RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — Former Guatemalan soldier Jorge Sosa was a member of a special force suspected of killing at least 160 people in a remote village more than three decades ago.
In an American court on Monday, the 55-year-old will be sentenced to up to a decade in prison for lying on his U.S. citizenship papers about his alleged role in the slayings.
Federal prosecutors are seeking the maximum prison sentence for the former second lieutenant for failing to disclose his alleged participation in the murders in the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres when he applied to naturalize and are asking a judge strip him of his American citizenship. Sosa's lawyer says his client's lies did not harm anyone, so he should serve no more than a year in prison.
The government is pursuing the sentence in light of "the horrific nature of the human rights offenses that defendant concealed in order to obtain naturalization," prosecutors wrote in a sentencing brief.
Sosa's trial last year on charges of making false statements and illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship brought harrowing testimony to the federal courthouse in Riverside from former comrades and a man who survived the onslaught in Dos Erres as a young boy and recounted watching soldiers take his mother to be killed as she pleaded for her life. Sosa was convicted by a federal jury after a few hours of deliberations.
The case is one of several efforts to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators of the 1982 massacre. In Guatemala, five former soldiers each have been sentenced to more than 6,000 years in prison for the killings, while a former soldier was sentenced to a decade in an American prison for lying on his citizenship forms in a case similar to Sosa's.
At least 200,000 people were killed during Guatemala's 36-year-civil war, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups seeking to wipe out a left-wing uprising.
Sosa's lawyer argues that his client, who obtained asylum in Canada and later married an American and moved to the U.S., should face no more than a year in prison for what essentially amounts to a fraud conviction. Sosa, a father of two, taught martial-arts classes for years in Southern California's Riverside County as a law abiding member of society and was not on trial for war crimes, the lawyer said.
"The government is seeking a backdoor way to enforce Guatemalan law," defense attorney Shashi Kewalramani wrote in his sentencing memorandum. "This is not the appropriate forum to punish Mr. Sosa for his alleged conduct in Guatemala, where he has not been tried."
Kewalramani is also asking U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips to dismiss the case, arguing that prosecutors failed to disclose information in a report by another government attorney that labeled one of the soldiers who testified against Sosa a liar. The government contends that discrepancies in the testimony of former soldier Cesar Franco Ibanez do not mean he is lying, and it was the jury's job to determine his credibility.
The Dos Erres massacre took place during the height of the conflict that ravaged Guatemala until 1996. The U.S. supported Guatemala's military governments during the war.
On Monday, a group of Guatemalan immigrants plans to travel from Los Angeles to the courthouse in Riverside to remember the victims of the massacre.
Another Guatemalan immigrant, Oscar Ramirez, plans to travel from Massachusetts to speak at the sentencing hearing. Ramirez's life was spared as a toddler during the Dos Erres massacre, and he was sent to live with the family of one of the soldiers who helped kill his mother and eight brothers and sisters.
Ramirez only learned a few years ago through DNA testing that his family was massacred.