goes by Sosa, which may have helped him remain unnoticed in spite of his relatively high public profile.)

Orantes’ father appears to have founded a school of karate in Guatemala named Sosa-Kai. On the organization’s website there is a photograph of father and son wearing what appears to be Japanese robes. “The respect and admiration toward other martial art organizations will be one of our characteristics as a mystical organization, which respects all human beings,” says some of the text on the website. Until recently, Sosa-Kai appears to have been based in Canada, according to the website.

The website also claims that Sosa-Kai has trained the U.S. Marines who guard the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City, as well as various units of the Guatemalan army, including the Presidential Guard.

Orantes appears to have been in the United States as early as 1985, less than two years after he allegedly participated in the massacre at Las Dos Erres. Court records indicate he got married in San Francisco on May 24, 1985. He appears to have then moved to Canada. He married again in 1997 in the Bronx, N.Y., and filed for divorce from his second wife in Riverside County, Calif., in January 2006.

Another suspect is a short-order cook at a restaurant in Florida, echoing his role as combat cook for the unit. His name is Gilberto Jordan, sources and documents confirm. (Update: Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for ICE in Miami, said Jordan was arrested this morning. The criminal complaint charges Jordan with unlawful procurement of citizenship, a law enforcement source said. In other words, the allegation is that Jordan lied about his past to get U.S. citizenship. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison.)

Records show that he lives in Delray Beach, Fla. He was born in 1956 and is a registered Democrat who has voted in primary and general elections since he registered in 1999. He is married to a woman named Maria, who was born in 1959. They own their own three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, which they bought in 2002 for $149,900.

The third man, Rios — the former School of the Americas instructor — lives in a gang-infested neighborhood in Riverside. Witnesses in Guatemala have told prosecutors there that Rios raped young girls during the massacre. The girls were then murdered, according to witnesses.

It is unclear what Rios’ life has been like in the United States

The fourth man is Alonzo, the alleged abductor of the 5-year-old boy Cristales. Alonzo is an illegal alien who worked as a day laborer in Houston, law enforcement sources say. He was arrested by immigration agents on Feb. 22 in a parking lot in Houston, according to court records. Witnesses have told GlobalPost and prosecutors in Guatemala that Alonzo guarded women and children — including Cristales — in one of the village’s two churches before they were passed on to be killed by other soldiers and thrown into the well.

Alonzo’s history of entering the country illegally stretches back to the 1990s, according to court records.

He was first “apprehended on March 24, 1999, in Hidalgo, Texas, by the U.S. Border Patrol, and … charged with being present in the United States without permission,” reads an affidavit written by an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb. 23 of this year. The affidavit notes that Alonzo was deported to Guatemala on June 1, 1999. It is unclear when Alonzo re-entered the United States after that.

U.S. involvement

Human rights groups have long criticized the involvement of the American government and military in Guatemala. The Las Dos Erres case reveals several connections between the two countries.

The U.S. government knew the Guatemalan army was probably responsible for the massacre at Las Dos Erres, yet the School of the Americas began to welcome new instructors and students from the army only days after the killings.

The U.S. government did not know the names of the alleged perpetrators in the immediate aftermath, but it did know about the massacre, according to de-classified cables sent by the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City to the State Department in late 1982 and early 1983, and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Washington-based National Security Archives.

“Reliable embassy source relayed second- and third-hand information on possible GOG [Government of Guatemala] army massacre of 200 villagers of Los [sic] Dos R’s, Peten Department, supposed to have taken place December 12,” reads a cable dated Dec. 28, 1982.

Another cable, dated Dec. 31, 1982, describes three members of the U.S. military flying over Las Dos Erres in a helicopter. “All of the houses in this area were deserted; many had been razed or destroyed by fire,” the cable reads. The cable continues: “The embassy must conclude that the party most likely responsible for this incident is the Guatemalan Army.”

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter had introduced a ban on cooperating with the Guatemalan military. But President Ronald Reagan lifted the ban and the School of the Americas began admitting Guatemalan soldiers, including Rios, one of the alleged perpetrators of the massacre.

Rios’ time at the School of the Americas appears to have been successful. He was given an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service by the then-U.S. Secretary of the Army John Otho Marsh in 1985.

Rios — like the other three men — belonged to an elite commando unit named Los Kaibiles. Kaibiles commanders used to pledge that “The Kaibil is a killing machine.” Cristales, the abducted boy, said Alonzo once told him that everyone in his Kaibil graduating class had to fight and kill a dog with his bare hands, tear out the dog’s heart, eat it, chop up the other innards and drink it with the dog’s blood.

It is not known if the Department of Defense or the U.S. officials who ran the School of the Americas knew that Rios was a Kaibil.

Marsh, the former U.S. Army secretary, was reached by telephone Tuesday at the surveying company where he now works in Winchester, Va., and asked why he had awarded Rios a medal. Marsh told GlobalPost: “I don’t know the facts you’re talking about. Secondly, medals like that are given out all the time, arbitrarily … . Sometimes they make a mistake.” He then hung up the telephone.

The Kaibiles spearheaded the Guatemalan campaign of ethnic cleansing. Human rights groups, law enforcement sources and numerous figures in Guatemala say that the then-president, Efrain Rios Montt, fully supported the blood-letting as he sought to crush anti-government forces in the countryside. Rios Montt is also a graduate of the School of the Americas.

Just as the massacres were intensifying, Reagan re-established military and political cooperation with the Guatemalan government. Reagan saw Rios Montt as a useful ally against leftist guerrillas and maintained friendly relations in the face of evidence that Rios Montt’s government was responsible for increasing numbers of civilian massacres. (In July 1982, Amnesty International published a report listing more than 50 massacres of non-combatant civilians by the military.)

On Dec. 4, 1982, when the massacres in the Guatemalan countryside were fully under way, Reagan met with Rios Montt. Reagan publicly described Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity…[who] wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” Reagan said that Rios Montt had received a “bum rap” from human rights groups.

It was an inauspicious day to make such a show of support. On the same day Reagan spoke, the 17 members of the Kaibiles squad arrived at a military base near Las Dos Erres. On Dec. 7, the massacre started. Over the following two days, the men are alleged to have killed 251 residents of Las Dos Erres. “Everything that moved had to be killed,” one of the soldiers later wrote in a sworn statement.

Last month archaeologists began exhuming the mass grave and DNA testing is now underway to confirm the identities of those killed.

“I lost everything”

The Kaibiles tortured the men first. They then began throwing children alive into the village well. Women were shot or beaten to death with a sledgehammer and then thrown in. Men were then shot and dumped on top. One of the Kaibiles abducted a 5-year-old boy. Another boy escaped. They may be the only surviving witnesses.

Cristales, the abducted boy, told GlobalPost that he had always hated Alonzo, even though Alonzo had saved his life after the massacre. Cristales said the Alonzo family treated him like a virtual slave, forcing him to look after the family’s cows, beating him and even trying to kill him at times. Cristales always knew that Alonzo had taken part in the killing of his biological family. Throughout his stolen childhood, Cristales cherished memories of the family his adoptive father had allegedly helped wipe out.

“I remember my mom,” Cristales said. “She was a very nice-looking woman. She loved animals. She have everything — chickens, roosters, pigs, dogs. My dad, he was like a farmer. They have cows, two horses. I remember when him and my older brothers have to go to the farm and take care of the corn, the beans. We are living from whatever they are growing. From the land. And now I lost my family. I lost the land and I lost everything. I lost everything. Now I start again with my own family. It’s hard because I wish my dad and my mom were still alive, you know, because my question is: how can I explain to my daughter where is my grandma or my grandpa? Now she doesn’t know but when she’s getting old she will ask. What am I supposed to tell her?”

About five years ago Cristales spoke to the man he had to call “father” for the last time on the telephone. Some years earlier Alonzo had told Cristales that if he, Alonzo, were ever arrested and charged in relation to the massacre at Las Dos Erres then Cristales should testify on his behalf.

Now, in this last phone conversation, the boy had one last thing to say to him: “If you have to pay something,” Cristales told Alonzo, “you have to pay.”

A few days ago, Cristales was told that Alonzo was in custody and that at least one more accused killer would likely be arrested in the U.S. Cristales stopped in the parking lot of the restaurant where we was about to eat breakfast. He was calm and expressed some anxiety about the reliability of the Guatemalan justice system. Of the men, he said simply: “I’d like to see them.”

This story was reported by McAllester in New York and Washington and by Larry Kaplow in Guatemala and Washington. It was written by McAllester.

Read about Guatemala's ongoing investigation of the Las Dos Erres massacre.

Read the full interview with Ramiro Cristales.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the first name of Gilberto Jordan.

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