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Ex-Guatemalan soldier linked to massacre gets 10-year sentence

Unrest, Conflicts and WarCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemGuatemalaCourts and the JudiciaryArmed Forces

A former Guatemalan special forces officer convicted of failing to disclose on immigration documents his part in a massacre of a village during the country's bloody civil war was sentenced Monday to 10 years in federal prison and will be stripped of his U.S. citizenship.

Federal 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, Guatemala, where women were raped and at least 160 unarmed residents killed. 

At the end of the prison term, the maximum sentenced allowed, Sosa is expected to be sent back to Guatemala, probably through extradition. Sosa also has citizenship in Canada, from which he was extradited in 2012 to be tried in the United States.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeannie Joseph, one of the prosecutors, said the sentencing "sends a message of deterrence" to those trying to hide criminal pasts from finding haven in the U.S.

The charges against Sosa did not directly address allegations of war crimes for his part in the massacre. But prosecutors explored what happened in that village in December 1982 during the trial, because, Joseph said, prosecutors had to prove the "crime within a crime." 

During the trial in U.S. District Court in Riverside, prosecutors said that Sosa was dispatched to the village after guerrilla rebels ambushed a military convoy, killing soldiers and taking weapons. He was sent to Dos Erres to search for the weapons. 

In the village, according to testimony, the men and women were separated — the women taken to a church, the men to a school — and interrogated before the commandos began shooting and bludgeoning the villagers. The weapons were not found.

Prosecutors said Sosa fired into the well where bodies had been dumped and threw in a grenade. In recent years, several soldiers who took part in the massacre have been prosecuted in Guatemala, each receiving a sentence of more than 6,000 years in prison.

Sosa disputed the jury's earlier verdict, handed down in October.

"I did not have a just trial," Sosa said in court Monday in Spanish, according to the Associated Press. "I am innocent and I am not guilty."

He contends that he wasn't in Dos Erres and plans an appeal, his attorney told the Associated Press.

Outside the courthouse Monday, 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 in the courtroom ran outside to the sidewalk where a cluster of demonstrators had gathered. They cheered the news, later inviting prosecutors up to a microphone, applauding them for working "really, really hard on this case to get the maximum sentence."

Eduardo Estrada came to the courthouse from Los Angeles. He fled Guatemala with his family in 1985 during the war, after, he said, some of his best friends had been kidnapped and disappeared. 

He said the decade-long sentence was not enough punishment for what happened in Dos Erres. But he said the moment Monday was important because it was an acknowledgment of the level of bloodshed his country experienced. "This is something little, but it's still something," said Estrada, 53, who was text messaging with activists in Guatemala who were anxious to hear the judge's decision. 

Sosa "has had gainful employment," said Magda Madrigal, an activist and tenant rights lawyer who had come from Los Angeles. "He's had a family. He's had a chance to live the American dream, while the victims didn't even have a chance to live."

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Twitter: @rar

rick.rojas@latimes.com

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