RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — Details of the massacre were gruesome: 160 Guatemalan men, women and children beaten with a sledgehammer, thrown down a well, shot and grenaded by the army.
Two thousand miles away and three decades on, that grisly portrait is being painted for jurors in the trial of Jorge Sosa. Federal prosecutors contend that Sosa helped command the 1982 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.
Testimony was expected to resume Wednesday in the case.
On Tuesday, the killings in the midst of the Central American nation's bloody 36-year-old civil war took center stage in a courtroom some 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 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 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.
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.