Former Guatemalan soldier Jorge Sosa, who is accused of wartime atrocities in his native country, is on trial in Riverside County. He faces up to 15 years in a U.S. prison – but not for his alleged crimes during Guatemala's civil war in the 1980's.
Sosa stands accused of making false statements on his U.S. citizenship application. His case is an example of how U.S. authorities use immigration fraud as a tool to bring suspected foreign war criminals to justice.
Prosecutors say that during Guatemalas’s civil war, Sosa was a officer in an elite Guatemalan army unit - and that he and fellow soldiers raped and murdered hundreds of people in the village of Dos Erres. More than 200 civilians were brutally killed there during a military attack in 1982, many of them women and children who were bludgeoned and thrown down a well.
Sosa made it to the United States a few years later. After a failed attempt at asylum he moved to Canada, but eventually moved back, marrying an American, becoming a U.S. citizen and settling in Moreno Valley.
It's the application that he filled out to become a citizen that could land him in prison, stripped of his citizenship - and eventually on a plane back to Guatemala. Sosa faces charges that he withheld information about his role in the Guatemalan military when he applied. He has denied the charge, saying he provided the information during his original asylum bid.
Reviewing immigration paperwork has proven to be a valuable strategy in getting suspected foreign war criminals into court, federal officials say.
Mark Furtado of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that while some suspected war criminals enter the country illegally, most tend to file immigration paperwork, as they try to blend in with other refugees entering the country after a war or political crisis.
“They will change their story to make it seem as though they were the ones being persecuted by the government, versus that they were the persecutors," said Furtado, who heads the ICE Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit. "So a lot of times when we start looking at these underlying immigration applications, we will see false statements on those applications.”
Furtado says his unit is one of three within the federal government dedicated to tracking down suspected war criminals who enter the United States. It's a practice that goes back to the aftermath of World War II, when the Department of Justice was charged with finding and removing Nazi war criminals.
Lately, the focus has shifted to people accused of crimes in more recent conflicts, in places such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Rwanda, and other nations. Furtado's team acts on original research, tips from foreign organizations and sometimes information they have received from immigrant communities here in the U.S.
When U.S. authorities learn that a suspected war criminal may be in the country, they track down and scrutinize their records. Since 2010, close to 20 people accused of war crimes or human rights violations in their native countries have either been deported, extradited, or convicted of immigration fraud in the U.S., according to the agency.
While there are laws allowing people to be tried in the U.S. for certain war crimes committed abroad, there are time limitations on the statutes; for example, foreign nationals accused of genocide must have committed the crime after December 22, 2007.
More often, the lesser charge of immigration fraud is applied after officials look over visa, citizenship or other applications. It takes more work to deport those who have become naturalized citizens, but an immigration fraud conviction is a step in that direction.
“If someone is a U.S. citizen now," Furtado said, "and they lied upon their entry documents, they lied to gain their citizenship, then what we want to do is expose them and take away that status if it was illegally obtained, and bring them back to the point that if we can remove them from the United States, then that is what we will do.”
Four ex-soldiers implicated in the Dos Erres massacre are known to have come to the United States. Sosa and another, Gilberto Jordan, became U.S. citizens. Three years ago, Jordan was found guilty of fraudulently obtaining his U.S. citizenship. His citizenship was stripped, and he faces deportation once his sentence is complete.
He's now testifying in Sosa's trial, as is another ex-soldier who re-entered illegally after being deported. A fourth, Pedro Pimentel Rios, was not a citizen and was arrested by agents in Orange County in 2009. He was eventually deported to Guatemala, where he was tried and sentenced to more than 6000 years in prison – 30 years for each victim.
A trial on an accused war criminal’s native soil is an ideal end goal, but it doesn't always happen, Furtado says. Kelsey Alford-Jones, executive director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission's Washington, D.C. office, says this is why a U.S. conviction - even on a lesser immigration fraud charge - is valuable.
“In the case of a place like Guatemala, where historically there have been very high levels of impunity, doing anything to increase accountability for the crimes committed, I think, is positive," Alford-Jones said.
In the Dos Erres case, a few other ex-soldiers have been convicted in Guatemala. Seeing even a few suspected war criminals face justice – in the U.S. and back home – comes as a relief to Marvyn Perez, a Guatemalan immigrant who lives in Van Nuys.
Back when he was a teenager in 1982, Perez was arrested by police in Guatemala City. He says he was held for nearly two weeks and tortured by waterboarding and other methods.
“For us, for the Guatemalans, specifically those of us who survived, it is very important because we feel there is an opportunity within the justice system, inside Guatemala and outside of Guatemala," Perez said. "It brings hope to us.”
Closing arguments in Sosa's trial are expected Monday.
This story has been updated.