Guatemalan ex-military accused of war crimes held in Alberta prison
by Valerie Croft
CHIMALTENANGO, GUATEMALA—Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, ex-member of the Guatemalan special forces known as the Kaibiles, was arrested in Lethbridge, Alberta on January 18, 2011. He was detained at the request of the United States, who may solicit his extradition to face charges of immigration fraud.
If proven guilty of having lied about his role in the Guatemalan military on his US application for naturalization, Sosa Orantes could face up to ten years in prison in the United States. Meanwhile, human rights groups in Canada and Guatemala are petitioning the Canadian courts to try him for war crimes.
Sosa Orantes has been implicated in the planning and execution of the massacre at Las Dos Erres, in the northern department of Petén, where at least 252 unarmed civilians were systematically killed on December 6, 1982. This massacre was carried out in much the same manner as the more than 650 massacres committed by the Guatemalan military during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict, which included widespread rape, torture and the mass killing of men, women and children, who were mostly Mayan.
According to Aura Elena Farfan from the Association for the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Guatemala (FAMDEGUA)—the plaintiff organization that since 2000 has been bringing forward a case against Sosa Orantes and 16 other ex-kaibiles implicated in the massacre—it is important that he is tried for the more serious crimes against humanity, rather than the lie he told US immigration officials.
“Of course that lie is important,” says Farfan. “But for there to be justice, it is important that he is not only judged for that lie, but for the serious violation of human rights in Guatemala.”
Even with an unprecedented amount of evidence, including survivor testimonies, exhumation records, and the testimony of a repentant ex-kaibil who took part in the massacre, Farfan does not believe the justice FAMDEGUA seeks is possible in Guatemala.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has found the Guatemalan government unwilling to live up to its judicial responsibilities to investigate and successfully prosecute those responsible for the massacre. The country is still characterized by widespread violence, while many of the intellectual and material authors—those who planned and those who carried out the massacres—retain high positions of political power in the current government and military.
Even though the Guatemalan Supreme Court issued arrest warrants in 2010 for the 17 ex-kaibiles implicated in the massacre, Farfan believes this case is stuck in impunity. “It needs to be heard in a place where there does not exist the same danger of being bought off.” Such bribery, says Farfan “is likely to happen in Guatemala.”
Matt Eisenbrant from the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ) has called on the Canadian government to launch a full criminal investigation against Sosa Orantes.
“Usually, a trial in the place where the abuses occurred is preferable,” he says. “This should only be done, however, if all due-process guarantees can be protected and there are assurances that a fair trial can proceed without being tainted by outside influences.” The CCIJ is calling on the Canadian government to ensure that Sosa Orantes will be held fully accountable by conducting its own criminal investigation into possible war-crime charges, taking this into account when considering the extradition requests.
Legal support for the case first surfaced in 1994, after FAMDEGUA officially received an exhumation request from three families from the area. Within a year, anthropologists had found 162 complete skeletons in a 12-metre grave, 67 of which were from children under age 12.
According to a report released by Amnesty International in 2002, the findings of the exhumation matched up with survivors’ testimonies about the massacre; it involved first the mass and repeated rape of the women and young girls, followed by the killing of the children and then the women, many of whom were pregnant. The men were killed last. Anthropologists’ reports reveal that most of the victims were killed by a blunt object to the back of the head, after which they were thrown into the mass grave.
Both witnesses and FAMDEGUA have received numerous threats for bringing this case forward. Still visibly affected by the case, Farfan says that “[Sosa Orantes] did not have compassion for the victims who were asking not to be killed, not to be tortured.” She expresses the weight of the blood that was spilled in Guatemala, stating that the bodies of the young children and pregnant women should tip the scales of justice further than the lie Sosa Orantes told to gain US citizenship.
“If victims are to be satisfied and if we are to provide deterrence against such abuses happening in the future, perpetrators must be prosecuted to the fullest extent possible,” says Eisenhart.
Sosa Orantes was denied bail on March 9, 2011, by Albertan judge Suzanne Bensler who deemed him too much of a flight risk. His next court appearance is scheduled for April 20, 2011.
Valerie Croft is living in Guatemala, completing a CIDA internship with CEIBA - a Guatemalan environmental advocacy organization that works on issues related to climate justice, food sovereignty, and the defense of territory.