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Canadians arrest Moreno Valley man in connection with 1982 massacre

U.S. Justice Department officials seek extradition in the killing in Guatemala of more than 150 civilians, including children.

January 25, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Martial arts instructor Jorge Sosa is held in Canada.
Martial arts instructor Jorge Sosa is held in Canada.

A Moreno Valley martial arts instructor suspected of belonging to the Guatemalan military unit that killed more than 150 civilians, including children, in the country's infamous Dos Erres massacre in 1982 has been arrested on immigration fraud charges after fleeing from federal authorities last year.

Jorge Sosa, 52, was arrested by Canadian authorities last week while visiting his parents near Calgary, and Justice Department officials are seeking his extradition back to California. Sosa holds both Canadian and U.S. citizenship.

Sosa is accused of concealing his foreign military service and of lying under oath when he said he had never committed any crime or offense when he applied for U.S. citizenship in March 2008, authorities said.

If convicted, Sosa could be sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in federal prison and would be stripped of his U.S. citizenship and deported, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Authorities said that Sosa, also known as Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, was a commander in a special forces unit known as the Kaibiles, which interrogated and then killed men, women and children while searching their Guatemalan village for guerrilla fighters who had ambushed a military convoy.

"During the course of these interrogations, the special patrol proceeded to systematically kill the men, women, and children at Dos Erres by, among other methods, hitting them in the head with a sledgehammer and throwing them into a well,'' according to an Orange County federal grand jury indictment handed down Sept. 1. "Members of the special patrol also forcibly raped many of the women and girls at Dos Erres before killing them.''

Skeletal remains of about 150 people were later found in the village well, according to federal officials.

Sosa's 25-year-old daughter, Christina Sosa, said the federal government is using her father as a political scapegoat for the atrocity while the man who allegedly ordered the killings — Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, a former president known for his "scorched earth" campaign against the rebels — still serves in Guatemala's Congress.

"Other people are paying for his wrongdoing,'' she said. "Everybody has been portraying my father as this monster. They haven't even heard his side of the story. The fact is, he was just a young soldier when this happened.''

Her father never spoke of the killings at Dos Erres, a small village near Las Cruces, and the family was shocked to hear that he had been implicated in the massacre, she said.

The Sosa family fled to California in the mid-1980s after being threatened by the government and other parties in the country's bloody civil war, according to his daughter, who wanted the name of her hometown withheld because she fears for her family's safety.

"My family started speaking out. They did not like everything that was going on. They did not support the government,'' she said. "My dad was in the military…. It just wasn't safe for us to be there.''

Federal authorities searched Sosa's Moreno Valley home in May, and they suspect he fled the country in June, Mrozek said.

He was taken into custody by the Lethbridge Regional Police on Jan. 18. Mrozek said. Returning Sosa to California could take months unless Sosa agrees to waive his right for an extradition hearing, he said.

Sosa has not decided whether to fight extradition back to the U.S., his daughter said.

Another member of the military unit, Gilberto Jordan of South Florida, was sentenced in September to 10 years in prison for unlawfully procuring his U.S. citizenship by lying about his role in the Dos Erres massacre. Pedro Pimentel-Rios of Santa Ana, identified as a third member of the military unit,, was taken into custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and is awaiting a deportation hearing.

Jordan reportedly admitted to federal officials that he threw a baby down a well and killed other residents of the village. According to U.S. authorities, more than 150 were killed in the massacre, but some estimates place the death toll closer to 250.

"It is regarded as one of the most atrocious atrocities during the conflict,'' said Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organization. "Many small children and infants were beaten against walls and trees. Many women were raped.''

The soldiers surrounded the village, preventing anyone from escaping, and searched every home for weapons. They separated the men from the women and children, then systematically started killing the villagers, according to the indictment against Sosa.

An official with the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington declined to comment about the case but said that the Guatemalan government is investigating the atrocity and has filed charges against some members of the military unit, and that judicial proceedings are pending. As an elected member of the Guatemalan Congress, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt is immune from prosecution, the official said.

In 2009, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the legal arm of the Organization of American States, condemned the Guatemalan government for failing to investigate the 1982 massacre and punish the soldiers responsible.

The court, which is based in Costa Rica, ordered the Guatemalan government to pay $3.2 million in reparations to those who survived and to the relatives of those killed. They also ordered the Guatemalan government to identify the officials who ordered the massacre.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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