RIVERSIDE, Calif. – A federal prosecutor on Tuesday said a former member of an elite Guatemalan military force helped command the massacre of more than 160 people during the country's civil war and lied about it on his application to become an American citizen.
But a lawyer for 55-year-old Jorge Sosa told jurors his client was not on trial in the United States for what happened years ago in Guatemala but rather over the way he filled out his immigration forms more than two decades after he left the Central American country.
The case against Sosa, who is an American citizen, is bringing memories of Guatemala's bloody 36-year-old civil war to center stage in a courtroom some 60 miles east of Los Angeles. About 200,000 people were killed during the war, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.
In opening statements of what is expected to be an eight-day trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannie Joseph told jurors that Sosa was part of a patrol that descended upon the village of Dos Erres searching for stolen weapons in 1982 and decided to kill all of its residents after some of the soldiers began raping the women and children.
The villagers were taken to a well and hit over the head with a sledgehammer before being thrown inside. When one of the villagers cried out, Sosa fired his rifle and threw a grenade inside, Joseph said.
Year later, she said Sosa failed to disclose his actions and membership in the Guatemalan military when he applied to become an American citizen.
"The government will present an overwhelming amount of evidence establishing the crimes the defendant committed at Dos Erres while a member of the Guatemalan military," Joseph told the court. "The government will show the defendant obtained citizenship by lying on his application and during his naturalization interview."
But defense attorney Shashi Kewalramani said Sosa told U.S. officials about his role in the Guatemalan army when he applied for asylum here in 1985. He was denied and ended up moving to Canada. He later returned to the U.S. and married an American, obtaining a green card and eventually citizenship after filing an application in 2007.
And while some of the evidence presented in the case will be horrible, so is war, Kewalramani said. And that's not what this case is about, he said.
"It's not a war crimes tribunal. We're not here to decide that," he told jurors. "It's 'did he lie?'"
Sosa, who previously lived in Riverside County, is charged in the U.S. with making a false statement and obtaining naturalization unlawfully. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison and lose his American citizenship.
Sosa is one of four former members of the Guatemalan army arrested by U.S. officials in connection with the Dos Erres massacre. Gilberto Jordan, took the stand in the government's case against Sosa late Tuesday, recalling how he went to Dos Erres that day prepared to search for the missing weapons and combat guerrillas.
The testimony of Jordan, who is currently serving time in federal prison for lying on his U.S. naturalization application about his role in Dos Erres, will resume Wednesday.
Pedro Pimentel, was deported from the U.S. and sentenced in Guatemala to 6,060 years in prison for the massacre. The fourth, Santos Lopez, is detained as a material witness in the government's case against Sosa, according to court documents.