A federal court sentenced an ex-Guatemalan Army officer to 10 years in prison Monday, after it was discovered that while obtaining U.S. citizenship he hid his involvement in the massacre of a Guatemalan village.
The judge also stripped Jorge Vinicio Sosa, 55, of his citizenship.
Sosa had lived in east Los Angeles where he worked as a martial arts instructor until his past was discovered. In October, a jury found him guilty of immigration crimes for concealing his role in the Dos Erres massacre. In 1982 the Guatemalan army entered the small village Dos Erres, in the north of the country, and killed more than 250 people over the course of three days.
Sosa was convicted of lying on his naturalization application in 2007, a crime that often carries a minor penalty. Considering Sosa’s bloody past, U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips gave him the maximum sentence of 10 years.
The killings are considered one of the most brutal atrocities that occurred during the country’s 36-year civil war. Sosa led a squad of 40 men, who arrived in the village looking for stolen arms but then massacred the civilians, according to prosecutors.
During the trial, survivals recalled in gory details the way soldiers tortured and assassinated villagers.
The Associated Press described one gruesome scene:
SOLDIERS HIT VICTIMS ON THE HEAD WITH A SLEDGEHAMMER OR SHOT THEM BEFORE TOSSING THEIR BODIES INTO THE VILLAGE WELL, TWO OF SOSA’S FELLOW FORMER SOLDIERS TESTIFIED DURING HIS TRIAL. WHEN VICTIMS SCREAMED FROM INSIDE THE WELL, SOSA FIRED HIS WEAPON AT THEM, ONE OF THE WITNESSES SAID.
ProPublica said the U.S. Justice and Homeland Security Departments have been cracking down Dos Erres fugitives through the country’s immigration laws. The nonprofit publication profiled the journey of one of the witnesses of the Dos Erres killings as he prepared for trial.
Investigations by the department allowed the government to go after Sosa and other suspects, according to ProPublica:
Former sergeant Gilberto Jordán also received the maximum 10-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2010 and confessing his role in the massacre. Jordán testified against Sosa in the trial last year in Riverside, [California,] describing how the lieutenant oversaw the systematic extermination of villagers, encouraged him to throw a small boy to his death into the village well, and fired his gun into the well piled with living and dead victims.
U.S. authorities deported another suspect to Guatemala, where he was convicted of the massacre. Deportation proceedings are pending against a fourth suspect in Southern California.
At least 200,000 people were killed during the civil war that ended in 1996. The majority of the killings were committed by forces with ties to the then-government, which was attempting to decimate a left-wing rebellion.
In 2011, a Guatemalan court sentenced four former military officers to more than 6,000 years in prison for their roles in Dos Erres. But under current president Otto Pérez Molina, the country has done little to punish the perpetrators of the war crimes. Human rights organizations feel Guatemala’s aggressive attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz is being forced out by the current administration and private powers.
The New York Times wrote last week that the country’s highest court ruled that Paz y Paz must step down in May, seven months before her four-year term was to end. The decision has been roundly condemned by human rights organizations.
Paz y Paz’s work led to the prosecution of former dictator Ríos Montt, who was president during the Dos Erres massacre. He was found guilty last May of crimes against humanity and genocide, but a Constitutional Court later threw out the conviction. A new trial likely remains a year away for the 87-year-old Montt.
The AFP contributed to this report