A 53-year-old California martial arts instructor, Jorge Sosa Orantes, faces charges of crimes against humanity in Spain.
A Spanish judge, Santiago Pedraz, has issued an international arrest warrant seeking the extradition of Sosa, a former Guatemalan soldier suspected of involvement in a brutal 1982 massacre in the village of Dos Erres during Guatemala's civil war, a court official said Monday.
The more-than-three-decade civil war in Guatemala claimed at least 200,000 lives before it ended in 1996. The U.S.-backed army was responsible for most of the deaths, according to the findings of a truth commission set up to investigate the bloodshed.
Sosa, who holds U.S. and Canadian citizenship, was arrested in the Canadian province of Alberta and has been in custody there since January, charged by the U.S. of lying about his role in Guatemala's war when he applied for American citizenship in 2008. He lived for many years in Southern California, working as a martial arts instructor.
In Guatemala, Sosa was allegedly a member of a special military unit known as the "kaibiles" and helped command a unit assigned to track down suspected guerrillas who had stolen military weapons, according to court papers filed in Santa Ana, California.
In December 1982, Sosa and several dozen soldiers stormed the village of Dos Erres, searched homes for missing weapons and systematically killed men, women and children, according to the documents. Soldiers bludgeoned villagers with a sledgehammer, threw them down a well, and raped women and girls before killing them, court papers say.
The Spanish court official said the arrest order was issued Friday via Interpol, and that Pedraz made it as part of an investigation into allegations made by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu in Spain in a 1999 lawsuit.
That lawsuit focused on the disappearance of eight Spanish priests in Guatemala and an attack on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala in 1980 during which Menchu's father and more than 30 others died.
The former soldier's arrest in Canada has revived hopes of bringing the case to trial for survivors of Guatemala's war, after many gave up on their own sluggish court system, said Almudena Bernabeu, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability, which is lead counsel on the case.
"They want a trial. They want the opportunity to testify," Bernabeu said. "They gave up the possibility of getting this kind of justice in their own country, at home, at least for now, but they have understood for years the importance of efforts that come from abroad."
Sosa is the ninth suspect sought by the Spanish National Court since Menchu filed the suit. To date, none have appeared in court because Guatemala refused to extradite the other eight suspects, according to the Center for Justice and Accountability.
Sosa's charges include genocide, rape and extrajudicial killing, according to the center. If convicted of the charges, he could face 30 years in a Spanish prison, the organization said.
The Dos Erres massacre is just one of the attacks covered by the case in Spain, which alleges that Guatemala's armed forces launched a systemic campaign in the early 1980s to round up and kill Mayan peasants who they believed were allies of communist-inspired guerrillas fighting the military government.
The case was brought in Spain under the concept of universal jurisdiction, the idea that crimes such as torture and genocide are so heinous they can be prosecuted here, if the government of the country where those crimes were allegedly committed fails to probe them. Such cases have been brought in Spain against former Chilean dictator August Pinochet and Osama bin Laden.
A message was left for Sosa's lawyer in Canada, Alain Hepner, but it was not possible to reach him by telephone.
It is unclear whether Sosa would be extradited to Spain or to the United States, where he was indicted by a federal grand jury in September on naturalization fraud. Sosa is also wanted in Guatemala, and some human rights advocates have been pushing for Canada to keep him there and charge him with crimes against humanity.
Derrick Pieters, a spokesman with Canada's Department of Justice, declined to comment on the case. A telephone message was left for U.S. prosecutors seeking comment.
Three other former kaibiles suspected of involvement in the Dos Erres massacre were arrested by U.S. authorities last year on alleged immigration violations. Former soldier Gilberto Jordan was sentenced in September in Florida to 10 years in prison for lying on his citizenship forms about his military service and his role in the killings.
Former military instructor Pedro Pimentel Rios is fighting U.S. efforts to deport him to Guatemala, and former soldier Santos Lopez Alonzo, who said he guarded a school in Dos Erres where women and children were held before they were taken to be killed, is being held as a material witness in the other cases, court papers show.
The U.S. arrests came several months after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the massacre and sanction those who had delayed justice.
Guatemala opened an investigation into the killings in 1994 and unearthed 162 skeletons. Authorities later issued arrest warrants for 17 kaibiles, including Sosa, but for years the cases languished, according to filings with the Inter-American Court.
This report is based on the Associated Press.