A small mustachioed former Guatemalan soldier told a jury on September 25 testified that he sobbed as he took a 3-year-old boy to be slaughtered in 1982 at a hamlet known as Dos Erres in Guatemala. At the time, Jorge Vinicio Orantes Orantes Sosa was a second lieutenant in Guatemala’s notorious special forces known as the ‘kaibiles’, who have long been accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses committed during the decades-long civil war in the Central American republic that pitted the government against Marxist guerrillas and native peoples.
Orantes Sosa stands charged with lying on his application for U.S. citizenship about his years in the Guatemalan army and his role in the massacre of more than 160 men, women and children in the rainforests of Guatemala’s Petén region. Orantes Sosa sobbed as he told the court that an officer said he was doing “a job for a man.”
Having sought U.S. asylum in 1985, claiming that Guatemalan guerrillas were after him, Orantes Sosa’s claim was denied. He then moved to Canada and later returned to the U.S. and married a U.S. citizen. He then was given permanent alien resident status and eventually U.S. citizenship after filing an application in 2007.
If convicted, Orantes Sosa could face up to 15 years in prison and lose his citizenship and face deportation. Orantes Sosa fled to Mexico in 2010 after authorities searched his home in southern California in 2010. There he boarded a flight to Canada, where he is also a citizen.
Orantes Sosa’s defense attorney Shashi Kewalramani said Orantes Sosa told U.S. officials about his role in the Guatemalan army when he applied for asylum, years before becoming a citizen. Kewalramani admitted that while the war in Guatemala was horrible, his client is merely being tried for the way he answered questions on his immigration forms. Orantes Sosa is not being tried for war crimes, said Kewalramani, committed during a conflict in which thousands of Guatemalans, many of them of Mayan ethnicity, were raped, tortured, killed and dumped in common graves.
Orantes Sosa was extradited from Canada on September 21, 2012, to face prosecutors in Los Angeles this week. Prosecutors say Orantes Sosa’s patrol descended upon Dos Erres in December 1982 to search for firearms believed to have been stolen by Marxist guerrillas. When several of the soldiers raped women in the hamlet, it was decided to kill off the populace.
Speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, Gilberto Jordan, a former Guatemalan army sergeant, testified that the soldiers began throwing people into a well and that Orantes Sosa fired his rifle at the people inside and tossed in a grenade. “The people that were there, half-dead, were all screaming,” Jordan said. “When he threw the grenade the people that were there were quiet because they were killed.” Jordan is currently incarcerated in a federal penitentiary for lying about his role in Guatemala’s civil war on his U.S. naturalization application.
Jordan testified that he took a woman to a well at Dos Erres and shot her in the head before pushing her in. He was about to take a teenage girl to be killed when another soldier stopped him and asked if he was going to rape her. That soldier then took the girl away and later brought her back, bleeding, to the well.
Also testifying was another former Guatemalan soldier, Cesar Franco Ibañez, who said that he was called to a meeting at the village well, and saw it was half full of men, some of them yelling at Orantes Sosa. “They were cursing him,” Franco Ibañez told the court. “At that time, I think he lost his head and he started firing.” Soldiers were ordered to bring more people to the well, said Franco Ibañez, in order to prove their loyalty to the patrol. Franco Ibañez admitted that not only did he rape one woman that day at Dos Erres and watched the rapes of other women, he also threw a woman into the well.
The soldiers demanded to know if the women knew the location of the missing firearms. “They would blindfold their eyes and they would kneel them at the edge of the well,” said Franco Ibañez. “When they would say no, they would hit them over the head with a sledgehammer. Then they would dump them into the well,” he said.
After the killings ended, Franco Ibañez said he was told to keep quiet about what happened. When the country’s civil war ended, he said he came forward with his testimony. Orantes Sosa and Jordán were among four former members of the Guatemalan army arrested by Homeland Security in connection with the Dos Erres massacre. Another participant in the massacre, Pedro Pimentel, was deported from the U.S. and sentenced in Guatemala to 6,060 years in prison. Former Guatemalan soldier Santos Lopez is serving as a material witness in the case against Orantes Sosa.
Guatemala’s special forces, the’kaibiles’, were formed in response to the Marxist insurgency and with initial help from the United States in the 1970s. Known for its training in jungle operations and unconventional warfare, the kaibiles are frequently used as peacekeepers by the United Nations in conflictive areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘Kaibil’ is derived from the name of a hero of the Mayan peoples’ resistance, Kaibil Balam, who fought the Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s.