On November 8, 2017, the War Crimes Research Office of Washington College of Law, the Ben Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the US Holocaust Museum, and the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC), a multi-agency collaboration including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, co-sponsored the screening of the film Finding Oscar followed by a panel discussion. The film describes the search for truth and the application of justice during the investigation of the Dos Erres massacre in Guatemala. The tragedy occurred in 1982 during Guatemala’s decades-long civil war when a group of soldiers entered the Dos Erres village and committed the massacre. One of the survivors, a little boy named Oscar, was taken and raised by one of the soldiers. Oscar was found years later living in the United States. The film narrates the search for Oscar, his life after the massacre, and the collaboration between a Guatemalan prosecutor, human rights advocates, investigators, forensic scientists, and U.S. government agencies to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.
Susana SaCouto, Director of the War Crimes Research Office, moderated the panel. Anna Cave, the director of the Ben Ferencz International Justice Initiative, and Lisa Koven, the Chief of the Human Rights Law Section (HRLS), a section within the HRVWCC, welcomed the panel and explained the roles and functions of their respective agencies. Ms. Koven explained that three of the perpetrators who fled to the U.S. after participating in the massacre had been prosecuted with the assistance of the HRLS team. The team provides legal advice and support to ICE field attorneys, DHS entities, and other government agencies, and international bodies on the investigation, litigation, prosecution and/or removal of human rights violators who attempt to seek safe haven in the U.S.
The three panelists invited to the event had each contributed to the investigation of the Dos Erres massacre and those involved. One of them, Mr. Freddy Peccerelli, a forensic anthropologist and the Executive Director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), explained his work as a forensic anthropologist, and explained the exhumations of the skeletal remains found at Dos Erres. He emphasized that the search for truth and the application of justice was about the communities affected by the atrocities committed during the armed conflict. He stated that to have the harm recognized generates dignity for the victims and survivors and empowers the indigenous communities.
Mr. Peccerelli explained that forensic evidence has been key in cases such as Sepur Zarco and the genocide case against Rios Montt, the former head of state who led his troops during Guatemala’s civil war as they committed massacres and human rights abuses throughout Guatemala. During the panel Mr. Peccerelli described the current status of the case against Rios Montt and also described the Creompaz case, in which hundreds of remains were found in a former military base. Evidence and official records indicates that many of the missing persons were previously targeted by state agents, labeled as subversives, and later killed. Mr. Peccerelli indicated that prosecutors in Guatemala use the forensic evidence to build cases against those involved in the disappearances. FAFG has registered over 1,800 cases post-conflict and is actively contributing evidence to promote transitional justice in Guatemala.
Another panelist, Ms. Kate Doyle, a Senior Analyst of U.S. Policy in Latin America at the National Security Archive, directs several research projects, including the Guatemala Project, which collects and systematizes declassified U.S. and Guatemalan government documents. She also oversees the Evidence Project, which promotes the right to truth and access to information in relation to human rights and justice struggles in Latin America. Ms. Doyle provided extensive background on the nature of the projects she coordinates and the roles of declassified documents in the prosecution of cases involving serious violations of human rights. She explained Guatemala’s latest developments and the creation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as CICIG. CICIG has played a key role in prosecuting powerful individuals in leadership positions with ties to human rights abuses and corruption.
The third panelist, Jon Longo, a Special Agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has investigated and helped prosecute a wide range of criminal cases, including cases involving human smuggling, drug smuggling, and human rights violations. In 2006, he participated in the investigation of a former Special Forces soldier in Guatemala named Gilberto Jordan, who participated in the Dos Erres massacre. He shared his experience in the investigation and prosecution of the case. Special Agent Longo appears in the film, which describes his role within the investigation and the moment in which the human rights violator is confronted and questioned. Jordan was charged and received a maximum sentence of 10 years for immigration fraud. He described the pressure he felt to make this case move forward, especially with the knowledge that the case was part of a larger-scale pattern of human rights violations.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is working to prosecute individuals involved in human rights violations. Within the Department, the Human Rights Law Section, as part of the Office of the Legal Principal Advisor, operates under the “No Safe Haven Initiative,” which works to remove individuals with known ties to human rights violations who are hiding in the U.S. In the aftermath of the Dos Erres massacre, one of the individuals removed from the U.S. was tried in Guatemala and sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for his role in the massacre of 201 people. Prosecutions continue against those involved in crimes against humanity during the armed conflict in Guatemala. U.S. government agencies continue to look for, investigate, and prosecute those involved in the massacre who are currently residing in the United States.