A special unit of the Department of Homeland Security dedicated to identifying and seizing alleged war criminals has claimed an important victory. Over the past few days, three immigrants from Guatemala—one of them a U.S. citizen—were picked up in connection with a heinous massacre that occurred in 1982. The Miami Herald reports:
Over three days in early December 1982, 17 elite soldiers known as kaibiles entered a village in the tropical forest of northeast Guatemala’s Petén region.
They went house to house, rousing the inhabitants from sleep — taking the women and children to a church. The men were shuttled to a school. Then the kaibiles killed the children and the adults either with blows to the head, throwing them alive into a well, or shooting them, according to survivors. Finally, as the soldiers prepared to leave the village — known as Dos Erres or Two Rs — they killed more people. The bodies were thrown into a village well, while the bodies of those killed outside town were left on the road or in bushes. In all, during three nightmarish days, kaibiles killed 251 children, women and men — one of the worst massacres of the Guatemalan civil war. About 240,000 people were killed during the more than three-decade long conflict.
On Wednesday, federal agents assigned by a specialized unit whose mission is to track down war-criminal suspects went to Palm Beach County and arrested Gilberto Jordán, of Delray Beach, one of three former kaibil unit soldiers that authorities say helped carry out the 1982 massacre. In a chilling interview Tuesday with ICE special agents, Jordán, now 54, ”readily admitted that he threw a baby into the well and participated in killing people at Dos Erres, as well as bringing them to the well where they were killed,” according to an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint. Said U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer: “The massacre at Dos Erres was a dark moment for the Guatemalan people, and we will not allow suspected perpetrators to escape justice by taking refuge in our cities and towns.”
The major question for U.S. prosecutors is now whether those apprehended will simply be charged for immigration offenses—such as making false statements to obtain visas or, in Jordán’s case, citizenship—or with the underlying crimes committed at Dos Erres. Viewed in one way, the massacre would be a domestic criminal law matter for the Guatemalan authorities. Viewed another way, however, the massacre involved torture, murder, and kidnapping in the context of a domestic insurgency, violations of the laws of war and crimes against humanity subject to the concept of universal jurisdiction. Although U.S. political figures today routinely object to the exercise of universal jurisdiction by foreign courts and prosecutors when Americans are involved, in fact no nation has a more robust tradition of use of the universal jurisdiction concept than the United States.
The arrests made in South Florida thus present prosecutors with a difficult choice. There will be an understandable enthusiasm for seeking convictions relating to the horrifying crimes from 1982, but political leaders in Washington may consider it potentially embarrassing in light of the more recent stance the United States is adopting against universal jurisdiction as applied to Americans.