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US rounds up Guatemalans accused of war crimes

One works as a cook. Another as a karate teacher. They are accused of war crimes in Guatemala — yet they've been living in the US for years.

WASHINGTON — U.S. federal agents are today closing in on four former Guatemalan soldiers  accused of taking part in a 1982 massacre, which one law enforcement official called “the most shocking modern-day war crime American authorities have ever investigated.”

One former soldier alleged to have taken part in the massacre of 251 villagers in the rural Guatemalan hamlet of Las Dos Erres is already in custody in Texas. Another former soldier in Florida and two more in California are under active investigation.

Law enforcement officials close to the case acknowledged the four men are part of a probe by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency into immigration violations aimed at rounding up suspects named in a recently revived, landmark human rights case in Guatemala. If found in violation of U.S. immigration laws, the men would likely face deportation to Guatemala and a possible prosecution there for war crimes.

For years these men, who are all accused of serving in a notoriously brutal Guatemalan military unit, have lived in America, blending in to communities in Florida, California and Texas. One is a popular karate teacher. One is a cook. The man in custody is a day laborer who had allegedly abducted and then adopted a boy who was orphaned in the slaughter 28 years ago.

That boy, Ramiro Cristales, who was 5 years old at the time, is now a key witness in the case in Guatemala against the former soldiers and against the man who raised him.

In an exclusive interview with GlobalPost, Cristales, one of only two known survivors of the massacre, saw his entire family murdered. He said he was frustrated it has taken so long for the men to be brought to justice. But he said he hoped U.S. and Guatemalan officials might work together to make that happen.

“They have to do something... The only thing I ask is justice,” said Cristales, who is now hiding in an undisclosed location.

(Read the full interview with Cristales.)

The massacre in Las Dos Erres, where a total of 251 men, women and children were killed, is widely considered one of the darkest chapters of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that claimed some 200,000 lives, and in which the U.S. military played a shadowy role. One month after allegedly raping young girls and women during the massacre, one of the men under investigation, Pedro Pimentel Rios, began work as an instructor at the School of the Americas, the Pentagon-run training school for Latin American militaries, then located in Panama.

(Read about Guatemala's ongoing investigation of the Las Dos Erres massacre.)

The investigations in Guatemala and the United States raise questions as to how the men came to gain entry to America and then make lives here. For Guatemalan human rights activists, they also dredge up the broader history surrounding American military involvement in Latin America in the 1980s, and specifically the U.S. military training provided to soldiers who then carried out attacks on civilians.

Guatemala began investigating the massacre 16 years ago, but the case stalled in the country’s corrupt judicial system. Guatemala has recently renewed its efforts to move forward with prosecutions, but success is far from guaranteed and it's possible the only satisfaction the surviving victims will ever receive is in American courtrooms.

Yet in spite of the horrific accusations against the men, there is very little U.S. prosecutors can use against them.  The man already in custody, Santos Lopez Alonzo, has already pled guilty to illegally entering the country. He was fined $10, sentenced to time served and is due to be deported, where he may face arrest by Guatemalan authorities. The other three men, at least one of whom is a naturalized American citizen, are also suspected by investigators of immigration fraud.

Normally immigration violations carry small penalties. But because of the alleged aggravating circumstances, prosecutors could push for a maximum of 10 years in prison if the two men are charged, tried and found guilty. After that they would likely be deported to Guatemala.

Because the alleged crimes occurred before the passage of war crimes laws in the United States, prosecutors are not legally permitted to charge the men under any of those laws. This limitation in U.S. law has long frustrated federal prosecutors, who have only ever been able to denaturalize and deport even suspected Nazi war criminals living in the United States.

U.S. officials began their investigation after the Inter-American Court on Human Rights decided last year that Guatemala’s 1996 amnesty agreement does not apply to serious human rights violations, including the massacre at Las Dos Erres. Officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice who monitor cases involving foreign-born human rights abusers decided to see if any of the accused killers were living in the United States.

GlobalPost has pored through documents, revisited trial transcripts and acquired U.S. Embassy cables, as well as interviewed witnesses and officials in the U.S. and Guatemalan governments, to chronicle a journey — still uncompleted — toward justice at Las Dos Erres.