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Matthew Healey for ProPublica

Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala

In 1982 amid Guatemala’s brutal civil war, 20 army commandos invaded the jungle hamlet of Dos Erres disguised as rebels. The squad members, called Kaibiles, cut their way through the town, killing more than 250 people. Only a handful survived. One, a 3-year-old boy, was abducted by a Kaibil officer and raised by his family. It took 30 years for Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda to learn the truth.

Chapter 1: ‘You Don’t Know Me’

The call from Guatemala put Oscar on edge.

Prosecutors came looking for you, relatives in his rural hometown told him. Big shots from Guatemala City. They want to talk to you.

Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda had plenty to lose. Although he was living in the United States illegally, the 31-year-old had built a solid life. He worked two full-time jobs to support his three children and their mother, Nidia. They had settled in a small but cheerful townhouse in Framingham, Mass., a blue-collar suburb of Boston.

Oscar usually did his best to avoid contact with the authorities. But he decided to call the prosecutor in Guatemala City. She said it was a sensitive matter about his childhood and a massacre in the country’s civil war long ago. She promised to explain in an email.

Days later, Oscar sat at his computer in a living room full of toys, school trophies, family photos, a crucifix and souvenirs of his native land. He had arrived home from work late at night, as usual. Nidia, seven months pregnant, rested on a couch nearby. The children slept upstairs.

Oscar’s green eyes scanned the screen. The email had arrived. He took a breath and clicked.

Prosecutor Sara Romero’s Letter to Oscar

“You don’t know me,” it began.

The prosecutor said she was investigating a savage episode of the war, a case that had deeply affected her. In 1982, a squad of army commandos had stormed the village of Dos Erres and slaughtered more than 250 men, women and children.

Two small boys who survived were taken away by the commandos. Twenty-nine years later, 15 years after she had started hunting the killers, the prosecutor had reached an inescapable conclusion: Oscar was one of the boys who had been abducted.

“I know that you were much loved and well treated by the family in which you grew up,” the prosecutor wrote. “I hope you have the maturity to absorb everything I am telling you.”

“The point is, Oscar Alfredo, that although you don’t know it, you were a victim of this sad event I mentioned, just like the other child I told you that we found, and the families of the people who died in that place.”

By now, Nidia was reading over his shoulder. The prosecutor said she could arrange a DNA test to confirm her theory. She offered an incentive: help with Oscar’s immigration status in the United States.

“This is a decision you must make,” she wrote.

Oscar’s mind raced through images of his childhood. He struggled to reconcile the prosecutor’s words with his memories. He had never known his mother. He did not remember his father, who had never married. Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos had died in an accident when he was just four. Oscar’s grandmother and aunts had raised him to revere his father.

As the family told it, the lieutenant was a hero. He graduated at the top of his academy class, became an elite commando and won medals in combat. Oscar treasured the soldier’s red beret, his aging photo album. He liked to leaf through the pictures showing an officer with a bantam build and youthful smile, riding in a tank, carrying the flag.

The lieutenant’s nickname, a diminutive of Oscar, was Cocorico. Oscar called himself Cocorico the Second.

Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos (Matthew Healey for ProPublica)

“You don’t know me.”

If the prosecutor’s suspicions were correct, Oscar didn’t know himself. He was not the son of an honorable soldier. He was a kidnapping victim, a battlefield trophy, living proof of mass murder.

Yet, as overwhelming as the revelation was, Oscar had to admit it was not completely new. A decade earlier, someone had sent him a Guatemalan newspaper article about Dos Erres. It mentioned his name and the supposed abduction. But his family back home convinced him the idea was preposterous, a leftist fabrication.

Far from the harsh realities of Guatemala, Oscar put the story out of his mind. The country he had left was among the most desperate and violent in the Americas. About 200,000 people died in the civil war that had ended in 1996. The right-wing military, accused of genocide in the conflict, remained powerful.

Now, the case was pulling Oscar into Guatemala’s struggle with its own tragic history. If he took the DNA test and the results were positive, it would transform his life in dangerous ways. He would become flesh-and-blood evidence in the quest to find justice for the victims of Dos Erres. He would have to accept that his identity, his whole world, had been based on a lie. And he would be a potential target for powerful forces that wanted to keep Guatemala’s secrets buried.

Guatemalans wrestled with a similar dilemma. They were divided over how much effort to devote to punish the crimes of the past in a society overwhelmed by lawlessness. The uniformed killers and torturers of the 1980s had helped spawn the mafias, corruption and crime that assail Central America’s small and weak states. The Dos Erres investigation was part of the battle against impunity, a fight for the future. But small victories had big potential costs: retaliation, political strife.

Like his country, Oscar would have to choose whether to confront painful truths.

Chapter 2: ‘We’re Not Dogs For You To Kill’

The fall of 1982 was tense in Petén, Guatemala’s northern panhandle near Mexico.

Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt (center) (Bettmann/Corbis/AP Images)

Government troops in the region battled a guerrilla group known as the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces), or FAR. The nationwide counterinsurgency campaign was methodical and brutal. Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, a general who had taken power after a coup in March, unleashed search-and-destroy missions on rural villages suspected of sheltering guerrillas.

Although there had been fighting near Dos Erres, the remote jungle hamlet was comparatively calm. It had been founded only four years earlier in a government land redistribution program. Unlike areas where rebels recruited aggressively among the country’s indigenous peoples, the residents of Dos Erres were mainly ladinos — Guatemalans of mixed white and indigenous descent. The 60 families who lived in the lush terrain grew beans, corn and pineapples. There were dirt roads, a school and two churches, one Catholic and one evangelical. The village name, which meant “Two R’s,” was a tribute to the founders, Federico Aquino Ruano and Marcos Reyes.

The area army commander, Lt. Carlos Antonio Carias, wanted the men of Dos Erres to join an armed civil-defense patrol at his base in the town of Las Cruces, about seven miles away. The men resisted, saying they would only patrol their own community. Lt. Carias turned hostile, accusing the people of Dos Erres of harboring guerrillas. He barred residents from flag-raising ceremonies. As evidence of their supposed treachery, he showed his superiors a harvesting sack that bore the initials FAR, claiming it was the insignia of the rebel group. In reality, the sack belonged to the hamlet’s cofounder Ruano and was inscribed with his initials.

In October, the army suffered a humiliating defeat in which guerrillas killed a group of soldiers and made off with about 20 rifles. By early December, intelligence indicated the rifles were in the area of Dos Erres. The army decided to send its crack commandos, the Kaibiles, to recover the weapons and teach the villagers a lesson.

Lt. Carlos Antonio Carias (Johan Ordonez /AFP/Getty Images)

The commandos were the point of the spear in an anti-guerrilla offensive that had already drawn international condemnation. Kaibil means “having the strength and astuteness of two tigers” in the Mam indigenous language. With a notoriously harsh training regime in survival skills, counterinsurgency and psychological warfare, the Kaibil commandos were viewed as Latin America’s most brutal special forces. Their motto: “If I advance, follow me; if I stop, urge me on; if I retreat, kill me.”

The plan was to conceal the identity of the raiders. On Dec. 6, 1982, a 20-man Kaibil squad assembled at a base in Petén and disguised themselves as guerrillas, replacing their uniforms with green T-shirts, civilian pants and red armbands. The 40 uniformed troops who joined them had orders to provide perimeter support and prevent anyone from entering or leaving. Whatever happened in Dos Erres would be blamed on the leftists.

The troops departed at 10 p.m. in two unmarked trucks. They drove until midnight, then hiked for two hours into the dense humid jungle. They were guided by a captive guerrilla who had been forced into the mission.

On the outskirts of the hamlet, the attack squad deployed in the usual configuration of groups: assault, perimeter, combat support and command.

The command group had a radio operator who would communicate with army brass throughout the operation. The assault group consisted of specialists in interrogation and close-quarters, hands-on killing. Even fellow commandos in the squad kept their distance from the marauders of the assault group, whom they viewed as psychopaths.

The Kaibiles chosen for the secret mission were considered the elite of the elite. At 28, Lt. Ramírez was the most experienced of them all.

Known as Cocorico and El Indio (The Indian), Ramírez had graduated at the top of his class in 1975. He had won a scholarship for advanced training in Colombia, but got in trouble for partying and misspending funds. Suspended by the army for six months, he fought in Nicaragua as a mercenary in 1978 for the forces of the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a U.S. ally. Leftist guerrillas toppled Somoza the next year, raising fears of a domino effect and reinforcing Guatemala’s role as a strategic bastion for Washington’s fight against communism in Central America.

Ramírez returned to Guatemala and joined an artillery unit. Wounded and decorated in November 1981, he engaged in covert operations against guerrillas, often in civilian dress, and developed a reputation for cruelty and thievery. A fellow soldier who served with him considered him “a criminal in uniform.”

Other veterans, however, admired his battlefield prowess and loyalty to his troops. Ramírez was a dutiful son, wiring money to his mother each month. The mother complained frequently that the unmarried lieutenant hadn't given her a grandchild.

Ramírez became an instructor at the commando training school in Petén. In 1982, the Ríos Montt regime closed the school and created a roving squad of instructors who were skilled combatants: lieutenants, sergeants, corporals. Ramírez was deputy commander of the unit, which could be deployed rapidly as a strike force in rebel strongholds.

The squad stormed Dos Erres at 2 a.m.

Commandos kicked in doors and rounded up families. Although the soldiers had been ready for a firefight, there was no resistance. They did not find any of the stolen rifles.

The commandos herded the men into a school and the women and children into a church. The violence began before dawn. One of the soldiers, César Ibañez, heard the screams of girls begging for help. Several soldiers watched as Lt. César Adán Rosales Batres raped a girl in front of her family. Following their superior officer, other commandos started raping girls and women.

At midday, the commandos ordered the women they had abused to prepare food at a small ranch. The soldiers ate in shifts, five at a time. Young women cried as they served Ibañez and the others. Returning to his post, Ibañez saw a sergeant leading a girl down an alley.

The sergeant told him the “vaccinations” had started.

The commandos brought the villagers one by one to the center of the hamlet, near a dry well about 40 feet deep. Favio Pinzón Jerez, the squad’s cook, and other soldiers reassured the captives that everything would be all right. They were going to be vaccinated. It was a routine health precaution, nothing to worry about.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

Sgt. Manuel Pop Sun (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The carnage continued elsewhere. Salome Armando Hernández, 11, lived in another hamlet near Dos Erres. Early that morning he had traveled on horseback with his 22-year-old brother to buy medicine in Las Cruces. When they arrived in Dos Erres at about 10 a.m. to visit an uncle, commandos put Hernández in the church with the women and children.

Peeping between wood slats, the boy saw commandos beat and shoot people. His brother and uncle were killed.

Sub-Lt. Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes (YouTube)

In the afternoon, the raiders gathered about 50 women and children from the church and marched them toward the hills. Hernández positioned himself in the front of the line. He knew they were being taken to their deaths. So did the others.

“We’re not dogs for you to kill us in the field,” a woman declared. “We know that you are going to kill us, why don’t you kill us right here?”

A soldier near the front charged among the prisoners to grab the woman by the hair. Hernández saw his chance and bolted off the path, gunfire echoing behind him. The boy hid in the vegetation and listened.

One by one, the soldiers killed the prisoners. Hernández heard the groans of the dying, a boy crying for his mother. The soldiers executed them with single shots from their rifles, one after another, 40 or 50 shots in total.

By nightfall, only corpses, animals and commandos inhabited the village. The squad bunked for the night in looted homes. Rain fell. Hernández crept back into town through the dark and mud. He passed the cadavers of his neighbors lying in streets and clearings. Huddled in tall grass, the boy heard the soldiers laughing.

“We finished them off, bro,” a commando said. “And we are going to keep hunting.”

Hernández eventually made his way back to Las Cruces.

Five prisoners had also survived the annihilating fury of the Kaibiles. It was a fluke: The three teenage girls and two small boys had apparently been hiding somewhere. They wandered into the center of the hamlet at sunset, when most of the villagers were dead. Commandos took them to a house that had been converted into the command post. The lieutenants decided not to kill the newcomers right away.

On the morning of Dec. 8, the squad set off on foot into the jungle hills, captives in tow. The commandos dressed the girls in military uniforms. Lt. Ramírez took charge of the 3-year-old boy; Santos Lopez Alonzo, the squad’s baker, carried the 5-year-old.

That night, three commandos took the teenage girls into the brush and raped them. In the morning, they strangled and shot them.

The squad spared both little boys. Both were light-skinned and had green eyes, prized features in a society stratified along racial lines.

Lt. Ramírez told Pinzón and the others that he was going to bring the younger boy to his hometown of Zacapa, in eastern Guatemala, and outfit him in the style of the region.

“I’m going to dress him up sharp, like a cowboy,” Ramírez said. “Cowboy boots, pants and shirt.”

Sgt. Pedro Pimentel Rios (Jose Miguel Lam/AFP/Getty Images)

Days later, a helicopter set down in a clearing. It was there to pick up Pedro Pimentel Rios for his next assignment. He went to Panama to serve as an instructor at the School of the Americas, the U.S. military base that trained many Latin American officers implicated in atrocities. The two boys were loaded aboard the helicopter and flown back to the Kaibil base.

In the jungle, the squad hiked on. They relied on the directions of the captive guerrilla they used as a guide. The prisoner was bound to a long rope, like a leash.

The commandos were low on provisions by now. While they sat around a fire on the side of the trail, Lt. Ramírez told a subordinate, Fredy Samayoa Tobar, that he felt like eating meat.

“Where am I supposed to get some meat?” Samayoa said.

"Go take a piece out of that guide and bring it to me," Ramírez answered.

Samayoa drew his bayonet. He sliced a piece of skin about a foot long from the back of the captive guide. He brought the chunk of flesh to the lieutenant.

“Here’s your meat.”

“Oh no, no, no, you’ve got to execute him,” Ramírez said. “He’s suffering.”

The commando killed the guide. The lieutenant did not eat the meat.

The rampage ended near the town of Bethel, where the commandos plundered a grocery, stealing beers, cigars and water. They ran across some peasants and decapitated them.

By the time the squad returned to base, more than 250 people were dead. The Kaibiles christened the mission “Operation Brushcutter.” They had mowed down everyone they had encountered.

Four days after the massacre, Lt. Carias, the commander in Las Cruces, led troops on trucks and tractors into Dos Erres. They looted vehicles, animals and property, then burned and razed the hamlet.

Carias met with terrified relatives of the missing. Some had been away from Dos Erres that day. Others lived in villages nearby. He blamed the guerrillas for the incident.

Anyone who asked too many questions, Carias warned, was going to die.

Chapter 3: Living Proof

Within just a few weeks, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala had figured out what happened in Dos Erres.

U.S. Embassy Cable from Dec. 28, 1982

A “trusted source” told embassy officials that soldiers posing as rebels had killed more than 200 people. It was the latest in a stream of reports to the embassy blaming the military for massacres around the country. On Dec. 30, three U.S. officials went to Las Cruces, where interviews with local residents raised further suspicions.

The team flew over Dos Erres in a helicopter. Although the Guatemalan Air Force pilot refused to land, the evidence of an atrocity — burned houses, abandoned fields — was clear enough. In an unusually blunt cable to Washington, diplomats stated that “the party most likely responsible for this incident is the Guatemalan Army.”

The U.S. government kept that conclusion secret until 1998. No action was taken against the army or the commando squad. The United States continued to support Central America’s repressive but avowedly anti-communist governments.

U.S. Embassy Cable from Dec. 31, 1982

It would be 14 years before anyone tried to bring the killers of Dos Erres to justice.

In 1996, more than three decades of civil war ended with a peace treaty between the rebels and Guatemalan military. Both sides agreed to an amnesty that exempted combatants, but allowed for prosecution of atrocities.

There was considerable doubt about whether the new government would succeed in bringing such cases. The perpetrators of some of the worst war crimes retained power in the armed forces or in rapidly growing criminal mafias. Drug cartels recruited ex-Kaibiles as triggermen and trainers.

An unlikely sleuth who challenged those dangerous forces was Sara Romero.

Romero was short and soft-spoken, her black hair parted in the middle. She looked more like a schoolteacher or a clerk than a frontline crime-fighter. At 35, she was a rookie prosecutor. She had graduated from law school the year before and been assigned to a special human rights unit in Guatemala City. Although the crimes of the war had gone unpunished for years, she was determined to pursue the investigations no matter the odds. If not, she thought, impunity would remain entrenched in Guatemalan society.

Romero was assigned the Dos Erres case. There had been hundreds of massacres during the conflict. United Nations investigators would eventually conclude that 93 percent of the casualties came at the hands of the military, and that the systematic slaughter of indigenous people constituted genocide.

Romero had little to go on. The military still insisted that the Dos Erres incident had been the work of the guerrillas. Because of the eyewitness account of Hernández, the 11-year-old survivor, the prosecutor was convinced of the army's involvement. But she needed more.

Romero traveled to the scene, a rattling eight-hour bus ride north to the remote region. A pall of silence hung over the ruins. She interviewed survivors who had been away from the hamlet on the day of the slaughter. Many were afraid to talk. They whispered that they feared the wrath of Lt. Carias, who was still the area commander in Las Cruces. They suspected he masterminded the massacre because he had clashed with the residents of Dos Erres.

Special Human Rights Prosecutor Sara Romero (Habiba Nosheen)

Romero found it hard to establish basic facts, such as the identities of victims. Trying to assemble a kind of census, she asked a former teacher in Dos Erres to list the names of all the children and their relatives she could remember.

Without confirmed victims and strong witnesses, Romero might never make a case. But she found a providential ally: Aura Elena Farfán.

Dignified and grandmotherly, Farfán had thick gray hair and a disposition that mixed sweet and steely. She led a human rights association in Guatemala City for victims of the conflict. Despite intimidation and threats, she had filed a criminal complaint accusing the army of mass murder in Dos Erres. In 1994, she had brought in a team of volunteer forensic anthropologists from Argentina to exhume the remains.

The Argentines — their skills honed by investigating their own nation’s “dirty war” — worked quickly and in risky conditions. The army battalion in Las Cruces harassed them by playing loud military music and following them around. The exhumation initially identified the remains of at least 162 bodies, many babies and children retrieved from the well.

At the request of the human rights association led by Aura Elena Farfán, members of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team traveled to Dos Erres and excavated bodies from the well. (Silvana Turner/EAAF)

Farfán handed prosecutors a major breakthrough. She gave frequent radio interviews in the area urging witnesses to come forward. After one broadcast, UN officials told her a former soldier wanted to talk about Dos Erres. Farfán traveled to the man’s home. The activist took precautions, concealing her identity with sunglasses, a red hat and a shawl. A Spanish UN official followed from a distance to help ensure her safety.

The door opened. The tipster was Pinzón, the chubby, mustachioed former cook for the roving Kaibil squad. He was having breakfast with his children. After his initial surprise, he welcomed Farfán.

Pinzón told her he had left the military and worked as a driver at a hospital. He had never been a full-fledged commando because he had washed out of training. As a lowly cook, he had been mistreated by the other soldiers. He was an outsider, a weak link in the warrior code of silence. Dos Erres haunted him.

“I wanted to talk to you because what I have right here in my heart, I cannot stand it anymore,” Pinzón said to Farfán.

Pinzón told the story of the massacre and named the members of the squad. The conversation lasted four hours. Farfán was overcome by a mix of disgust and gratitude. She couldn’t bring herself to shake the soldier’s hand. But his repentance struck her as genuine.

Pinzón soon introduced Farfán to another repentant veteran: Ibañez. She convinced both men to give statements to Romero. They recounted their stories coldly, without emotion. It would have been impossible to know the details of the massacre if the two had not testified. Because their information was fundamental, prosecutors granted them immunity and relocated them as protected witnesses.

Human Rights Activist Aura Elena Farfán (Habiba Nosheen)

From the start, investigators had encountered obstruction and threats from the military. Now they had explosive firsthand testimony implicating the Kaibil rapid reaction squad.

They also had a startling new lead: the abduction of the two boys by Lt. Ramírez and Alonzo, the squad’s former baker.

Romero thought it was a miracle. Finding the boys was critical. They had to know the truth — they were living with the people who’d killed their parents. No other atrocity case had this kind of evidence.

In 1999, Romero and another prosecutor went to Alonzo’s home, near the city of Retalhuleu. Because her office had only meager resources, there was no police backup, no weapons. Romero was apprehensive about confronting a commando with such grave allegations. She knew the Kaibiles prided themselves on being killing machines.

When she saw the soldier resting in a hammock in front of his tumbledown house, her fear faded. He’s just a simple man, a humble peasant, she thought.

Family pictures in Alonzo’s home confirmed her suspicions that she was in the right place. Alonzo was a dark-skinned Maya. Five of his children resembled him. The sixth, a boy named Ramiro, had light skin and green eyes.

“My oldest son has a sad story,” Alonzo told the prosecutor.

Alonzo confessed. After the massacre, he had kept Ramiro at the commando school for three months. He brought the child home and told his wife he’d been abandoned. Alonzo said he had enlisted Ramiro, by now 22, in the army. He refused to disclose the youth’s location. When the prosecutor’s office inquired, the Defense Ministry asked Ramiro if he had a problem with law enforcement. Rather than cooperate, the ministry moved him from base to base.

Ramiro Cristales (Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press/AP Photo)

Investigators worried that Ramiro would be in grave danger if the military knew he was living proof of an atrocity. Eventually, prosecutors found him and spirited him away. Ramiro told them he had memories of the massacre and the murders of his family. The Alonzo family had treated him badly, he said, beating him and using him as a near slave. During a drunken rage, Alonzo had once fired a rifle at him. Authorities convinced Ramiro to leave the army and got him political asylum in Canada.

The search for the other youth foundered.

Prosecutors learned that the boy’s name was Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda. His suspected abductor, Lt. Ramírez, had died eight months after the massacre. He had been using a truck to transport wood for a house he was building. The truck overturned as Ramírez rode in the bed, killing him instantly.

Questioned in Zacapa in 1999, a sister of the lieutenant disclosed that he had brought home the boy in early 1983, claiming Oscar was his son with an unmarried woman. Prosecutors found a birth certificate for him, but no sign that the mother actually existed. The sister admitted that she had heard the boy was from Dos Erres.

Oscar had left the country for the United States. His family did not want to help the investigators find him. Romero decided to call off the search.

Investigators made headway on other leads. They had identified numerous perpetrators from the commando squad. In 2000, a judge issued arrest warrants for 17 suspects in the massacre.

In the suffocating reality of Guatemala, however, the results were anticlimactic. Police failed to execute most of the warrants. Defense lawyers bombarded courts with paperwork, appealing to the Supreme Court. They argued that their clients were protected by amnesty laws, a claim that was inaccurate but effectively stalled the prosecution.

Romero had run up against the might of the military. It looked as if justice would elude her, just as Oscar had.

Chapter 4: Strange News From Home

In the summer of 2000, Oscar was living near Boston when he received a perplexing letter.

A cousin in Zacapa sent him a copy of an article published in a Guatemala City newspaper. It described Romero’s search for two young boys who had survived the massacre and had been raised by military families.

“AG Looks for Abducted of Dos Erres,” the headline declared. “They Survived The Massacre.”

The story went on to explain that prosecutors had identified both young men. Prosecutors believed that one of them, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, was living somewhere in the United States. It was quite possible that he had been too young to remember anything about the massacre or his abduction by the lieutenant, the prosecutors said.

The newspaper ran a family photo showing Oscar as an 8-year-old. The article reported more information about Ramiro than about Oscar because prosecutors had succeeded in finding and questioning the older boy before helping him win asylum in Canada.

There was a recent snapshot of Ramiro as a military cadet, holding a rifle and wearing the uniform of the army that had slaughtered his family. The story mentioned the investigators' suspicion that the two boys, who both had light skin and green eyes, were brothers.

“The order was to finish off all the inhabitants of Dos Erres,” the article said. “No one can explain why Lt. Ramírez Ramos and Sgt. Lopez Alonzo made the decision to take the boys.”

Oscar was mystified. He called an aunt in Zacapa.

“What is this all about?” he asked. “Why is my photo in the paper?”

The aunt had seen the article. She told him she didn't know what to make of the allegations, except that they were false. She insisted that the lieutenant was Oscar’s father, period. The story struck her as an attempt by leftists to smear the name of an honorable soldier.

In the persistent ideological strife of Guatemala, that was plausible. Many families affiliated with the military and right-wing political parties felt that the left had distorted the narrative of the civil war. They complained that Guatemalan and foreign critics exaggerated the abuses of the armed forces while playing down the violence by guerrillas.

Oscar's aunt convinced him that the allegations were too bizarre to be credible.

“If I really have a brother like they are claiming, let him find me,” he told her. “He'll know if he's my brother or not.”

Oscar’s memories of his early childhood were hazy. He had never known anything about his mother. He had no real memories of the lieutenant. The boy grew up in a two-room house on an idyllic farm in the hot and dry region of Zacapa, where his family raised cows and grew tobacco. The family matriarch was Oscar’s grandmother, Rosalina. She had taken charge of his upbringing after the death of Lt. Ramírez. Oscar considered her his mother.

Rosalina was affectionate and strict. Oscar always had chores. He milked the cows at 5 a.m., worked in the fields after school, tried to make cigars — though he never quite got the hang of it. He loved life on the farm, riding horses, roaming the countryside. His aunts made sure he was clean and neat for school.

The Ramírezes were strivers. One of Oscar’s uncles was a prominent local doctor. Two aunts were nurses. The family and their neighbors and friends idolized Oscar’s father, the lieutenant, for his battlefield exploits and his generosity. He had helped pay for the education of his siblings. He had brought fellow fighters from his mercenary days in Nicaragua to settle in Zacapa. The community had even named a soccer field at a military school in Ramírez's honor.

Curiously, though, Oscar had shown no interest in following in the lieutenant’s footsteps. His aunts urged him to go to military school, but he had an independent streak. He didn’t like taking orders.

Oscar got a vocational high school degree in accounting. It was hard to find work. After his grandmother died, he skirmished with relatives over an inheritance. He decided to seek his fortune in the United States. So in late 1998, Oscar made his way north like so many fellow Guatemalans. He flew to Mexico and slipped illegally across the border into Texas.

After a brief stay in Arlington, Virginia, Oscar settled in Framingham, Massachusetts. The suburb west of Boston had a growing community of Central Americans and Brazilians. He found a job in the produce section of a supermarket. The pay and benefits were solid, and nobody bothered him about his immigration status.

Oscar’s new life soon consumed him. He reunited with Nidia, his teenage sweetheart, who had arrived from Guatemala. In 2005, they moved into a small duplex in a weathered residential complex.

Nidia gave birth to two girls and a boy, smart and energetic kids who slid easily between English and Spanish. The family kept Oscar busy: church, swimming lessons, cookouts on the outdoor grill. He rose to assistant manager at the supermarket but lost the job in an immigration crackdown in 2009. He found new jobs as a supervisor: mornings at a cleaning company, evenings at a fast-food restaurant.

Oscar was polite and poised and spoke English well. Some of the regulars at the Mexican burrito place that he managed even mistook him for the owner.

Despite the precarious nature of life as an illegal immigrant, Oscar was healthy and putting food on the table. He considered himself a happy man.

The newspaper article had stirred doubts. But he came from a part of the world where mysteries abounded, where allegations and suspicions outnumbered facts.

As the years went on, he thought about the episode less and less.

Chapter 5: The Hunt Moves North

Frustrated that the Dos Erres case had ended up in limbo, Guatemalan activists sued their own government in international court.

The legal action resulted in public disclosure of the list of suspects. A few had died, but the rest were at large. And then help came from an unexpected quarter: a special unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington that tracks down war criminals.

The unit forwarded a lead to Jon Longo, an ICE agent in West Palm Beach, Florida. A compact Italian American from Boston with a goatee, Longo, 39, had only two years on the job. But he had experience persuading criminals to talk. He held a master’s degree in psychology and had worked for eight years as a prison therapist.

Sgt. Gilberto Jordán (Broward County Sheriff's Office/AP Photo)

Analysts at ICE headquarters suspected that one of the Kaibil commandos on the Dos Erres list, Gilberto Jordán, was living in Delray Beach, about a half-hour drive from Longo’s office. Jordán worked as a cook at two country clubs. Longo’s orders were to determine if he had taken part in the massacre and, if so, to build a case under U.S. law.

It wasn't going to be a murder case. Because Jordán had become a U.S. citizen, he could not be deported to Guatemala for trial. Nor could he be prosecuted in U.S. courts for a crime committed many years earlier in a foreign country.

Longo focused instead on U.S. immigration statutes. Jordán, who was 53, had stated on naturalization forms that he hadn’t served in the military or committed crimes in Guatemala. If he had been in the army or participated in the Dos Erres attack, his statements would violate laws against lying to obtain citizenship. Longo wanted to approach the case as simply as possible. He asked himself: “How do I prove these crimes?”

The agent immersed himself in the case file, circling his target. Jordán had left Guatemala soon after the massacre and crossed into Arizona illegally. Thanks to the 1986 immigration amnesty, he became a legal resident. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1999. He had three grown children — one of them a U.S. Marine and Iraq vet.

Longo obtained Jordán's army file from the Guatemalan government and confirmed he had been a commando. Separately, agents in Houston caught another Dos Erres suspect: Alonzo, the squad’s baker, who had taken 5-year-old Ramiro. Alonzo had been deported once before. ICE charged him with breaking U.S. laws against re-entering the United States.

In early 2010, Agent Longo interviewed Alonzo about Dos Erres. He also questioned the repentant soldiers-turned-witnesses, Pinzón and Ibañez, who described Jordán’s actions during the massacre. By May, Longo was ready to arrest Jordán. But U.S. prosecutors told Longo he needed more proof that Jordán had participated in the massacre and lied about it. Without direct evidence, such as a confession, they would not indict.

Longo and his bosses decided to knock on Jordán’s door. It was a long shot. Murderers tend to confess more readily on television than in real life. Especially veteran commandos versed in stealth and psychological warfare.

Longo planned carefully for the confrontation. He was dealing with a highly trained soldier who might own weapons. To help build rapport, Longo enlisted a Latino agent — a military special operations veteran — to approach Jordán with him.

As permitted by law, the ICE team concocted a ruse. Because Jordán had served in the presidential guard, they would tell him they were interested in the recent U.S. arrest of a former Guatemalan president accused of corruption. Then they would ask about Dos Erres. If Jordán refused to talk, they would have to walk away.

On the morning of the operation, Longo deployed agents to tail Jordán’s wife as she worked cleaning homes in the area. The agents planned to confront Jordán at work, but he called in sick. Wearing raid jackets, the agents went to his home in a modest, multiethnic subdivision with narrow streets. Jordán’s truck was parked in the driveway of his well-kept, one-story house, which sits behind a row of tropical trees. The garage door was open when the agents cruised by, but closed when they came back.

Longo called Jordán on his cell phone and identified himself. Jordán politely told him to come over. When the team knocked on his door, though, no one answered. Longo called again. No response. Minutes ticked by. The agents had their hands on their guns.

“We don’t have a warrant,” Longo thought. “He could be getting a cannon ready in there, for all we know.”

Longo directed the agents shadowing Jordán’s wife to stop her and explain the situation. She agreed to call her husband. He reacted like a hunted man.

“They are here to kill me,” Jordán told his wife.

“No, they are the Americans,” she said.

“They have guns,” he replied.

The tension subsided, and Jordán invited the agents into his home. He was short and stolid, with close-cropped gray hair and a lined face. He wore puttering-around clothes: baseball cap, T-shirt, jeans. They sat at a rustic wood kitchen table, photos of Jordán’s children on the walls, and made small talk in Spanish and English. Soon his wife joined them.

Jordán agreed to answer questions, signing a Miranda form after Longo read him his rights. He admitted he had been a commando. He said he did not display military memorabilia in his house because his wife had heard of former soldiers attacked by Guatemalans with grudges against the military.

Longo had dealt with plenty of murderers in his career. Jordán didn’t have the look of a killer. Although calm and guarded, he seemed somewhat eager to talk. He’s throwing out breadcrumbs, Longo thought.

Gilberto Jordán’s Testimony, Pg. 20

Gilberto Jordán’s Testimony, Pg. 28

“I had problems in Guatemala,” Jordán said. “They say I did things. There was a massacre.”

“Where?” Longo asked.

“At a place called Dos Erres.”

Longo bided his time. The conversation eventually returned to the massacre. Jordán took a deep breath. He told the story of Dos Erres. He described the slaughter at the well.

Todos [everyone],” Jordán said, making a gesture to depict victims falling into the well. He began to cry. He said: “I threw a baby into the well.”

Jordán told the agents that he had wept as he killed the infant. He denied raping anyone. His wife listened morosely. She knew all about Dos Erres, Jordán explained.

“I knew this day would come,” Jordán said. He looked relieved. Longo felt Jordán had been dying to get it off his chest.

After about 45 minutes, Longo thanked Jordán for his candor. Heart pounding, he went out to the driveway and called a federal prosecutor to report Jordán’s admissions. The prosecutor knew Longo wanted to handcuff Jordán on the spot. She told him to hold off, saying she wanted to create a clear record that the confession was voluntary.

Tell him to come to your office tomorrow morning for a formal appointment, she said.

The next day, agents arrested Jordán when he showed up with a lawyer. Within weeks, he had agreed to plead guilty to concealing facts and willful misrepresentation on his immigration application.

Prosecutors pushed for the maximum sentence. At a hearing in a Florida courtroom, they called Ramiro Cristales, who had traveled from Canada, where he lived as a refugee. Longo expected Ramiro to be a shell of a man. Instead, the 33-year-old Guatemalan impressed the agent with his courage and maturity.

In his testimony, Ramiro described commandos storming into the house where he lived with his parents and six siblings, and beating and terrorizing the family.

“We started praying because they was saying [to] us, if you believe in God, pray, because nobody will save you,” Ramiro testified.

Though it is not clear how precise his memories are, Ramiro told the court he spent most of the massacre in the church with the women and children. He said the soldiers threw his younger siblings in the well.

Jordán's immigration crime rarely results in a prison term of more than six months. But U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch was disgusted by what he heard in court. He grew even angrier when Jordán's lawyer argued that her client was not a danger to the community.

“After these allegations?” Judge Zloch demanded. “How many more does he have to commit after this incident? How many more heads have to be smashed in? How many more women need to be raped? How many more people shot? How many?”

In September 2010, the judge sentenced Jordán to the maximum possible term: 10 years in federal prison.

Pedro Pimentel Rios is transferred to a plane bound for Guatemala by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at Phoenix Mesa Gateway airport in Arizona on July 12, 2011. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Across the United States, ICE investigators sifted the list of suspects for leads. Agents in Orange County, California, arrested Pimentel, the commando who had left for the U.S. military academy in Panama weeks after killing and raping at Dos Erres. In 1985, the U.S. military had awarded Pimentel an Army Commendation Medal for his service. He was found living illegally as a maintenance worker in the United States. Authorities deported him to Guatemala to stand trial.

Federal investigators learned that Sosa, the sub-lieutenant who had allegedly thrown a grenade into the well in Dos Erres, was a U.S. citizen and prominent martial arts instructor in Orange County. Sosa moved to Canada, where he was jailed pending extradition for trial in California on charges of falsifying his U.S. immigration application. Alonzo, Ramiro’s abductor, pleaded guilty in Houston. He agreed to testify against Sosa, his former superior officer.

Chapter 6: Cocorico2

The U.S. arrests helped jolt Romero’s investigation back to life.

The Guatemalan military had been more responsive to requests from U.S. authorities than its own prosecutors, turning over documents about the fugitive commandos caught by ICE. American investigators sent the material to counterparts in Guatemala, where Jordán’s confession and other evidence strengthened the cases against about a dozen suspects still at large.

The atmosphere in Guatemala had changed. In late 2010, a new attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, was appointed by President Álvaro Colom. Guatemala’s first female attorney general launched an unprecedented campaign against human rights abusers, charging former dictator Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity.

In addition, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica had ruled in favor of the lawsuit by Guatemalan activists, forcing Guatemala’s Supreme Court to order the Dos Erres prosecution to resume.

Former dictator Gen. Jose Efraín Ríos Montt (Jose Miguel Lam/AFP/Getty Images)

Fifteen years into the case, prosecutor Romero ordered a new round of arrests in 2011. Police were able to capture three of the commandos and Carias, the former local commander.

Investigators faced danger and hostility. A witness in another atrocity case was murdered. Military families in the Guatemala City neighborhoods where suspects lived threatened to lynch police who were hunting for war criminals. Col. Roberto Aníbal Rivera Martínez, the former lieutenant in charge of the Dos Erres unit, had escaped when the arrest team arrived at his home, which was equipped with a tunnel connected to another building. Prosecutors suspected that some of the fugitives were hiding on army bases or in areas dominated by the military.

During questioning in Guatemala City, a captured commando described the abduction of the two boys. The judge supervising the case ordered Romero to redouble her efforts to find Oscar. Years before, she had been thwarted by the resistance of Oscar’s family. The newspaper story about her investigation had not helped.

But once again, in May 2011, Romero returned to Zacapa, where Oscar had been raised. Again she sat down with Oscar’s uncle, the prominent doctor. During her previous visit, he had accused her of slandering the lieutenant’s honor with her questions about the boy. This time, the doctor was a bit more cooperative. He disclosed that Oscar was living in the United States and now had a family. He said he did not know their phone number.

“His wife's nickname is La Flaca [The Skinny Girl],” the doctor said.

Armed with that lead, investigators located a merchant who helped them identify Nidia and track down her family in a nearby town. The prosecutor interviewed Nidia’s parents. They gave her Oscar’s email address, which incorporated the word Cocorico2. Romero realized that Oscar used the same nickname as Lt. Ramírez.

A few days later, after hearing about her visit, Oscar called Romero. She kept the conversation brief, not wanting to deliver a bombshell over the phone.

Then she sat down to compose an email. She struggled to find the best words to explain that his entire life had been based on a lie. Romero knew Oscar was an illegal immigrant. She imagined his existence far from home. She thought about the impact the email might have. How would he take the news? Would he need psychological counseling?

She pushed ahead. It had to be done. She began with the phrase: “You don’t know me.”

In the moments after he read her message in Framingham, Oscar whirled through convoluted thoughts and emotions. The prosecutor was claiming that he had lived a completely different life until the age of three. He found it hard to believe. He could summon no mental picture of Dos Erres. The people he knew as blood relatives in Zacapa had treated him as a full-fledged member of the family.

Then he thought back to the newspaper article about him and Ramiro from a decade before — the story that his relatives had dismissed as unthinkable. The doubts flooded back.

Oscar called Romero and agreed to take a DNA test. Last June 20, a Guatemalan human rights investigator named Fredy Peccerelli arrived in Framingham to collect the evidence that would determine Oscar’s true identity once and for all.

The two men hit it off. With his shaved head, weightlifter’s physique and Bensonhurst accent, Peccerelli seemed more like an action hero than a scientist and human rights crusader.

Fredy Peccerelli of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Born in Guatemala and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the 41-year-old Peccerelli was one of the top forensic anthropologists in Latin America. His private, internationally funded Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation supported state investigations of atrocities and high-profile crimes, exhumed remains at massacre sites and clandestine cemeteries, and performed DNA tests at a state-of-the-art lab behind high walls in Guatemala City.

In 2010, Peccerelli's foundation had analyzed the Dos Erres remains recovered years earlier by the Argentine team. The forensic investigators used sophisticated technology to take DNA from relatives of the victims and look for matches.

When they met, Peccerelli tried to imagine what Oscar had gone through as a boy. Had he seen his entire family being killed?

Peccerelli felt protective toward Oscar. The young man was wary at first. Peccerelli told him he knew what it was like to be an immigrant in the shadows. His father had been a lawyer in Guatemala, and when Peccerelli was a boy, the family had fled death threats by rushing to the United States.

Gradually, Oscar opened up, telling the story of his own clandestine odyssey from Guatemala. After the Guatemalan visitors took the DNA sample, Oscar and Nidia cooked a big meal for Peccerelli and a fellow investigator in the kitchen of their townhouse.

Peccerelli had spent years piecing together the secrets of shattered skeletons. Now, for the first time, he was face to face with living evidence. He had a rare chance to ask important questions. In past cases, children who had been abducted by soldiers had been raised abusively, like Ramiro, forced to sleep in barns and work 20 hours a day. Peccerelli was fascinated to hear about a firsthand experience.

The Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation analyzed the Dos Erres remains that an Argentine forensic team had recovered years earlier. (Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation)

“How did they treat you?” Peccerelli asked Oscar.

“Where I was raised, I was raised well,” Oscar said in his serene, laconic way. “I wasn't treated differently than any other kid.”

Peccerelli returned to Guatemala to complete the tests. He had the impression that Oscar was deeply curious, but also ambivalent.

At some level, he thought, Oscar hoped the whole thing might not be true.

Chapter 7: ‘Sorrows Can Swim’

Oscar waited about six weeks for the DNA results.

On Aug. 7, Peccerelli called from Guatemala City. He explained that the tests had conclusively ruled out one of the prosecution’s theories: that Oscar and the other abducted boy, Ramiro, might be brothers.

“Thank you,” Oscar said. “I’m not surprised.”

Peccerelli paused. There was more.

“We found your biological father,” he told Oscar. “He’s a gentleman named Tranquilino.”

Oscar turned to Nidia. He said the words he still found hard to believe: “They found my father.”

Tranquilino Castañeda had been a farmer in Dos Erres. He had escaped the massacre because he was working in the fields in another town. For nearly 30 years, he thought the commandos had killed his wife and all nine of his children.

Tranquilino Castañeda, Oscar’s biological father (Alex Cruz/El Perídico de Guatemala)

Oscar was his youngest son: His real name was Alfredo Castañeda.

Peccerelli, Aura Elena Farfán and other investigators set up a video conversation between the two survivors.

Oscar saw his father appear on the computer screen. Castañeda was a lanky, rugged 70-year-old in a cowboy hat, his craggy face etched by decades of work, solitude and sadness.

Investigators had taken Castañeda’s DNA and talked to him for months without disclosing their suspicions about Oscar’s true identity. When they were certain and decided to tell Castañeda, they brought a doctor along just in case. One of the human rights investigators pulled Castañeda’s chair next to hers and leaned close.

“I’m going to tell you something,” she said. “Do you know that person, that young man on the screen?”

“No, I don’t know who that is,” Castañeda said.

“It’s your son.”

Castañeda was staggered. His reaction was more sad and bewildered than joyful. The group gathered around to comfort him. He downed a shot of liquor to clear his head.

The father peered in disbelief at the screen. He tried to compare the face of the grown man two thousand miles away with the chubby toddler he remembered. As the people around him watched, tears in their eyes, Castañeda addressed his son by his real name.

“Alfredito,” he said. “How are you?”

The conversation was emotional and uncomfortable. Oscar did not know what to say. Castañeda asked if Oscar remembered that he had been missing his front teeth when he was little. Oscar said he did remember that. Mainly, they spent a lot of time looking at each other.

Father and son spoke again by phone and Skype. Soon they were talking every day, getting to know each other, filling in three missing decades.

The lieutenant’s family was equally stunned. But there was no apparent rancor. They promptly invited Castañeda to visit them in Zacapa. They marveled at the resemblance between Castañeda and the man they knew as Oscar. Castañeda joined the Ramírez family for a festive outdoor meal. In photos the family sent to Oscar, his father looked years younger.

Castañeda had been destroyed by the loss of his family. After the massacre, he holed up in a shack in the jungle. He never remarried. He became an alcoholic. He drank as much as a person can.

“I thought I would drown my sorrows, but you can’t,” Castañeda said. "Sorrows can swim."

Oscar’s deepening relationship with his father propelled him into a new world. He did a lot of thinking. Though talkative about some topics — work, soccer, life as an illegal immigrant — it took effort for him to open up about the miracles and traumas of the past year.

The one person he found easy to talk to was Ramiro, the other abducted survivor. They had long phone conversations. They asked unanswerable questions. Why did the soldiers spare them? What kind of man slaughters families, yet decides to save and raise a boy?

During the dictatorships in Argentina and El Salvador, abduction of infants from leftist families became an organized and sometimes profitable racket. On an ideological level, the kidnappers wanted to eliminate a generation of future subversives by giving or selling them to right-wing families.

In Guatemala, such crimes were more haphazard and opportunistic. Government investigators estimated the military had kidnapped more than 300 children during the civil war. In a poor and rural society, Ramiro’s story of forced labor and abuse tended to be typical.

Oscar’s experience stood out because he was treated with care and affection. Investigators think the lieutenant brought him home to please his mother because of her complaints about not him not giving her grandchildren.

Oscar now understood that his “adoptive” father oversaw the murders of his mother and siblings. He read about the medieval horrors of the massacre. He realized that a stark photo in the lieutenant’s album — of soldiers posing with an apparent prisoner tethered to a rope — perhaps showed a scene like the “guide” who was tortured and killed after Dos Erres.

In this photo, taken from Lt. Ramírez’s album, soldiers pose with an apparent prisoner tied to a rope. (Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda)

Oscar sat at his kitchen table, examining the photo album. He returned, quietly and adamantly, to two facts. The lieutenant saved him. And the Ramírez family treated him as one of their own.

“He’s still a hero for me,” Oscar said. “I see him the same way I did before.”

And then: “He was in the army. And in the army they tell you things, and you have to do things. Especially in times of war. Even if someone doesn’t want to.”

For the investigators, Oscar had become a powerful new witness. He had to be protected. Peccerelli helped him find a high-powered American lawyer. R. Scott Greathead, a partner in the New York office of the firm Wiggin and Dana, had been active in human rights work across Latin America for three decades. Among other major cases, Greathead represented the families of U.S. nuns who were raped and murdered by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980.

Greathead and fellow pro bono lawyers in Boston filed a claim seeking political asylum in the United States for Oscar on the grounds that he would be a high-profile target if he had to return to Guatemala.

“There are people,” Oscar said, “who don’t want to dig up the past.”

Chapter 8: Two Guatemalas

Last August, a Guatemalan court found three former commandos of the Dos Erres squad guilty of murder and human rights violations. The defendants each received sentences of 6,060 years in prison, or 30 years for every one of the 201 identified victims plus 30 more for crimes against humanity.

The court convicted and sentenced Col. Carias, the former lieutenant and local commander who helped plan and cover up the raid, for the same crimes. He received an additional six years for aggravated robbery for looting the hamlet.

Two months ago, another Guatemala court handed a sentence of 6,060 years to Pimentel, the former School of the Americas instructor arrested by ICE agents in California and deported. During this trial, prosecutors used Oscar's story for the first time, introducing his DNA test into evidence.

Attorney General Paz said the convictions sent an unprecedented message.

“It’s very important because of the gravity of the facts,” Paz said in an interview. “Before it seemed impossible.”

The case is by no means over. Seven suspects remain at large, including two of the squad’s top officers. Authorities think they could be in the United States or at home in Guatemala, sheltered by powerful networks linking the military and organized crime.

The convictions have stirred resentment. Critics argue that the left’s focus on historic human rights cases is out of touch with the realities of life. Most Guatemalans under 30 are more concerned with crime, poverty and unemployment, according to recently elected President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general and one-time commander of the Kaibil school.

When it comes to the prosecutions of atrocities, the president walks a narrow line. The silver-haired 61-year-old ran on a tough-on-crime platform. During the peace talks of the 1990s he played a leading role, and he has cultivated the profile of a moderate military man since then. After initial uncertainty about his intentions, he has expressed support for Attorney General Paz and a special UN team investigating corruption.

On the other hand, Pérez Molina accuses the left of exaggerating the abuses by the military and failing to acknowledge the historical context for atrocities. He says Guatemala, and all of Central America, face more immediate challenges.

“There are emblematic cases, like Dos Erres,” Pérez Molina said in an interview. “I believe the courts are the ones that have to respond and the ones that have to provide answers. Emblematic cases should be known, but it’s not the path or the route that Guatemala should follow, should get stuck in, this fight in the courts.”

President Otto Pérez Molina (Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images)

This week, there was another judicial breakthrough in the Dos Erres case that has wider political repercussions for Guatemala. A judge ordered former dictator Ríos Montt to stand trial as the alleged mastermind of the Dos Erres massacre. Ríos Montt, already being prosecuted in a separate case for genocide and crimes against humanity, told the judge that he is innocent under military law.

Central America has become a frontline in the drug war spreading south from Mexico. The Obama administration is battling the rise of mafias in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, all hubs for smuggling cocaine and immigrants north. The onslaught threatens to overwhelm the region. The 38 homicides per 100,000 citizens in Guatemala is about 10 times the rate in the U.S. It combines with an impunity rate (cases with no convictions) of about 96 percent. The numbers in Honduras and El Salvador are even worse.

In response, Pérez Molina wants more regional teamwork and U.S. assistance and a bigger role for the military. He wants to deploy Kaibil commandos on surgical missions, as opposed to the all-out combat with traffickers launched by Mexico’s army.

U.S. legislators and human rights advocates worry that enlisting the military in the drug war, especially the Kaibiles, could lead to new abuses of civilians. But Pérez Molina said critics are behind the times. “Thinking that this army, now in 2012, is from the ’70s or the ’80s is a major mistake,” he said.

Military officials insist that the armed forces have reformed. They deny allegations that officers have interfered with the Dos Erres prosecution or others.

Investigators say they believe the military — or factions within it — still plays a sinister role.

Days after the Dos Erres verdict last August, Peccerelli saw a car pull up alongside him as he was driving in Guatemala City with an American anthropologist. A man leaned out and stabbed at one of Peccerelli’s wheels. Fearing an ambush, the burly Peccerelli sped away on the punctured tire.

Days later, a threatening note arrived at the home of his sister. It described the recent movements of Peccerelli, whose forensic work provided key evidence in the trial, and promised revenge for the prison sentences.

“Because of you, ours will suffer,” the note said. “The tire was nothing. The next time it will be your face. ... Son of a bitch, we have you all under surveillance with your kids, your cars, your pickups, the house, schools. ... When you least expect it, you will die. Then revolutionaries, your DNA won’t be good for anything.”

Prosecutors say threats will not deter them.

“We are doing this precisely so that there will not be two Guatemalas,” said Attorney General Paz, “so that there is not a Guatemala that has access to justice and another Guatemala of citizens who do not have access to justice.”

Oscar knows both Guatemalas now. He is still trying to decipher the larger meaning. Dos Erres was one of more than 600 mass killings during the war. The pattern recurred across the map: Women raped, children slaughtered, entire villages erased. Oscar is ready to testify at future trials.

“For me, yes, it’s important to investigate Dos Erres, because I am connected to this,” he said. “Probably if this hadn’t happened to me, I would have said, ‘Look at the violence in Guatemala right now, this other stuff already is past us.’

“Before, I thought the guerrillas and the army killed each other in the war. But I didn’t know that they massacred innocent people. I imagine there is a connection between the violence of the past and the present. If you don’t catch these people, it keeps spreading. People do whatever they want.”

Oscar’s father is not much for political introspection. Castañeda’s new mission in life is to meet Oscar in person. Peccerelli and human rights activist Farfán plan to bring him to the United States soon. The waiting makes him anxious. He still wrestles with his drinking problem. Sometimes he has trouble with his memory.

But some things he hasn’t forgotten. During a conversation in Guatemala City, Castañeda made a sudden request.

“Can I give the names of my children?” he said.

He recited the list. Esther, Etelvina, Enma, Maribel, Luz Antonio, César, Odilia, Rosalba.

And Alfredo, the youngest. Now known as Oscar.

“I believe it is my duty to mention them by name because they were my children,” the father said. “Out of the nine, one is still living. But all of the rest are dead.”

Portrait of Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella

Sebastian Rotella is a reporter at ProPublica. An award-winning foreign correspondent and investigative reporter, Sebastian's coverage includes terrorism, intelligence and organized crime.

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