RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A former Guatemalan soldier charged with lying on his citizenship application about his alleged role in an army-led massacre three decades ago was on the run from his past and sought refuge in the U.S., a federal prosecutor said on Monday.
But a defense lawyer suggested that former special forces officer Jorge Sosa answered the questions on his naturalization form as most soldiers would and urged jurors in a California courtroom to focus their attention on the papers he filed, not the horrific accounts of the killings.
The arguments came after four days of graphic testimony in Sosa's trial on charges of making false statements and obtaining American citizenship unlawfully. If convicted, the 55-year-old former second lieutenant could face up to 15 years in federal prison and lose his American citizenship.
Prosecutors say Sosa was a member of a special forces patrol that surrounded the village of Dos Erres in a search for weapons believed stolen by guerrillas. The weapons were never found and prosecutors say the patrol decided to kill the villagers, throwing their bodies into a well, after some of the soldiers began raping the women.
More than two decades later, Sosa failed to mention his military service or role in the massacre on his application to become an American citizen, even though the paperwork inquires about affiliations and past crimes, prosecutors said.
"This man was one of the officers, one of the leaders of a team that transformed a rifle recovery mission into a mindless massacre," Brian Skaret, a trial attorney for the Department of Justice, told jurors in federal court in Riverside County, where Sosa previously lived and taught martial arts classes. "We're not here to prosecute him for what he did that day at the well. In fact, we wouldn't have a thing to do with this except that he ran. He ran from his past, he sought safe haven in our country."
Sosa's lawyer, Shashi Kewalramani, said the government knew Sosa was in the military because he told officials about his service when he unsuccessfully sought asylum in 1985, and he referred to that application when he later sought to naturalize. He said prosecutors failed to provide evidence that Sosa was aware when he applied to become an American that his fellow former soldiers were being tried for the massacre in Guatemala.
Kewalramani pleaded with jurors not to let the testimony by a massacre survivor pull at their "heart strings."
"There's an avenue where the Guatemalan people can get justice for what happened. This is not it," he said. "What's this case really about? It's an ex-soldier's answers on an immigration form."
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 the courtroom in Riverside. During the proceedings, Sosa listened to a Spanish translation of the testimony through headphones and appeared to take notes.
Jurors received the case on Monday.
Last week, two former soldiers testified they saw Sosa standing near a well where they were ordered to bring villagers to be killed and that he fired his rifle at the screaming, dying 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. He also described seeing his mother yanked from the family as she begged 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.
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. 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.