GUATEMALA CITY – A former Guatemalan soldier suspected of helping carry out a massacre of more than 160 people in 1982 during the country's civil war was deported from the United States on Wednesday after a court refused his plea to stay because he fears for his life.
Santos Lopez Alonzo, 64, was flown back and turned over to Guatemalan authorities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.
Lopez served with an elite unit of the Guatemalan army and is one of four suspects in the massacre who were arrested after coming to the United States years later. Two are serving time in American prisons for related immigration crimes and one was deported home and sentenced to more than 6,000 years in prison.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Lopez said he stood guard over women and children during the slayings in the village of Las Dos Erres but killed no one. He said he fears retribution from Guatemalan authorities or other inmates for helping American investigators prosecute one of his former comrades.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be tortured and they're going to kill me in my country, because I gave testimony to a grand jury," Lopez told the AP. "Because I talked about them and everything they did."
More than a dozen former soldiers have faced arrest warrants in Guatemala on allegations of participating in the massacre. It took place at the height of the more than three-decade civil war, which claimed at least 200,000 lives before ending in 1996.
The country's U.S.-backed army was responsible for most of the deaths, according to the findings of an independent truth commission set up to investigate the bloodshed.
In December 1982, a group of soldiers was sent to search for missing weapons in Las Dos Erres and rounded up men, women and children, raping girls and bludgeoning the villagers with a sledgehammer before throwing their bodies into a well.
Lopez said he was a baker in the army and was assigned to stand guard while others carried out the massacre. Soldiers escorted people out and returned empty-handed, he said, telling him only then that the villagers were being killed.
"He who owes nothing, fears nothing. If I had done something, if I had killed, I would be afraid, but I feel clean," he said.
More than a decade later, Guatemala's government opened an investigation and unearthed 162 skeletons. Authorities issued arrest warrants for 17 soldiers, including Lopez, but the cases languished.
After leaving the army, Lopez became a farmer in Guatemala and then went to the United States illegally, working construction jobs in Texas. In 2010, Lopez was arrested and charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a prior deportation order.
Authorities detained him as a material witness in the prosecution of a fellow former soldier who lied about the massacre on his U.S. naturalization forms. Afterward, Lopez tried to fend off deportation, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month to block it.
"The United States is not going to serve as a safe haven for individuals who have committed atrocities overseas," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said. "They may live quiet lives, but they must be held accountable for the activities in which they participated."
Lopez has acknowledged taking a 5-year-old boy from the village, claiming he saved him and raised him as a son.
Ramiro Osorio Cristales has grown up to become a key voice for victims. He received asylum in Canada, testified against some of the soldiers about his memories of the killings and cut ties with Lopez, who Osorio says mistreated him for years.
Efforts to reach Osorio, who previously testified in Guatemala about the abuse allegations, were unsuccessful. Lopez has denied mistreating him.
In U.S. court filings, the Justice Department argued that Lopez kidnapped the boy and prevented villagers from escaping the massacre. While Guatemalan prison conditions can be harsh, department lawyers wrote that Lopez didn't prove he would be tortured by officials if he returned home.
His lawyer, Sarah Vanessa Perez, said Lopez is vulnerable because he cooperated with the U.S. government as a witness.
Guatemalan court findings against a group of former soldiers put Lopez at the massacre but include few details of his involvement beyond taking the boy.
Lopez said he knows the killings were wrong but could not denounce them at the time. Back then, he said the Guatemalan government had complete control.
"Orders are orders, given by the government," he said. "For speaking up, they would have killed me, too."
Taxin reported from Los Angeles.