RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A former Guatemalan soldier testified in a U.S. courtroom Wednesday that he saw one of his officers fire a rifle and throw a grenade inside a well to silence the screams of dying victims in a massacre carried out by the army three decades ago.
The witness, Gilberto Jordan, said he saw then-2nd Lt. Jorge Sosa standing near a well in the village of Dos Erres after they had been given an order to kill everyone there while on a mission for a special forces unit of the army in 1982.
Federal prosecutors contend that Sosa helped command the massacre and lied about it on his application to become a U.S. citizen. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison and lose his citizenship.
Speaking in Spanish through a translator, Jordan sobbed as he told the courtroom that as he took a small boy to the well to be killed, Sosa told him it was “a job for a man.”
Sosa, who was superior in rank to Jordan but not the most senior officer there, later shot into the well and threw in a grenade as people were screaming from within, according to the witness.
“The people that were there half dead were all screaming,” said Jordan, adding the killing went on all day. “When he threw the grenade the people that were there were quiet because they were killed.”
The killing of 160 men, women and children in the midst of the Central American nation’s bloody 36-year-old civil war is now central to the case being heard in Riverside County, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. About 200,000 people were killed during the war, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.
In opening statements Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannie Joseph told jurors that Sosa was part of a patrol that descended upon Dos Erres searching for stolen weapons and decided to kill all of its residents after some of the soldiers began raping the women and children.
The villagers were taken to a well and hit over the head with a sledgehammer before being thrown inside. When one of the villagers cried out, Sosa fired his rifle and threw a grenade inside, Joseph said.
Sosa sought U.S. asylum in 1985, claiming that Guatemalan guerrillas were after him. The asylum was denied and he ended up moving to Canada. He later returned to the U.S, married an American, got a green card and eventually citizenship after filing an application in 2007.
Prosecutors claim that the former Riverside County resident concealed his involvement with the Guatemalan military and the massacre when he was asked, during the citizenship application process, about his previous affiliations and whether he’d ever committed a crime. He’s charged with making a false statement and obtaining naturalization unlawfully.
“The government will present an overwhelming amount of evidence establishing the crimes the defendant committed at Dos Erres while a member of the Guatemalan military,” Joseph told the court. “The government will show the defendant obtained citizenship by lying on his application and during his naturalization interview.”
But defense attorney Shashi Kewalramani said Sosa told U.S. officials about his role in the Guatemalan army when he applied for asylum in 1985.
And while some of the evidence presented in the case will be horrible, so is war, Kewalramani said — and that’s not what the case is about.
“It’s not a war crimes tribunal. We’re not here to decide that,” he told jurors. “It’s ‘Did he lie?’”
Sosa is one of four former members of the Guatemalan army arrested by U.S. officials in connection with the Dos Erres massacre.
Jordan, the witness in the government’s case against Sosa, is currently serving time in federal prison for lying on his U.S. naturalization application about his role in Dos Erres.
Pedro Pimentel was deported from the U.S. and sentenced in Guatemala to 6,060 years in prison for the massacre. The fourth, Santos Lopez, is detained as a material witness in the government’s case against Sosa, according to court documents.