Although a Fugitive, Accused Guatemalan War Criminal Hasn’t Run Far
ProPublica’s reporting last year about the search for perpetrators of the Dos Erres masscare led to the discovery that an ex-colonel who is a leading suspect had lived openly in an upscale Guatemala City neighborhood.
Retired Col. César Adán Rosales Batres, a veteran of the elite Kaibil commandos of the Guatemalan Army, is a wanted war criminal and a fugitive with an Interpol warrant on his head.
But according to recent information obtained by ProPublica, he hasn't run far. The apparent ease with which he eludes capture shows that the fight for justice remains difficult in Guatemala.
Twelve years ago, prosecutors accused Rosales of a lead role in the massacre of 250 men, women and children in the village of Dos Erres in 1982. It was one of the worst crimes in the history of the hemisphere: Rosales allegedly raped a young girl and helped oversee the slaughter by a 20-man unit that wiped out the hamlet, according to eyewitnesses and U.S. and Guatemalan court documents.
Appeals by defense lawyers and the power of the Guatemalan military stalled the prosecution for a decade. Things began to change in 2011 when Guatemalan authorities arrested and convicted five suspects in the Dos Erres case, the first such verdicts in hundreds of similar cases from Guatemala's bloody civil war. U.S. investigators also tracked down four suspects in the United States.
The prosecutions revealed the remarkable story of Oscar Ramírez Castañeda. DNA tests identified Ramírez, an illegal immigrant living near Boston, as a survivor of the massacre: He was raised by the family of a commando who abducted him from Dos Erres when he was age 3. ProPublica, Fundación MEPI and This American Life documented Oscar's story last year.
Rosales, 55, and six other suspects who are still alive remain at large. Their pursuers face significant obstacles: lack of resources; rampant impunity in a nation that has one of the world's highest homicide rates; and the power of the armed forces, which are often involved in corruption and mafias.
Over the years, Rosales and other commandos accused in the case have asserted their innocence and argued that they are shielded by amnesty laws passed after the civil war ended in the mid-1990s.
In October, ProPublica published a story about the Dos Erres investigation that included photos and profiles of the fugitives. As a result of that article, new information surfaced about former Col. Rosales, who was third in seniority in the commando unit.
Rosales lived for a time in the military-dominated neighborhood of Colonia Lourdes, according to records of a driver's license he renewed on Aug. 11, 2008. The leader of the unit, former Col. Roberto Aníbal Rivera Martínez, also lived in Colonia Lourdes. Investigators who tried to arrest Rivera last year discovered that his house was equipped with an escape tunnel.
ProPublica has learned that in recent years, Rosales lived in another house in a nearby upscale neighborhood, Colonia Hacienda Real. The presence of military families in Colonia Hacienda Real is considerably smaller than in Colonia Lourdes, investigators say.
Despite the fact that massacre charges against him had been public for years, Rosales did not keep a low profile, investigators say. In fact, he served as president of a neighborhood association, according to Guatemalan prosecutor Sarah Romero. Rosales was elected to lead a committee of eight to 10 leaders representing about 200 homes, investigators say.
Known as "Colonel Adán," Rosales participated in activities such as discussions about building a church and meeting with representatives of city government, investigators said.
"Because he was retired, he said to the neighbors that he had time on his hands to be active and contribute to the community," said an investigator, who requested anonymity for security reasons.
Rosales lived with a wife and two children. His home is one of the biggest and most luxurious in the neighborhood, according to investigators and public documents. The two-story house has a pool and sits behind high walls in an isolated part of the gated community.
Rosales served as president of the neighborhood association between 2009 and 2011, investigators said. At about the time authorities served arrest warrants in the Dos Erres case in 2011, Rosales dropped out of sight, investigators say. He left with the equivalent of about $2,000 in funds belonging to the neighborhood association and has not returned the money despite efforts to contact him, investigators said. Neighbors filed a police complaint over the missing funds, investigators said.
Rosales has not completely disappeared, however. About three months ago, the former military officer was spotted driving a gray pickup truck near his house in the neighborhood, investigators said.
Prosecutor Romero said the hunt for Rosales and the other suspects continues.
Meanwhile, U.S. federal prosecutors are preparing for the trial of another former lieutenant, Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, who was deported from Canada in September. The U.S. and Canadian citizen faces trial in Riverside, Calif., in April on charges of lying on U.S. immigration forms in connection with his role in the massacre. Sosa has pleaded not guilty.
Officials from the Justice Department have met with Oscar Ramírez, who says he is ready to testify if asked.
Ramírez' life has changed as a result of the publication of his unusual story and an outpouring of interest and support from the public.
U.S. immigration officials granted him political asylum this summer, ruling that he faced potential retaliation in Guatemala because he is living evidence of the Dos Erres massacre. His new legal status has enabled him to renew his driver's license, open a bank account and resolve other bureaucratic problems.
He also appeared at public events in New York and Washington to tell his story in recent months. He spoke in English and showed poise despite his lack of experience with public speaking.
"I enjoyed it," he said. "A lot of people are out there fighting for human rights, so I like being able to make a contribution too."
It has been quite a change for a man accustomed to the shadows. Acquaintances all have commented on the media coverage of his case. On one occasion as he went to an interview for his asylum application, two fellow immigrants he didn't know came up and said excitedly that they had seen him in a report on Spanish-language television.
In May, Ramírez met his father, Tranquilino Castañeda, who had been away from Dos Erres on the day of the massacre, in person. Until investigators brought them together last year, Castañeda believed his son had perished along with eight siblings and their mother. Castañeda spent the summer living with Ramírez, his wife and four children at their small home in a Boston suburb.
Some things have not changed. Ramírez still works long hours to support the family. He holds down two full-time supervisor jobs at a cleaning company in the mornings and at a Mexican fast food place at night. His goal remains to find a better-paying job that would allow him to spend more time with his family, move into a bigger house and go to vocational school to study air conditioning repair or electronics.
He has been looking for opportunities on the maintenance staffs at Boston-area universities and hospitals. He also would take work in a big restaurant with opportunities for advancement.
"It's not easy," he said. "I had one offer, but finally I couldn't take it because it didn't pay enough and it was far from my home. By the time you subtracted gas, tolls and parking, it really wasn't that much better."
Hard work doesn't scare Ramírez. Nor did he expect an overnight miracle. His ultimate dream, of owning his own restaurant some day, endures. He thought about that, and the whirlwind of the past year, on New Year's Eve.
"I spent it at home with the family. It was quiet because we were all a bit sick with the flu," he said. "Still, when we started going back over everything that happened to us this year, we had a lot to talk about. Everybody's healthy and happy now, and that's what's important."
It took Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda almost 30 years to learn that he survived a brutal massacre in his home village.