A U.S. immigration judge on Wednesday ordered the deportation of a former member of an elite Guatemalan military force accused of participating in a brutal 1982 massacre during the country's civil war.
Judge Lorraine J. Munoz denied an asylum request made by Pedro Pimentel Rios, a 54-year-old former instructor at the Guatemalan training school for an elite military force known as the "kaibiles," said Pimentel's immigration attorney Michael Selph.
Pimentel has been in the United States for two decades and has been seeking asylum related to his participation in Guatemala's civil war, though he denies he was in the village of Dos Erres in December 1982 when the massacre took place, Selph said.
Pimentel is wanted in Guatemala for alleged participation in the 1982 massacre, according to papers filed with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
"He's scared to death of going back there," Selph said after Munoz issued a 27-page ruling during a closed hearing in immigration court. "He's afraid of the process there _ that it is corrupt and he would not be afforded the proper due process there."
Pimentel _ who has 30 days to decide whether he will appeal the ruling _ is one of more than a dozen former soldiers who have faced arrest warrants in Guatemala for their alleged role in the massacre in which more than 150 people were killed.
He was one of four former kaibiles wanted by U.S. authorities since they began rounding up alleged perpetrators of the massacre last year.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the case because of the potential for ongoing litigation.
Pimentel was arrested by immigration authorities last May. On Wednesday, the small, gray-haired man appeared in a Los Angeles immigration courtroom in a red jail jumpsuit and handcuffs along with relatives who came to show their support.
Pimentel lived in the Southern California city of Santa Ana and worked in a sweater factory. He fled Guatemala two decades ago _ leaving his family behind _ after leaving the army, fearing he would no longer be protected against the leftist guerrillas he had been fighting, Selph said.
He applied for asylum and was denied by an immigration officer, who referred his case to a judge for consideration.
Guatemala's civil war claimed at least 200,000 lives before it ended in 1996. The country's U.S.-backed army was responsible for most of the deaths, according to the findings of a truth commission set up to investigate the bloodshed.
In December 1982, several dozen soldiers stormed the village of Dos Erres, searched homes for missing weapons and systematically killed men, women and children. Soldiers bludgeoned villagers with a sledgehammer, threw them down a well, and raped women and girls before killing them, according to court papers filed in a case brought by U.S. prosecutors against another former kaibil.
Guatemala opened an investigation into the killings in 1994 and unearthed 162 skeletons. Several years later, authorities issued arrest warrants for 17 kaibiles but the cases languished.
In 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Guatemala to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of the massacre and sanction those who had delayed justice.
Last year, U.S. authorities ordered the arrest of four of these former kaibiles _ including Pimentel _ on alleged immigration violations.
Pimentel does not face criminal charges in the United States related to the war in Guatemala.
Two of the four were charged with lying on their U.S. citizenship forms about their military service and role in the killings. Former soldier Gilberto Jordan was sentenced in September in Florida to 10 years in prison. Jorge Sosa was arrested in Canada and faces extradition requests to the United States and Spain.
Former soldier Santos Lopez Alonzo was charged in Texas with re-entering the country illegally after he had been deported more than a decade earlier but later was designated a material witness in the case investigators were building against other kaibiles, according to court filings.
Lopez told investigators his primary duty during the massacre was guarding women and children at the village school before they were taken to be killed. He said he saw Pimentel in Dos Erres during the massacre but did not recall any specific acts committed by him, court papers show.