Suspect in infamous 1982 Guatemala massacre sent home from U.S.
GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemalan police say a former soldier accused of helping carry out a massacre of more than 160 people in 1982 during its civil war has arrived back in the country from the United States.
Santos Lopez Alonzo had been ordered deported from the U.S. and a plane carrying him arrived Wednesday morning in Guatemala City, where authorities were waiting to take him into custody.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Lopez said he didn't kill anyone.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be tortured and they're going to kill me in my country, because I gave testimony to a grand jury," Lopez told the AP. "Because I talked about them and everything they did."
More than a dozen former soldiers have faced arrest warrants in Guatemala on allegations of participating in the massacre. He's one of four former soldiers suspected in the massacre in the village of Las Dos Erres who were arrested after coming to the U.S. years later. Two are in American prisons, and one was deported.
Lopez was arrested in 2010 along with the others and held as a witness in the prosecution of another ex-soldier.
For years those men, who are all accused of serving in a notoriously brutal Guatemalan military unit, lived in America, blending in to communities in Florida, California and Texas. One was a popular karate teacher. One was a cook.
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.
The country's U.S.-backed army was responsible for most of the deaths, according to the findings of an independent truth commission set up to investigate the bloodshed.
Soldiers bludgeoned villagers with a sledgehammer, threw them into a well, and raped women and girls before killing them, investigators have said.
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.
Lopez said he was a baker in the army and was assigned to stand guard while others carried out the massacre. Soldiers escorted people out and returned empty-handed, he said, telling him only then that the villagers were being killed.
"He who owes nothing, fears nothing. If I had done something, if I had killed, I would be afraid, but I feel clean," he said.
More than a decade later, Guatemala's government opened an investigation and unearthed 162 skeletons. Authorities issued arrest warrants for 17 soldiers, including Lopez, but the cases languished.
After leaving the army, Lopez became a farmer in Guatemala and then went to the United States illegally, working construction jobs in Texas. In 2010, Lopez was arrested and charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a prior deportation order.
Authorities detained him as a material witness in the prosecution of a fellow former soldier who lied about the massacre on his U.S. naturalization forms. Afterward, Lopez tried to fend off deportation, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month to block it.
"The United States is not going to serve as a safe haven for individuals who have committed atrocities overseas," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said. "They may live quiet lives, but they must be held accountable for the activities in which they participated."
Lopez has acknowledged taking a 5-year-old boy from the village, claiming he saved him and raised him as a son.
Ramiro Osorio Cristales has grown up to become a key voice for victims. He received asylum in Canada, testified against some of the soldiers about his memories of the killings and cut ties with Lopez, who Osorio says mistreated him for years.
Efforts to reach Osorio, who previously testified in Guatemala about the abuse allegations, were unsuccessful. Lopez has denied mistreating him.
In U.S. court filings, the Justice Department argued that Lopez kidnapped the boy and prevented villagers from escaping the massacre. While Guatemalan prison conditions can be harsh, department lawyers wrote that Lopez didn't prove he would be tortured by officials if he returned home.
His lawyer, Sarah Vanessa Perez, said Lopez is vulnerable because he cooperated with the U.S. government as a witness.
Guatemalan court findings against a group of former soldiers put Lopez at the massacre but include few details of his involvement beyond taking the boy.
Lopez said he knows the killings were wrong but could not denounce them at the time. Back then, he said the Guatemalan government had complete control.
"Orders are orders, given by the government," he said. "For speaking up, they would have killed me, too."