Relatives pray alongside the caskets of loved ones massacred in the 1980s… (Cesar Perez / AFP/Getty…)
When Carlos de Graca Lopes took over as director of Sao Martinho Prison in Cape Verde in 2001, he arrived with a warning for inmates: He had one hand made of velvet and another made of iron. Grab the velvet hand and be rewarded. Grab the iron hand and face the consequences.
Over the next five years, Lopes ruled with his iron hand, according to a government indictment filed against him in Cape Verde. More than 150 times, the indictment alleges, he ordered or executed the beating and torture of prisoners, including spraying them in the face with water so they could not breathe and handcuffing them to an iron bar for weeks.
In 2006, despite a government order that Lopes remain in the island country off Africa's Atlantic coast while under investigation, he was granted a tourist visa to the United States, where he quickly disappeared.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of people like Lopes in the U.S., alleged human rights and war crimes violators who managed to emigrate to this country, often with legal authorization. Although federal immigration officials have long sought to find and deport such offenders, efforts to prevent their entry and punish violators has grown in the last few years.
In 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, made up of historians, investigators and legal experts whose job it is to identify and track human rights violators and war criminals around the world.
Their work has led to several high-profile arrests, among them a Moreno Valley martial arts instructor and a Santa Ana maintenance man who are accused of massacring at least 160 men, women and children during the Guatemalan civil war; a Georgia man who was allegedly part of a Serbian paramilitary group that killed thousands during the Bosnian war; and a Chicago-area grocery store worker wanted in Rwanda on charges of genocide and war crimes.
Nearly 10 years ago, Amnesty International issued a report calling the U.S. a haven for torturers and identifying more than 1,000 suspected human rights violators living in the country. At the time, federal officials invested little in resources to track them down, the rights group said. But Homeland Security and Justice Department officials, who for years had focused on deporting Nazi war criminals, were looking to expand their efforts to include alleged offenders from Central America, Bosnia, Rwanda and other countries.
Over the next few years, arrests mounted and the Justice Department launched its own unit with a similar objective to ICE's war crimes center.
"As we began to be successful, we got more resources, more bodies," said ICE Unit Chief Tom Annello. "We went from being just a program that had oversight over this to one that was more proactive and engaged."
The ICE center now has about 28 full-time employees, including attorneys, researchers and analysts. They use declassified U.S. government documents and other data to identify possible culprits. The compiled names, which so far include more than 3,000 people suspected of human rights violations, are then shared with U.S. agents and officials tasked with approving visas.
Vienna Colucci, a senior policy advisor at Amnesty International who worked on the 2002 report, said that the U.S. has made progress but that dealing with the problem through immigration "isn't ideal." Preventing a person from entering the country or deporting them without handing them over to a court, "doesn't help to stop atrocities," she said. "You're sending back somene who is a severe abuser to those countries where they were committing those crimes."
The U.S., she said, needs to be more willing to use criminal prosecution at home.
Over the years, Congress has adopted laws aimed at allowing the prosecution of torture and human rights abuses committed abroad, a move applauded by human rights groups.
But the laws cover only atrocities committed after the laws were adopted, or sometimes only apply to U.S. citizens or members of the military. So far only one person, Chuckie Taylor, the son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, has been successfully prosecuted. Taylor was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 97 years in federal prison.
More often, officials said, they settle for lesser charges that can later result in deportation.
"We'll go after them for visa fraud, perjury, jaywalking. We don't care," Annello said.
Even minor charges can require extensive investigation, often including traveling to the alleged violator's home country, interviewing witnesses and gathering documents to present in court.
Special Agent Brian Andersen, who worked on the Lopes case, has traveled to Rwanda, Liberia and elsewhere in Africa to investigate alleged war crimes. Andersen, a onetime social studies teacher who got into law enforcement in the late 1990s, said he's been deeply moved by the work.