Survivor speaks out against impunity in Guatemala civil war trial

Oscar Ramirez wants to open his own business. He wants to learn air conditioning and plumbing. He is dreaming big. “I don’t want to work for someone else all my life,” he told me last week.

His dreams are basic. Just a few weeks ago, Oscar and his wife Nidia were undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in Framingham, Massachusetts, with their four US-born children. It all changed last week, when the United States government granted him political asylum.

Last year, Oscar’s future and his past were colliding. He was afraid of being detained by US immigration authorities, and he could not go back to Guatemala after he learned he was a child survivor of a 1982 military massacre in the Guatemalan village of Dos Erres. Now Oscar has a chance to help end a culture of impunity in Guatemala, where 400,000 people were killed in a civil war, and where freedom of expression continues to be under threat.

In May 2011, Guatemalan prosecutors told Oscar they believed he was not the man he thought he was. He learned his late father was not his real father. He had another biological father. He also learned that the man he thought was his father, Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramirez, a former Guatemalan military commando officer, had abducted Oscar as a three-year old. He did that after participating in a three-day raid on the village of Dos Erres that left more than 200 men, women and children dead. Oscar’s biological mother, who was pregnant, and his eight brothers and sisters were killed in the raid. He also learned that Guatemalan authorities considered him living evidence that could help advance the investigation against surviving members of the military commando who raided the Dos Erres village and killed innocent people they suspected of being leftist guerrillas.

The case of Dos Erres is one of Guatemala’s first trials against military abuses in the 1980s, where military commandos and top officials have been sentenced to jail terms. Four commandos and one officer who participated in the murder and cover up were convicted to unprecedented long prison terms in the last two years, and charges of genocide are pending against former President Efrain Rios Montt.

The case has also involved US immigration authorities, who have extended a wide net and caught several fugitive former commandos who had moved to the United States. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former Army lieutenant was extradited from Canada a few weeks ago and will stand trial in California for lying on his immigration application. Several members of the former commando unit that killed the villagers of Dos Erres are still at large.

Scott Greathead, Oscar’s lawyer, said Oscar can now focus on raising his children and participate in getting justice for his family. His biological father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who survived the massacre because he was away at the time of the military raid, met Oscar for the first time in May this year, when he traveled to the United States for a family reunion.

Also read Guatemala: What Happened at Dos Erres?

And listen to What Happened  at Dos Erres? on This American Life