Journalism in the Public Interest

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.”

Thanks so much! What a heart-warming update to the story of Oscar Ramírez Castañeda! If anyone here hasn’t read the unraveling of his gripping story, I’d recommend going through the above links to get it all! Those who are on the front lines in digging out the truth and work towards helping victims/survivors of political (power driven) atrocities are true heroes!

This is a great story, but ignores obvious questions the reader is going to have. What happened to his “adoptive” father and family? How and when and under what circumstances did Ramirez escape them, if that is the right word; how did he get to the US; and what if any relationship does he maintain with the people who did, after all, rescue and raise him? This has to be complicated, and fascinating.

Rebecca Center

Sep. 24, 2012, 9:12 p.m.

If you go back and either listen to the podcast or read the long article “Finding Oscar”, it will give a lot more details.  The “adoptive father” was killed in a car accident several months after bringing Oscar to his home.  Since he told his family that Oscar was the product of a liaison with an ex-girlfriend who no longer could provide for Oscar, the family never knew the true identity of Oscar.  Oscar himself says he had a good childhood with a loving grandmother who cared for him.  When his grandmother died, he left for the U.S. to seek better opportunities.  He never lost contact with his “adoptive aunts and uncles”.

While I am glad we offered him asylum, it speaks volumes about the problems in our country when an illegal can work 2 jobs, have a vehicle and a home, raise a family including an illegal wife, etc for over a decade without tripping any flags in the system.

It is a sad day John B. when you refer to a human being as “an illegal”. He is a person not an inanimate object.

Thank you for keeping up with this story. I am very VERY excited about Oscar being granted asylum in America. Hopefully one day he will be a citizen and be able to petition for his father to move here and live with him.

This man is the embodiment of the American dream. Came to seek a better future, worked his butt off and is making something of himself and his family. His story is extraordinary, but his work ethic is as American as apple pie. There are hundreds of thousands of people in a similar situation, but are being demonized and persecuted because they’re illegal immigrants. Instead of creating an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, we should be allowing them to contribute to our society.

Those who are aware of the history of US involvement in South America cannot get away from the question of did the US military, CIA, etc have any involvement in the training and supplying of resources to those death squads?

I forgot to mention that the documentary “The Power Principle” (free online) has a segment about Guatemala and mentions the Historical Memory Project based out of John Jay College in NYC which examines the stories and consequences of the Guatemala massacres -

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Finding Oscar

Finding Oscar

It took Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda almost 30 years to learn that he survived a brutal massacre in his home village.

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