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Crime & Justice

Update: Ex-Guatemalan soldier sentenced to 10 years in prison; for war survivors, justice and pain

Mario Avila, left, and Eduardo Estrada hold up a banner memorializing Guatemala's wartime
Mario Avila, left, and Eduardo Estrada hold up a banner memorializing Guatemala's wartime "desaparecidos," people who disappeared during the country's 36-year civil war. They and others were planning to caravan to the Riverside sentencing of accused Guatemalan war criminal Jorge Sosa, who was convicted on immigration fraud charges and faces eventual deportation.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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Update: Ex-Guatemalan soldier sentenced to prison for lying

A federal judge in Riverside has sentenced accused Guatemalan war criminal Jorge Sosa to 10 years in prison on charges that he lied when applying for his U.S. citizenship, procuring it illegally.

DOJ spokesman Thom Mrozek confirmed that Sosa, a former Moreno Valley martial arts instructor, had his U.S. citizenship revoked by the judge. This makes him deportable once his sentence is complete, said Mrozek, adding that Sosa would likely be removed via extradition.

"Guatemala has made a formal extradition request," Mrozek said. "They have filed charges against him and they say they want to prosecute him. When it's time to release him from prison, we will go through the extradition process."

Mrozek said it's likely that Sosa will serve about eight years from this point in federal prison, since he's been in U.S. custody for some time already.

Sosa was allegedly one of the soldiers who led a notorious 1982 massacre in Dos Erres, a village where soldiers threw at least 162 men, women and children into the community well. It was one of many brutal incidents that marked Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996.

On Monday, a large group of Guatemalan immigrants drove in a caravan to the federal courthouse in Riverside. Eduardo Estrada is among those who organized the caravan; afterward, he spoke by cell phone from outside the courthouse as his companions recited the names of Guatemala's desaparecidos, the estimated 45,000 people who vanished during the war.

"We're very glad because he received the maximum sentence, which is what we were hoping for," Estrada said in Spanish.

Estrada said the war survivors present were encouraged that the judge mentioned Sosa's war crime allegations, even though his conviction was for immigration fraud. Their hope now is that Sosa faces justice when he's removed to Guatemala in several years.

"We hope that at that time, there will be space for justice in Guatemala," Estrada said. "Because that space has been closing."

Although other ex-soldiers involved in the Dos Erres massacre have been convicted in the last few years in Guatemala, recent events have expatriates worried that the climate may be changing.

Last week, Guatemala's highest court ruled that attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz must step down in May, before the end of her term. Paz y Paz had pushed to prosecute former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, whose genocide case was suspended in April of last year.

Earlier: A group of Guatemalan expatriates gathered in the busy kitchen of a house in Whittier one recent Sunday, over a table laden with refried black beans, fried plantains and other comforts of home.
There was other comfort to be had: the company of fellow survivors, people who fled the atrocities of a civil war that ended almost two decades ago.

Lately, memories of that conflict have resurfaced in Southern California. On Monday, accused Guatemalan war criminal Jorge Sosa is set to be sentenced for immigration fraud in Riverside. He was convicted last fall on charges that he lied about his involvement in the Guatemalan military when he applied for U.S. citizenship. Sosa could eventually be deported to face trial for his alleged role in a brutal massacre in 1982, during the height of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

The notoriety surrounding Sosa's trial, along with the recent trials of other accused war criminals, has had a twofold effect on survivors who are haunted by memories of wartime violence but don't want the world to forget.
“Memory is very complex, and it's difficult – you can carry it," said Mario Avila, a one-time union organizer in Guatemala who fled in the early 1980s, after twice being kidnapped and tortured. "It’s like putting part of your life in a backpack. But that backpack, you can pick it back up when the moment returns, and it still weighs just as much."
The former refugees meeting in Avila's Whittier home had drawn together lately around Sosa's trial, making plans to caravan to the federal courthouse in Riverside Monday morning for the sentencing and hold vigil there. Some planned to dressed in black.

Araceli Garrido said what they want is for the world to remember the massacres, kidnappings and other crimes that occurred during the war, which ended in 1996 and left an estimated 200,000 dead, about 45,000 of them people who vanished and were never seen again.
“For many years, no, I couldn't talk, simply because no, I couldn't," said Garrido, who lost many friends and family members during the war. "You speak and the images reappear – the memory of the laughter of my friends, a hug from a family member, a farewell."
Garrido considers herself a survivor of genocide. She lost 14 members of her family, along with several friends who were student activists, as she was then. Most simply disappeared – she believes they were murdered.

"I keep thinking, in any case, it's not something you can forget," Garrido said. "For me, to forget its like betraying them."
These survivors say they're glad to see at least some justice. Several other former soldiers involved in the same massacre Sosa is implicated in - which essentially wiped out the village of Dos Erres - have been convicted in Guatemala in recent years. One of them is Pedro Pimentel Rios, who lived in Southern California and was deported in 2011.

But the trials have also dredged up wartime memories they’ve long kept buried. There are things Mario Avila still has trouble talking about. Like the torture he endured the second time he was kidnapped by pro-government paramilitaries, along with a close friend.
“It's very terrible, what happened to us," Avila said. "At one moment when they left us alone, he said to me, 'I want to die, I want them to kill me.' ”
After three months, their captors released them. A month later, Avila's friend took his own life. The memory still makes him choke up.

"He didn’t hold up," Avila said. "And this is something that’s very difficult for me. It’s always present with me."

Still, Avila was the lucky one in his family. His older brother was also kidnapped - and was never heard from again.

These are the kinds of scars that thousands of Guatemalan immigrants live with, said Brinton Lykes, a psychology professor at Boston College who has worked with Guatemalan war survivors, in the U.S. and in Guatemala.
“When these events take place…when they watch the horrific atrocities that are committed against their family members, against their neighbors, against themselves, they are in a state of having suffered some of the worse abuses that we as human beings can do to each other," Lykes said. "And very, very often, there is a deep silence that people move into.”
Lykes said this extends to expatriate communities, where people silently carry their trauma even as they’ve built new lives. And in this sense, the fact that renewed attention on the war is getting people to talk about what they experienced is a positive thing.
"That is a part of recovery," said Lykes, who has worked on storytelling projects in Guatemala to help survivors of violence process their trauma. "The psychological process is often about being able to remember what happened to you, and being able to somehow integrate it some into who you are.”
While rehashing the war is painful, refugees like Garrido, Avila and others said it's their duty as survivors to honor the memory of those who lost their lives.

"I think that the they, the disappeared, our dead – they'll remain present in this world when we remember them, when we talk about them, when we can say their names, and tell the stories of what happened to them," Garrido said. "It’s a very heavy load, but it’s also a commitment.”