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Guatemalan Massacre Survivor Wins Political Asylum in U.S.

As a boy, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda was abducted by an officer in the squad that conducted one of the worst massacres in Guatemala’s civil war.

Update, Sept. 24, 6:27 p.m.:This story has been revised to include comments from Oscar Ramírez Castañeda.

U.S. immigration authorities have granted political asylum to Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who learned only last year that he was a survivor of a civil war massacre of 250 villagers in 1982.

Ramírez, a 33-year-old father of four who lives near Boston, received a letter Saturday from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approving his application for political asylum, his lawyer, R. Scott Greathead, told ProPublica, which reported on the case with This American Life and Fundación MEPI.

Obtaining legal status opens a panorama of opportunities to Ramírez after 14 years of living in the shadows. “I am relieved,” Ramírez said in a telephone interview. “We are really happy. I am a lot calmer now. I have been thinking, I have a lot of plans.”

Ramírez filed the request late last year after a Guatemalan investigation proved that he had been abducted as a 3-year-old by an officer in a commando squad that wiped out the village of Dos Erres, one of the worst massacres in Guatemala’s 30-year civil war.

Ramírez’s mother and eight brothers and sisters were killed, but the soldier’s family raised him as one of their own. Last year, Guatemalan human rights activists traveled to the United States to reunite Ramírez with his real father, a 70-year-old farmer who had survived the massacre because he was in another town.

Recounted in “Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala,” the story has become a high-profile case in both the United States and Guatemala. After almost three decades of impunity, authorities in both nations have pursued the killers of Dos Erres, bolstered by DNA evidence proving that soldiers abducted and raised Ramírez and another boy from the hamlet in northern Guatemala.

Guatemalan courts have convicted five soldiers, the first guilty verdicts for a massacre in the conflict that ended in 1996, and are prosecuting former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt as the mastermind. U.S. federal agents have caught four fugitive commandos who migrated to the United States, including Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes, a former Army lieutenant who was extradited Friday from Canada to stand trial in Southern California on immigration charges related to the case.

The U.S. government’s decision to grant asylum status to Ramírez ratifies his claim that he could be in danger of persecution in Guatemala. He is living proof of a crime carried out by a military that retains great power in a nation racked by lawlessness and corruption.

Ramírez's wife, Nidia, also received asylum status as his dependent, according to a Sept. 19 letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The couple will be eligible to apply for permanent residency in a year as well as obtaining work authorization, Social Security cards and other benefits.

“This makes them as normal and regular as they can be without being documented in this country,” Greathead said. He said he believed the news coverage of Ramírez's case had played an important role in the approval of the asylum request.

Despite his illegal status, Ramírez has managed to provide for his family by working two full-time jobs, most recently as a supervisor at a fast food restaurant and a cleaning company. He studied accounting in Guatemala and has training in asbestos removal in the United States. He routinely spends more than 16 hours a day working and commuting.

Now that he can function as a legal immigrant, Ramírez no longer has to watch over his shoulder fearing discovery each time he deals with officialdom or drives to work. He said he would like to study a trade, perhaps as an air conditioning technician or a plumber. He also said he enjoys working at the eatery. “In the future, I would like to have my own restaurant one day,” said Ramírez. “With Latin food.”

His real father, Tranquilino Castañeda, spent the summer living with the family at their two-bedroom duplex in Framingham, Mass. It was an enjoyable and emotionally powerful visit for all involved, Greathead said. Castañeda’s visa allowed him to stay for a limited period of time, and he is complying with the terms, Greathead said. He declined to provide further details about Castañeda’s whereabouts because of security concerns.

Ramírez said he is grateful to the U.S. government, his lawyers and others who expressed interest and support after his case became public. He said he feels inspired and relieved about the future.

“I’d like to find a job in which I can reach my full potential,” he said. “And maybe in which I can have a little more time to enjoy being with my family.”

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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