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In 1982, a special forces unit of the Guatemalan army, known as the Kaibiles, invaded the community of Las Dos Erres and murdered over 200 civilians. The operation was particularly brutal and carried out systematically over three days. Many citizens were killed with a sledgehammer and small children were thrown into a well after being murdered. Of the town's entire population, only two children survived. The massacre was part of a deliberate "scorched earth" campaign implemented by Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
In January 2011, Jorge Sosa Orantes was arrested in Lethbridge, Alberta. An indictment in the United States alleges that Sosa Orantes participated in the Dos Erres massacre and charges him with lying on citizenship forms about his role with the Guatemalan military. The U.S. government requested that Canada detain Sosa Orantes for extradition to the United States to stand trial. Sosa apparently lived in Alberta several years ago and has also lived in California. He holds both Canadian and U.S. citizenship.
Guatemala has also indicted Sosa but on more serious charges concerning the human rights abuses he allegedly committed. Guatemala formally asked Canada for his extradition. Spain, which has been investigating events in Guatemala for many years, has also issued an arrest warrant but did not seek Sosa’s extradition. (The U.S.-based Center for Justice & Accountability is lead counsel in the Spanish case. Information about the prosecution in Spain is available on CJA's website.)
The Guatemalan extradition request came on the heels of a ground-breaking prosecution there. On August 3, 2011, a court in Guatemala City convicted four men for their participation in the Dos Erres massacre and sentenced each of them to over 6000 years in prison. The result marked the first time any soldiers have been held accountable in Guatemala for their roles in the many massacres carried out by that country’s Army during almost four decades. Former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has now also been indicted for the Dos Erres massacre.
One of the key witnesses in that trial was Ramiro Osorio Cristales. He was a child when the military murdered his entire family and he is one of the only survivors of the Dos Erres massacre. After coming to Canada several years ago as part of a witness protection program, Ramiro is now a Canadian citizen.
In a letter to the Ministers of Justice and Foreign Affairs, CCIJ and Lawyers Without Borders Canada called on the Canadian government to investigate whether Sosa Orantes was responsible for war crimes. Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, which implements the principle of "universal jurisdiction," allowed his prosecution here even though the crimes occurred in Guatemala. He also could have been sent to Guatemala. There is concern that if he does not return to Guatemala for many years there may no longer be the political will for justice. In a second letter to the Minister of Justice and in a press conference in Calgary, CCIJ and Lawyers Without Borders Canada again called for a criminal investigation in Canada. Ramiro, along with Guatemalan lawyer Edgar Perez, who represents the families of the victims, joined the call for a Canadian prosecution.
The U.S. charges do not attempt to hold Sosa accountable for crimes against humanity or war crimes. The U.S. government seeks only to try Sosa for lying in his citizenship application. The maximum sentence for such a crime is an insufficient ten years in prison.
Nonetheless, in September 2011, the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench ruled that the requirements had been met for Sosa to be extradited to the United States. Sosa appealed that decision but lost. The Canadian Minister of Justice ordered that Sosa be surrendered to the United States. On September 21, 2012, Canada extradited Sosa to the United States.
Sosa went on trial in Riverside, California on September 24, 2013. He was charged with two counts: making a false statement in a naturalization matter and unlawful procurement of naturalization. The U.S. government charged that Sosa lied in response to three questions when applying for U.S. citizenship. First, he said he had never committed a crime; second, when asked about memberships in groups, he did not disclose his service in the Guatemalan military; and third, he had lied in an earlier immigration application when he denied any foreign military service. Although the U.S. trial included evidence about Sosa’s alleged participation in the Dos Erres massacre, he was not charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity. CCIJ's client, Ramiro Osorio, testified for the prosecution.
After less than a day, the jury returned a guilty verdict on both counts, finding that Sosa had made false statements in response to all three of the questions. A hearing will be held December 9 to determine his sentence.
CCIJ and Lawyers Without Borders Canada monitored the trial. Summaries of the proceedings are available on the CCIJ website (in English) and the LWBC website (in Spanish and French). We are very grateful to the volunteers who monitored the trial and wrote summaries: Stephanie Lincoln, Jessica Eby, Giselle Chang, Siobhan Coley-Amin, Jillian Chou, Saba Basria, Ruoyu Li, Joseph Bini and Leah Gasser-Ordaz. We would also like to thank the law schools at UCLA, USC, UC-Irvine and Chapman University for their help.
The Guatemalan prosecutions in the Dos Erres case were given a boost by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. A groundbreaking decision in 2009 by the Court found that the government of Guatemala, despite having accepted responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre, had not complied with its duties to provide justice. The Court ordered Guatemala to take several specific measures to meet its obligations. The Court took on the case based on a 2008 referral from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The referral cites testimony by a member of the Kaibiles that Sosa Orantes was involved in the meeting to plan the Dos Erres operation:
In the first days of December they brought all of us in the patrol of kaibiles together, and they told us what it was that we had to do in "Las Dos Erres." The meeting included Lt. Rivera Martínez, Lt. Adán Rosales Batres, Second Lt. Sosa Orantes, and the other one, Lt. Ramírez, nicknamed "Cocorico." At the meeting they explained to us that they had orders to go to the hamlet of "Las Dos Erres," which was a conflictive zone, and that we had to go to destroy the village, everything that moved had to be killed.
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