RIVERSIDE, Calif. – After just a few hours of deliberations, a California jury convicted a former Guatemalan army officer of lying about his role in the massacre of at least 160 people more than 30 years ago on a U.S. citizenship application.
The federal jury found Jorge Sosa guilty Tuesday of making false statements and obtaining citizenship unlawfully. The 55-year-old former second lieutenant could face both a prison sentence and loss of his U.S. citizenship when he's sentenced Dec. 9.
The verdict followed a five-day trial that brought haunting testimony from Guatemala's 36-year civil war to a present-day courtroom in Riverside County, where Sosa previously lived and taught martial arts. While Sosa is not charged with war crimes, the case included accounts from former soldiers about how they brought men, women and children to the well in the village of Dos Erres to be killed, their bodies dumped inside.
"It was a significant case for our office, and I believe justice was done today," assistant U.S. attorney Jeannie Joseph said after the verdict was read.
Sosa listened to the verdict through a Spanish interpreter and appeared to take notes, as he did for much of the trial, without visible reaction.
His lawyer, Shashi Kewalramani, said Sosa would appeal.
"They were clearly swayed by what happened in Dos Erres, as any person would be," Kewalramani said of the jury. "It's difficult to divorce yourself from the background that's here."
Prosecutors said Sosa was a member of a special forces patrol that went to Dos Erres in December 1982 to search for weapons believed stolen by guerrillas. The weapons were never found and prosecutors say the patrol decided to kill the villagers after some of the soldiers began raping the women.
More than two decades later, Sosa failed to mention his military service or role in the massacre on his application to become an American citizen even though the paperwork inquired about affiliations and past crimes, prosecutors said.
Kewalramani said authorities knew Sosa was in the military because he told them about his service when he unsuccessfully sought asylum in 1985, and referred to this application when he later sought to naturalize. He said the case is about how Sosa, as a former soldier, answered the questions on his immigration forms, not the atrocities of war, which ought to be addressed in Guatemala.
During the trial, two former soldiers testified they saw Sosa standing near the well in Dos Erres 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 survivors of the massacre recounted the horror of watching soldiers bash small children into a tree and toss their bodies into the well and seeing his mother yanked from the family as she pleaded for her life.
Another survivor, Oscar Ramirez, was in court Tuesday to listen to the verdict. Ramirez's mother and eight siblings were massacred in Dos Erres, and he was taken from the village as a toddler by a soldier and raised by the soldier's family.
"The most important thing is they're doing justice for the victims," said Ramirez, who only learned two years ago through DNA testing that his family had been killed.
Sosa left Guatemala in 1985 and sought asylum in the United States, claiming he was fleeing Guatemalan guerrillas. When he was denied, he went to Canada, where he became a citizen. He later married an American and got a green card, and applied to naturalize in 2007.
Sosa is one of four former soldiers allegedly involved in the Dos Erres massacre who have been arrested by U.S. Homeland Security officials. One of them is serving time for lying on his naturalization application about the killings while another has been held as a material witness in the case against Sosa.
A fourth was deported from the U.S. and prosecuted in Guatemala. He is one of five former members of the special forces who have been sentenced there to more than 6,000 years in prison for the killings.
Guatemalan authorities say they hope Sosa will be extradited to face similar charges.
In 1994, Guatemala opened an investigation into the Dos Erres massacre, and several years later, authorities issued arrest warrants for more than a dozen former soldiers. But the cases languished until the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2009 ordered Guatemala to prosecute the perpetrators of the killings.
The following year, the U.S. — which had supported Guatemala's military governments during the country's civil war — arrested three former soldiers and searched Sosa's home before he left for Mexico and later Canada. He was arrested there and extradited to the U.S. last year.