RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The soldiers were told it was a job for men: They were to bring the residents of a small Guatemalan village to a well where they would be killed and their bodies dumped inside.
Three decades later, two of the soldiers brought their horrific accounts of the killings in the village of Dos Erres to an American courtroom where Guatemalan army officer Jorge Sosa is on trial. He’s charged with lying on his U.S. citizenship application about his military service and his role in the massacre.
A former sergeant, Cesar Franco Ibanez, recalled for jurors Thursday through an interpreter what one of the commanding officers of the special forces unit sent to Dos Erres yelled at him as he took a woman to her death.
The officer said the task “was only for men,” Franco Ibanez, who is living outside Guatemala as a protected witness, said in Spanish.
The remarks echoed testimony a day earlier by another former sergeant, Gilberto Jordan. After soldiers were ordered to kill everyone in the village, Jordan took a boy who was about 3 years old, the same age as his son, and sobbed as he walked toward the well, Jordan recalled for the court.
A sergeant approached him and told him not to cry because he would also wind up in the well if he did, Jordan said. He said Sosa, who was a second lieutenant, told him it was “a job for a man” and he threw the child inside.
While Sosa is not on trial for war crimes, the testimony of the two former soldiers has brought Guatemala’s civil war to the present for jurors in Riverside. Sosa, who previously lived in Riverside County, is charged with making false statements and obtaining citizenship unlawfully by allegedly omitting information about his army service and participation in the killings.
If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison and lose his citizenship.
But defense attorney Shashi Kewalramani said Sosa’s military service was no secret to U.S. officials since he told them about his role in the army when he applied for asylum years before he became a citizen — information that was held in his immigration file.
He cautioned jurors that Sosa is only on trial for the way he answered questions on his immigration paperwork — not for the atrocities of war.
About 200,000 people were killed during the civil war that ended in Guatemala in 1996, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.
Prosecutors say Sosa’s patrol went to Dos Erres in December 1982 to search for missing rifles believed stolen by guerrillas, then decided to kill the villagers after some of the soldiers began raping the women. At least 160 people were killed.
In 1985, Sosa left the country and sought asylum in the U.S., claiming that Guatemalan guerrillas were after him. His application was denied and he ended up moving to Canada, where he became a citizen. Sosa later returned to the U.S., married an American, got a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship after filing an application in 2007.
After authorities searched his Southern California home in 2010, Sosa headed to Mexico and boarded a flight to Canada. He was arrested there and extradited last year to the United States.
In the trial in Riverside, Jordan recalled for the court through a Spanish interpreter how Sosa fired his rifle and threw a grenade at villagers from Dos Erres who screamed from within the well.
“The people that were there, half-dead, were all screaming,” said Jordan, who is serving time in a U.S. prison for lying on his naturalization papers about his role in the war. “When he threw the grenade the people that were there were quiet because they were killed.”
Jordan also testified that he took a woman to the well and shot her in the back of the head before pushing her inside, and started taking a teenage girl to be killed when another soldier stopped him and asked if he was going to rape her. When he answered no, the soldier took the girl away and later brought her back, bleeding, to the well, he said.
Franco Ibanez testified that he raped a woman that day, and that he watched women being killed.
“They would blindfold their eyes and they would kneel them at the edge of the well,” he said, adding that the women were asked if they knew where the missing rifles were. “When they would say no, they would hit them over the head with a sledgehammer. Then they would dump them into the well.”
Sosa and Jordan are among four former members of the Guatemalan army arrested by U.S. homeland security officials in connection with the Dos Erres massacre.
Pedro Pimentel was deported from the U.S. and sentenced in Guatemala to 6,060 years in prison for the massacre. Santos Lopez is detained as a material witness in the government’s case against Sosa.