A federal jury in Riverside, Calif., has issued a guilty verdict that will send a Canadian citizen and alleged Guatemalan war criminal to prison — but not for war crimes.
Jorge Sosa Orantes, 55, formerly of Lethbridge, Alta., faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment for making false statements on a 2008 application for U.S. citizenship.
He is to be sentenced on Dec. 9.
Sosa, who lived in Canada and acquired citizenship in this country before moving to California in 2007, fled the United States for Alberta in June 2010, when it became clear U.S. federal authorities were preparing for his arrest.
Seven months later, acting on an extradition request, the Lethbridge Regional Police detained the former Guatemalan army officer. He was sent back to the United States last September.
Now Sosa will either serve out his sentence in a U.S. prison or be returned to Guatemala, where he is wanted for his alleged involvement in the infamous Dos Erres massacre, possibly the most notorious atrocity committed during that country’s long and bloody civil war of the 1980s and 1990s.
In all, some 200,000 people were killed during the conflict, most of them impoverished Mayan Indians in highland villages.
“I am aware that Guatemala does have an arrest warrant against him,” said Matt Eisenbrandt, legal director of the Canadian Centre for International Justice, who has monitored the case closely. He was unsure if Guatemala would seek Sosa’s extradition. “I don’t know whether the U.S. government would entertain that.”
In December 1982, while a lieutenant in a special-forces unit of the Guatemalan army called the Kaibiles, Sosa is alleged to have shared responsibility for unleashing a brutal massacre in the village of Dos Erres in northern Guatemala, where the unit had gone ostensibly to look for illegal weapons.
“During the course of (their) interrogations, the special patrol proceeded to systematically kill the men, women and children at Dos Erres by, among other methods, hitting them in the head with a sledgehammer and throwing them into a well,” said the Orange County federal grand jury indictment handed down against Sosa in September 2010. “Members of the special patrol also forcibly raped many of the women and girls at Dos Erres before killing them.”
As many as 250 people were slain in the massacre. Just two villagers survived, including Ramiro Cristales, who was 5 years old at the time and who watched as his parents and seven siblings were killed.
Cristales was spirited away by one of the soldiers, to be raised by the soldier’s family. In 1999, then in his 20s, Cristales moved to Canada under a witness protection program and testified against Sosa last week as the final witness for the prosecution.
He was travelling on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
In August 2011, a court in Guatemala City convicted four other men for their role in the massacre at Dos Erres, said to be the first time Guatemalan soldiers have been held to account for crimes committed during the war. Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt now faces trial for the part he may have played in the Dos Erres massacre, among other alleged war crimes.
Sosa fled Guatemala in 1985, seeking asylum in the United States. When that was denied, he moved to Canada, where he acquired citizenship. Later, after marrying an American woman, he returned to the United States and gained U.S. citizenship but only after failing to disclose information about his military career in Guatemala.
Source: Oakland Ross, Toronto Star, 1 October, 2013