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Behind the Headline: Oscar Ramírez Castañeda

After learning he’d been kidnapped as a child, spared from a massacre carried out by the Guatemalan military, Oscar Ramírez Castañeda faced danger of persecution if deported to his home country. ProPublica’s story prompted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant political asylum to Ramírez and his wife.

Matthew Healey, special to ProPublica

Impact has been at the core of ProPublica’s mission since we launched 10 years ago, and it remains the principal yardstick for our success today. For our 10th anniversary, we’re presenting stories of people whose lives have been affected by our work.

In 2011 Oscar Ramírez Castañeda, a 32-year-old married father of four living near Boston, learned that his life was a lie. He was not the son of a heroic Guatemalan military officer, as he’d been told by the family that raised him. DNA tests proved that he’d been kidnapped at age three by the officer, whose commando unit had massacred Ramírez’s entire village of Dos Erres — one of the worst crimes in Guatemala’s bloody civil war.

ProPublica senior reporter Sebastian Rotella chronicled the story of Ramírez, who was living as an undocumented immigrant, in the 2012 series “Finding Oscar.” In partnership with This American Life, the story was also told in a Peabody Award-winning radio documentary.

Four months after its publication, the story put enough political pressure on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant political asylum to Ramírez and his wife. (As living proof of a crime carried out by the Guatemalan military, he could have been in danger of persecution in his home country.) The couple has since received permanent residency, work authorization and Social Security cards. “I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore when I’m driving,” said Ramírez. “Even though I am a very good driver, that worry could be really hard.”

The attention from ProPublica’s story also enabled his real father, Tranquilino Castañeda, to receive a visa and travel to the U.S. to meet Ramírez. Castañeda, who had been away from the village on the day of the massacre, thought his son had been killed.

The story additionally spurred efforts in Guatemala and the U.S. to bring to justice fugitive commandos involved in such violence during the civil war. Since the story authorities have caught or convicted 10 former soldiers, one as recently as 2017, who was living in Maryland. And in 2017, “Finding Oscar” was made into a Steven Spielberg-produced documentary.

“We wanted people to know about [the massacre] because even people from Guatemala didn’t know about it,” said Ramírez. “I still hear from many, many people that said they found out about it from ProPublica.”

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