A former Guatemalan special forces officer convicted of failing to disclose on immigration documents his part in a massacre during the country's civil war was sentenced Monday to 10 years in federal prison and will be stripped of his U.S. citizenship.
Prosecutors said Jorge Sosa — who was living in Moreno Valley, working as a martial arts instructor — was able to become a citizen because he did not mention his affiliation with the elite unit known as the Kaibiles, and specifically his part in the mass slaughter of villagers in Dos Erres, where women were raped and at least 160 unarmed residents killed.
At the end of the prison term, the maximum allowed, Sosa, 55, is expected to be sent back to Guatemala. In 2012, Sosa was extradited from Canada, where he also holds citizenship.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeannie Joseph said the sentence "sends a message of deterrence" to those trying to hide criminal pasts from seeking haven in the U.S.
The charges against Sosa did not directly address allegations of war crimes for his part in the massacre. But during the trial, prosecutors explored what happened in that village in December 1982 because they had to prove the "crime within a crime," Joseph said.
During the trial in U.S. District Court in Riverside, prosecutors said Sosa was dispatched to the village with other commandos after a rebel ambush in which soldiers were killed and weapons were taken. They were supposed to find the weapons. The commandos shot and bludgeoned villagers, according to testimony, but no weapons were found.
In recent years, several soldiers who took part in the massacre have been prosecuted in Guatemala.
Sosa says he is innocent, contending that he wasn't in the village at the time of the massacre. His lawyer, Shashi Kewalramani, called the sentence excessive, saying that the trial had become a forum to prosecute the crimes in Dos Erres instead of the immigration violations Sosa had been charged with.
Kewalramani said he plans to appeal.
Joseph said that even after more than 30 years, the sentence might come as "some measure of justice for those in Guatemala."
After Judge Virginia A. Phillips announced her decision, a few people ran outside to the sidewalk where a cluster of demonstrators had gathered and cheered at the news.
Eduardo Estrada of Los Angeles said he fled Guatemala with his family in 1985 after some of his best friends had been kidnapped.
He said that although the decadelong sentence was not enough punishment for what happened in Dos Erres, it was still an important acknowledgment of the bloodshed his country experienced.
"This is something little, but it's still something," said Estrada, 53, who was text messaging with activists in Guatemala eager to hear the judge's decision.
Magda Madrigal, a tenant rights lawyer from Los Angeles, said Sosa had been allowed opportunities the villagers in Dos Erres never had. "He had a chance to live the American dream," she said, "while the victims didn't even have a chance to live."