RIVERSIDE, California (AP) — Peering out of a church where he was taken during a horrifying attack three decades ago, Ramiro Osorio watched armed men take small children from his Guatemalan village and bash them into a tree before tossing their bodies into a well.
He was 5 years old. Osorio and his siblings grabbed onto their mother's legs, but she was seized from them and taken to the well pleading for her life. "I heard my mom screaming for help and 'Please, don't kill my kids. They don't know nothing. We don't know nothing,'" Osorio told an American jury Friday in the trial of a former Guatemalan soldier charged with lying about the massacre on his U.S. citizenship application. Osorio's parents and six siblings all died in the attack, which virtually wiped out the village.
His chilling testimony came as Jorge Sosa, a former second lieutenant with a special forces unit of the Guatemalan army, is battling to remain an American citizen. If convicted of making false statements and obtaining citizenship unlawfully, Sosa also could face 15 years in prison.
Though Sosa is not on trial for war crimes, the case has brought horrific accounts of Guatemala's 36-year-long civil war to the court in Southern California, where he previously lived. About 200,000 people were killed during the war that ended in 1996, many by state forces and paramilitary groups. The U.S. government lent support to Guatemalan authorities during the conflict.
More than 160 people were slain in the village of Dos Erres in December 1982. A special forces patrol was sent to the village to recover weapons believed to have been stolen by Guatemalan guerrillas. No weapons were found in the village, and residents did not resist. But the patrol was ordered to kill everyone there to cover up the rape of women by soldiers, prosecutors said.
Years later, authorities say Sosa failed to disclose his military service or role in the massacre on his application to become an American citizen. Sosa's attorney, Shashi Kewalramani, has argued that his client's time in the army was no secret to U.S. officials since he told them about it when he applied for asylum after leaving Guatemala in 1985 — information that was held in his immigration file.
Kewalramani has cautioned jurors that Sosa is on trial only for the way he answered questions on his immigration paperwork — not for the atrocities of war. After his asylum claim was denied, Sosa moved to Canada, where he became a citizen. He got a green card after marrying an American and naturalized in 2008.
Two years later, homeland security officials searched his Moreno Valley home. Sosa, a karate instructor, then headed to Mexico and boarded a flight to Canada. He was arrested and extradited last year to the United States.
In recent years, Guatemala has begun trying the cases of former soldiers accused in the killings at Dos Erres. Five of them have been sentenced to more than 6,000 years in prison, including one who was arrested by U.S. homeland security officials and deported back to Guatemala.
Guatemalan prosecutors say they hope to have Sosa extradited to face charges for the deaths. Earlier this week, two former soldiers testified that they saw Sosa standing near the well in Dos Erres where they were ordered to bring all the villagers to be killed. When half-dead men screamed from within, Sosa fired a rifle at them and threw in a grenade, one of the soldiers said.
Osorio, who was raised by a soldier and eventually left Guatemala and obtained asylum abroad, recalled for jurors how armed men came one night to the home where he lived in Dos Erres with his parents and six siblings. His father and older brother were sent to the village school; his mother and the rest of the family were sent to the church.
He could hear the men screaming outside. The women started crying. Armed men grabbed women and young girls by the hair and pulled them outside, Osorio recalled. He could see what they did with young children through the slats of church's wooden walls. One man came inside the church with a message.
"If you know how to pray, pray, because nobody will save you from this," Osorio recalled being told. After Osorio's mother was taken, he ran to the back of the church where screaming women and children had been held under guard. He fell asleep, crying, under a bench.
When he awoke, only a handful of children were left.