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Janitor's secret past: a death squad

A former Salvadoran army officer convicted of killing priests is arrested in L.A. as a human rights violator.

October 26, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos was a decorated, American-trained officer in the Salvadoran army.

But for the last year, the 43-year-old toiled as a janitor at a West Los Angeles-area motel, a man with a secret who was always looking over his shoulder, his girlfriend said.

His clandestine existence came to an end Wednesday, when federal authorities announced that they had arrested him as an illegal immigrant who was a human rights violator.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Guevara Cerritos was one of nine Salvadoran officers and soldiers implicated in one of the most notorious massacres in El Salvador's history: the 1989 death squad murders of six Jesuit priests whom some in the army viewed as subversives.

A sublieutenant with the Atlacatl Battalion during El Salvador's war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a leftist guerrilla group, Guevara Cerritos was convicted for his role in the slayings.

In 1993, he received a pardon as part of a general amnesty that was granted after the country's 12-year civil war.

His girlfriend, Eusebia Mejia, 45, said Guevara Cerritos could never escape the shadow of the massacre and fled to the United States in hopes of a new start.

But when he arrived in Los Angeles -- home to more than 250,000 Salvadorans -- he quickly realized he would not find peace. Fearing that someone would recognize him on the streets of Los Angeles, he kept his head down and rarely went out.

"He was a real homebody," said Mejia, of Watts, who has lived in L.A. for 11 years and met Guevara Cerritos after he arrived in the city. "For him, it was from home to work, and from work to home. And every Sunday to church."

But the strategy apparently didn't work: Federal authorities said it was a tip from the public that put them on Guevara Cerritos' trail.

He was taken into custody Oct. 19 as part of an effort by U.S. immigration agents to catch and deport human rights violators.

"We will not allow the United States to be a place of refuge for aliens seeking to escape a violent criminal past," said Robert Schoch, a special agent for the federal immigration office in Los Angeles.

In 2003, the agency formed a unit to investigate individuals who were involved in crimes such as genocide, war crimes and persecution.

Guevara Cerritos' arrest resonated among Los Angeles' Salvadorans, many of whom fled human rights abuses during the civil war.

"This goes to show that no one escapes God's justice," said Aquiles Magana of Carecen, an El Salvadoran immigrant rights organization.

The priests' murders created a worldwide furor in part because Guevara Cerritos and the other assailants had received training from the U.S. government, taking courses at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Ga.

The bloodshed occurred before dawn, Nov. 16, 1989, at the rectory of El Salvador's Jesuit-run University of Central America. All but one of the priests were in nightclothes and slippers when they were shot. A dormitory cook and her teenage daughter also were killed.

Salvadoran courts ultimately ruled that Guevara Cerritos did not fire any of the fatal shots, but found that he was part of the conspiracy. He was convicted of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism and placed under house arrest for two years.

When the amnesty set him and many other army officials free, Mejia said, his life didn't get easy.

She said Guevara Cerritos lived in fear that someone would eventually seek revenge in El Salvador. Every year, the priests' killings were re-created in his hometown of San Salvador and soldiers involved in the incident were burned in effigy.

"He didn't come to the U.S. to hide from justice. He came for asylum, trying to seek refuge," said his attorney, Fernando Romo. "He said he was always looking behind his back, always concerned people would recognize him. Now he's definitely worried they're going to send him back."

Guevara Cerritos is being held at a detention facility in Lancaster pending a deportation hearing.

Romo said Guevara Cerritos' training as a lieutenant in the Salvadoran army helped him cross the rugged Arizona desert last year with the help of a coyote.

Mejia said the U.S. government is wrong about Guevara Cerritos. Rather than being a human rights abuser, she described him as a loving father figure to her children and a gentle, God-fearing man.

"He was a good man," she said.

His attorney also disputed the government contention that a tip led them to Guevara Cerritos.

He says his client was trying to seek asylum and that someone in the government matched his name using the Internet and informed immigration officials, who declined to provide details about the tip.

Other Salvadorans are less sympathetic to Guevara Cerritos' plight.

"He probably thought that by coming to the U.S., things would be better," said Carlos Vaquerano, a Salvadoran activist who said he lost three brothers to the death squads. "He probably thought he could escape his past. That nobody would notice him."

Vaquerano said it was not unheard of for people who were involved in the paramilitary squads to come to the U.S.

Some even became active in churches, he added, "as a way of getting forgiveness."

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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