How We Reported Oscar’s Story
To tell the story of massacre survivor Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda, reporter Sebastian Rotella chose a narrative approach that would put readers at the scene of the Dos Erres tragedy and key events that led Ramírez Castañeda to discover the truth about his identity.
This style of nonfiction storytelling drops the conventions of a typical news story — routine attribution, lengthy quotations from subjects and documents, for example — and emphasizes action, character and dialogue to tell a story the way it actually happened.
Yet the story is no less factual. Rotella's reporting was rigorous and extensive. Anecdotes, scenic description and dialogue are drawn from the voluminous legal and historic record about Dos Erres and multiple interviews with participants in the events described.
Rotella wrote the story. To report it, he joined with Ana Arana, a veteran Mexico-based U.S. journalist with Fundación MEPI, with independent journalist Habiba Nosheen, and with producer Brian Reed of This American Life, which prepared an hour-long radio version. Arana approached ProPublica with the story and helped report it in Guatemala and elsewhere.
Most subjects were interviewed on more than one occasion to suit the differing needs of print and radio. Rotella interviewed Ramírez Castañeda and the other Spanish-speakers in Spanish. Arana (also a Spanish-speaker) and Rotella were present for most of the radio interviews, which were conducted in English with interpreters when necessary.
The team reported in numerous locales, including Guatemala; Framingham, Mass.; Washington, D.C.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and New York. They interviewed almost all of the major characters including Ramírez Castañeda; prosecutor Sara Romero; human rights activist Aura Elena Farfán; massacre survivor Salome Hernández; the commandos-turned-protected witnesses César Ibañez and Favio Pinzón (in an undisclosed location for their protection); Agent Jon Longo of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; forensic anthropologist Fredy Peccerelli; Oscar's father Tranquilino Castañeda; R. Scott Greathead, Ramírez Castañeda's lawyer; Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz; and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. They also interviewed defense lawyers, Guatemalan military officials, U.S. law enforcement officials and Guatemalan and U.S. political analysts. A request to interview Gilberto Jordán, the former commando in a Florida prison, went unanswered.
Almost all the interviews were on the record, though the reporters granted anonymity to sources whose safety would have been at risk otherwise.
Rotella and the team researched extensive court files (Spanish) in Guatemala on the Dos Erres prosecutions; the U.S. court files on Jordán and the other three ex-commandos arrested in North America; declassified U.S. embassy cables obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University; the ruling on the Dos Erres case by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; and background articles, books, videos, films and photos about the case and Guatemala's past and present.
This research provided a rich foundation for events depicted in the story. Rotella used multiple sources to corroborate what he describes. Conversations and quotes are based on a combination of witness testimony and other documents in the case files, court transcripts, and the accounts and recollections of people interviewed. Thoughts attributed to individuals in the story are based on interviews with those individuals.
The official accounts and testimonies of this case have evolved over the years. They often contain uncertain or contradictory information because of the difficulty of establishing facts about an event that occurred long ago and because of the limited number of eyewitnesses, some of whom were children at the time. As in reporting any story with a vast amount of documentation and a large number of participants, some discrepancies inevitably occur. In such instances, Rotella and the team carefully weighed the evidence and presented the version of events with the strongest factual basis.
The story itself contains links to some of the key documentary sources. Readers can view this material directly. Support for anecdotes and conversations that draw on multiple sources is described below.
Chapter 1: "You Don't Know Me"
Oscar opening email — Quotes and paraphrase from text of prosecutor Sara Romero email to Oscar, interviews with Oscar and Sara Romero.
Oscar's reaction, background on lieutenant — Interviews with Oscar and Sara Romero and review of photo album.
Chapter 2: "We're Not Dogs For You To Kill"
Background on Dos Erres and Carias — Verdicts, witness testimony and other investigative and court documents in Dos Erres trials in Guatemala of Pedro Pimentel Rios, (verdict March 12, 2012), and of Carlos Antonio Carias, Reyes Collin Gualip, Daniel Martínez Méndez and Manuel Pop Sun (verdict Aug. 2, 2011) and from interviews with prosecutor Sara Romero, human rights activist Aura Elena Farfán and others.
Prelude to assault on Dos Erres, profile of Kaibiles and unit — Dos Erres trial documents, witness testimony and our interviews with César Ibañez and Favio Pinzón, prosecutor Sara Romero and other investigators and experts, U.S. court files.
"Criminal in uniform" — Quote from our interview with a former Guatemalan military man.
Portrait of Lt. Ramírez — Distilled from interviews with Pinzón, Ibañez, Romero, Oscar, Dos Erres court files and testimony, Guatemalan military documents.
Account of attack and sexual abuse — Testimony and interviews of Pinzón, Ibañez, interviews with Romero and Agent Jon Longo of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Guatemalan and U.S. court documents.
Account of Jordán killing baby and the "vaccinations" — Court files in U.S. vs. Gilberto Jordán case (United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, West Palm Beach Division), interviews and testimony of Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan court documents, interviews with Romero and U.S. Agent Jon Longo.
Account of exchange of insults and scene at well — U.S. court files in Gilberto Jordán case, interviews and testimony of Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan court documents, interviews with Romero and Agent Jon Longo.
Account of dialogue and Sosa throwing grenade and shooting into the well — Interviews and testimony of Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan Dos Erres court files, U.S. court files in Jordán and Sosa Orantes cases, interviews with prosecutor Romero and others. Sosa's lawyer and family have defended his innocence and disputed the allegations.
Woman's statement about "not dogs to kill" and Hernández's account — Court testimony of Salome Armando Hernández in the two Dos Erres trials and our interview of Hernández, Guatemalan and U.S. court files; testimony and interviews of Pinzón and Ibañez; interview of Romero.
Commando's statement "We finished them off" and description of scene — Hernández court testimony cited above and interview of Hernández.
Lieutenant's comment "I'm going to dress him up" and account of taking the prisoners — Testimony and interviews of Pinzón and Ibañez, testimony of Ramiro Cristales, Guatemalan and U.S. court files, interviews of Romero and Longo.
Helicopter scene and Pimentel going to School of the Americas — Verdict in Guatemalan trial of Pedro Pimentel Rios, other court documents, interviews with prosecutor Sara Romero and U.S. Homeland Security officials, U.S. military documents.
Account of conversation, torture and murder of guide and rampage — Interviews and testimony of Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan and U.S. court documents, interview with prosecutor Sara Romero.
Account of looting, razing and Carias threat — Court documents in trial of Carias, interview with prosecutor Sara Romero, investigative documents in Guatemalan Dos Erres cases.
Chapter 3: Living Proof
Account of U.S. embassy inquiry and reports — Declassified U.S. embassy cables obtained by National Security Archive of George Washington University, interviews with U.S. and Guatemalan officials and experts.
Account of Sara Romero and Aura Elena Farfán's investigations and the encounter with Pinzón — Interviews with Romero and rights activist Farfán, testimony and interviews with soldiers Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan court files.
Account of recruitment of protected witnesses — Interviews with prosecutor Sara Romero, Farfán, Pinzón and Ibañez, Guatemalan court files.
Account of Romero-Alonzo encounter — Interview with Sara Romero and Guatemalan court files.
Account of Ramiro's childhood and how investigators found Ramiro — Interviews with Sara Romero and U.S. Agent Jon Longo of ICE, testimony of Ramiro Cristales in Guatemalan Dos Erres trials of Pimentel and other suspects, and U.S. case against Gilberto Jordán.
Account of hunt for Oscar — Interview with Sara Romero, prosecution reports on interviews of Maria del Rosario Ramírez Ramos and Dr. Alberto Ramírez Ramos, Guatemalan court documents, interview with Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda.
Chapter 4: Strange News From Home
Headline — Article in Al Dia, Guatemalan newspaper, June 13, 2000.
"What is this all about?" — Interview with Oscar.
"If I really have a brother" — Interview with Oscar.
Account of Oscar's family and childhood, life in United States — Interviews with Oscar, attorney R. Scott Greathead, prosecutor Sara Romero, Guatemalan court documents, U.S. officials.
Chapter 5: The Hunt Moves North
Background on Longo and account of launch of Gilberto Jordán investigation — Interviews with U.S. Agent Jon Longo of ICE and other U.S. officials, court documents in Jordán case.
Account of Kaibiles investigation, Jordán operation, street scene — Interviews with Longo, other U.S. officials, reporting on-site and court documents in Gilberto Jordán case and USA vs. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes (United States District Court for the Central District of California, Southern Division).
"We don't have a warrant" — Interview with Longo.
"They are here to kill me" conversation, invitation into home — Interview with Longo and other U.S. officials, Gilberto Jordán court documents including criminal complaint, indictment, witness testimony.
"I had problems" conversation — Interviews with Longo and other officials, Jordán court documents including criminal complaint, indictment, witness testimony.
Account of Jordán confession — Interviews with Longo and other officials, Jordán court documents.
"I knew this day would come" — Interviews with Longo and other case officials, Jordán court documents.
"We started praying" — Testimony of Ramiro Cristales from hearing transcript in Jordán case, Sept. 15, 2010.
"After these allegations" — Judge's comments from transcript of plea colloquy in Jordán case, July 7, 2010.
Account of Pimentel and Sosa cases — Verdict in Pimentel trial in Guatemala, U.S. court documents in Jordán and Sosa cases, interviews with Romero, Longo and other U.S. and Guatemalan officials, U.S. military documents.
Chapter 6: Cocorico2
Account of new search for Oscar, doctor's comments ("Skinny Girl") — Interviews with prosecutor Sara Romero and Oscar, Guatemalan court documents.
Account of Romero and Oscar's communication and reactions — Interviews with Oscar and Romero, Guatemalan court documents.
Account of Fredy Peccerelli's investigative work on case, encounter and conversation with Oscar — Interviews with Peccerelli, Oscar and Romero and Guatemalan court documents.
Chapter 7: "Sorrows Can Swim"
Account of news broken to Oscar, conversation — Interviews with Oscar, Fredy Peccerelli.
Account of handling of Tranquilino Castañeda, Skype call, conversation — Interviews with Tranquilino Castañeda, Peccerelli, Aura Elena Farfán, Oscar.
Chapter 8: Two Guatemalas
Sources in this chapter are cited in the text and include interviews in Guatemala with President Otto Pérez Molina on Feb. 7, 2012, and with Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz on Feb. 9, 2012.
It took Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda almost 30 years to learn that he survived a brutal massacre in his home village.
Latest Stories in this Project
Our Hottest Stories
- Q&A: What Can U.S. Health Care Learn from the Ebola Outbreak?
- Report: Drillers Illegally Using Diesel Fuel to Frack
- Government Will Withhold One-Third of the Records from Database of Physician Payments
- What to Look For In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown
- Big Investors Push for Auditors to Sign Financial Statements
- Illinois Suspends Medical License of Leading Prescriber of Antipsychotic Drugs
- The Best Reporting on Federal Push to Militarize Local Police
- New York City Will Pay $10 Million to Settle Wrongful Conviction Case
- Q&A: The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt
- Pro-Troop Charity Shoots Back