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Naturalized US citizen accused of role in Guatemala military massacre

This 2012 photo provided by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows Jorge Sosa as he is extradited to Los Angeles from Canada.AP / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- A naturalized U.S. citizen was yesterday accused taking part in the massacre 160 Guatemalan men, women and children and then lying about it on his application for American citizenship. 

Prosecutors in the Riverside, Calif. courtroom claimed that as a member of the Central American country's military, Jorge Sosa helped to command the slaughter of the victims who were beaten with a sledgehammer, thrown down a well, shot and grenaded by the army.

In opening statements of what is expected to be an eight-day trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannie Joseph told jurors that Sosa was part of a patrol that descended upon the village of Dos Erres searching for stolen weapons in 1982. 

They decided to kill all of its residents after some of the soldiers began raping the women and children, she said.

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 added.

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.

But 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."

Relatives of people murdered in the village of Dos Erres in 1982 hold posters during the trial of former soldiers accused of taking part in the attack, in Guatemala City in 2010.Edgard Garrido / Reuters, file

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.

Gilberto Jordan, who took the stand in the government's case against Sosa late Tuesday, 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.

About 200,000 people were killed during the Central American nation's bloody 36-year-old civil war, mostly by state forces and paramilitary groups.

Related:

Guatemala ex-soldiers sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for massacre at Dos Erres

'We're not inventing the dead': Genocide case casts spotlight on Guatemala's past

Mass graves excavated at former military outpost in Guatemala