RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A federal jury in California was set to debate Tuesday whether a former Guatemalan soldier lied on his U.S. citizenship application about his alleged role in an army-led massacre there three decades ago.
The jury received the case of former special forces officer Jorge Sosa on Monday afternoon, after prosecutors said in closing arguments that Sosa was on the run from his violent past when he sought refuge in the United States.
"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."
If convicted of making false statements and obtaining American citizenship unlawfully, the 55-year-old Sosa could face 15 years in federal prison and lose his American citizenship.
But defense lawyer Shashi Kewalramani suggested Sosa answered the questions on his naturalization form as most soldiers would and urged jurors to focus on the papers he filed, not the horrific accounts of the killings they heard in four days of graphic testimony during the trial.
Kewalramani said jurors shouldn't let the testimony of a massacre survivor pull at their "heart strings."
"There's an avenue where the Guatemalan people can get justice for what happened," he said. "This is not it."
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, prosecutors said. The weapons were never found the patrol decided to kill the villagers, throwing their bodies into a well, after some of the soldiers began raping the women, prosecutors said.
More than two decades later, Sosa failed to mention his military service or role in the massacre on his citizenship application, even though the paperwork asks about affiliations and past crimes, prosecutors said.
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 prove Sosa was aware his fellow former soldiers were being tried at the time for the massacre in Guatemala.
While not a war crimes trial, the case has brought to the Riverside courtroom haunting memories of the 36-year long civil war that claimed 200,000 lives in Guatemala. Sosa listened to a Spanish translation of the testimony through headphones and appeared to take notes.
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 U.S. asylum, claiming he was fleeing Guatemalan guerrillas. When he was denied, he went to Canada and became a citizen. He later married an American, got a green card and applied to naturalize in 2007.
Sosa is one of four former soldiers allegedly involved in the massacre who have been arrested by U.S. homeland security officials. One is serving time for lying on his own naturalization application about the killings. Another has been held as a material witness against Sosa.
A fourth was deported and became one of five former members of the special forces sentenced to prison in Guatemala for the killings.
Guatemalan authorities say they hope Sosa will be extradited to face similar charges.