Riverside, Calif. – Four days of graphic testimony about a gruesome 1982 massacre wrapped up the trial of a former Guatemalan soldier charged with lying about the killings on his citizenship.
Closing arguments are expected Monday in the case brought by federal prosecutors against former special forces officer Jorge Sosa for allegedly failing to disclose his military service and role in the massacre of at least 160 people in the village of Dos Erres during the height of Guatemala's civil war.
If convicted, the 55-year-old former second lieutenant could face up to 15 years in federal prison and lose his American citizenship.
While not a war crimes trial, the case has brought haunting memories of the 36-year long civil war that claimed 200,000 lives in Guatemala to a present day courtroom in Riverside County, where Sosa previously lived and taught karate classes.
Prosecutors say Sosa was a member of a special forces patrol that surrounded 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 all the villagers after some of the soldiers began raping the women.
More than two decades later, Sosa failed to mention his military service or role in Dos Erres on his application to become an American citizen even though the paperwork inquires about affiliations and past crimes, prosecutors said.
Sosa's lawyer Shashi Kewalramani says the government knew Sosa was in the military because he told officials about his service when he unsuccessfully sought asylum in 1985, and referred to this application when he later sought to naturalize.
During the trial, two former soldiers testified they saw Sosa standing near the well where they were ordered to bring villagers to be killed and that he fired his rifle at the screaming, half-dead 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 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.
He is charged with making false statements and obtaining American citizenship unlawfully.
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.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.