After 25 years in US, alleged war criminal may finally face justice at home

Juan Samayoa Cabrera, a former paramilitary commander who public prosecutors in Guatemala want to stand trial for murder and manslaughter, was living in Providence until immigration agents arrested him in October.

Moises Castillo/AP
Maria Meza Paniagua tapes a portrait of a person who was disappeared to the back of a chair, at a ceremony marking the National Day of the Disappeared, in Guatemala City on June 21, 2017. According to human rights groups, more than 40,000 people were "disappeared" during Guatemala's 36 years of internal conflict.

When immigration agents arrived last month at a modest, three-story house here to detain an undocumented Guatemalan man, it was no ordinary arrest.

By most measures, Juan Samayoa Cabrera is a “bad hombre,” the declared target of President Trump’s effort to deport as many unauthorized immigrants as possible, in contrast to the Obama administration’s prioritization of those with criminal records.

The crimes that Mr. Samayoa allegedly committed didn’t take place in this New England city, where he’s lived for the past quarter-century, mostly in plain sight of US authorities. Samayoa was a paramilitary commander during the bloodiest phase of Guatemala’s civil war, when tens of thousands of civilians died at the hands of government forces. Public prosecutors in Guatemala want him to stand trial there for murder and manslaughter. And among Guatemalan migrants living here, his name still stirs anger and fear, particularly for relatives of the massacred.

“People would say, ‘This is the guy that murdered my family,’ ” says Lisa Maya Knauer, a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who has studied Guatemalan migrants in New England.

Samayoa’s detention raises questions about the priorities of immigration enforcers and the presence of other accused war criminals living in US. From one angle, it vindicates the Trump administration’s more expansive policy. A previous deportation order against Samayoa, who had been rejected for US asylum and told to leave the country, was closed in 2011 after the Obama administration laid out new guidelines for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The Samayoa case and others like it show that US law enforcement can make decisions about targeting the worst human-rights violators living among us and properly removing them for criminal prosecution in their own country. This is an important and humane part of what our government is and should be doing,” says Kate Doyle, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive, a nonprofit in Washington that has provided archival evidence for war-crimes trials.

But Ms. Doyle and other experts on war-crime investigations say such cases are lengthy and complex, involving specialist divisions of ICE and other agencies, and less about hitting deportation quotas. That makes it hard to draw a direct line between federal policy and the timing of a high-profile arrest.

That Samayoa was notorious in his community and subject to an arrest warrant at home didn’t automatically put him on a fast track to extradition, says Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor at George Mason University who tracks justice in Guatemala and has served as an expert witness in US war-crimes cases. “The offices tasked with identifying alleged war criminals living here in the United States are overwhelmed with the caseload that they have,” she says.

Human rights investigations “are very long and resource-intensive,” says Shaun Neudauer, a spokesperson for ICE.

On Monday, a federal immigration judge in Boston handling Samayoa’s case convened to schedule a bond hearing next month. Although Samayoa, who is being held in an ICE facility in Massachusetts, wasn’t in court, more than 20 of his friends and family, including his Guatemalan-born wife and daughter, turned up to show support and offer to testify in his defense.

Samayoa’s attorney, Hans Bremer, declined to speak about alleged crimes committed in Guatemala and noted that his client was only being held under US civil law. “No criminal proceedings have been brought against him,” he says.  

An attorney for ICE told the court that Samayoa may not be eligible for bail because of “human-right violations in his own country” and submitted a three-inch-thick folder of documents on Samayoa to contest his release.

In a 2004 appeal against his removal, Samayoa defended his actions as a paramilitary commander in Guatemala as justified by the threat from guerrillas. His legal submission claimed that he had later been attacked by guerrillas and nearly died, and had illegally entered the US in 1992 to escape further retribution. The appeals court rejected his claim.

To Guatemalans who lived through the repression meted out by men like Samayoa, such claims are grimly ironic.

One woman, who declined to be named, alleges that Samayoa abducted and killed her father and uncle when the family lived in Quiché region. She was 10 at the time. Her mother told her that Samayoa, a short man with light hair who wore a sombrero, had beaten the two men to death and thrown their bodies in the river. (A United Nations-backed truth commission later listed both men as victims of war crimes.)

Four years ago, the woman, who moved to Providence to escape domestic abuse in Guatemala, was standing in line at a drugstore. She turned around and saw a middle-aged man behind her. “He was wearing a sombrero. He was short. It was him,” she says. “Do I speak to him about what he did to my father?” she remembers thinking.

Outside she confronted Samayoa in the parking lot, asking him if he knew her father. When he heard the name, “he got nervous. His hands trembled.” The woman walked away, shaken by the encounter and the fact that Samayoa lived in Providence.

Others in the community were also aware of Samayoa and his notoriety, says Dr. Knauer. But “they were very fearful” of his influence here and in Quiché, where their relatives live.

In 2014, officials from ICE and the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section contacted Knauer to ask about Guatemalan migrants who might have information on Samayoa. She referred them to individuals who she knew to have direct knowledge of his alleged crimes and could help build a case.

After Samayoa fled the country in 1992, Candido Noriega, a fellow paramilitary commander in Quiché, was put on trial for murder, rape, and torture. Noriega, who died earlier this year, was convicted in 1999 of six counts of murder and two of manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in jail, the maximum permitted. His conviction was hailed at the time as a rare example of justice being served in a conflict in which at least 200,000 people were killed or disappeared.

In recent years, prosecutors in Guatemala have grown bolder in bringing war-crimes cases against military officers and other perpetrators of notorious massacres. In 2013, former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity but the sentence was overturned on a technicality.

Samayoa is subject to an arrest warrant for the same crimes as Noriega, says Hilda Pineda, head of the Special Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office in Guatemala City. Prosecutors have prepared testimony from 15 witnesses, mostly family members of those who were murdered and disappeared by the local militia, as well as forensic evidence. Since many witnesses are elderly, their accounts have been taped by prosecutors, she says.

Ms. Pineda says prosecutors didn’t know where Samayoa was living until they were contacted in February by the US Department of Justice, seeking details of his alleged human-rights violations. This information could be used to prove that he lied in his asylum claim, she says.

In 2010, a former Guatemalan special-forces soldier who took part in a 1982 massacre was sentenced by a US federal court to 10 years in prison for lying on a citizenship application. He can still be deported and put on trial in Guatemala for his crimes.

A similar fate could await Samayoa. For now, he’s another ICE detainee in the Bristol County Jail in North Dartmouth, Mass. Immigration violators are usually held in a separate area of the jail from regular inmates. But ICE’s facility is so crowded that Samayoa is in another section, waiting for his day in court. 

With reporting by Louisa Reynolds in Guatemala City.

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