Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice In Guatemala, Chapter 6

(Editor’s note: This is the sixth of an eight part series)

By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica, and Ana Arana, Fundación MEPI

Chapter 6: Cocorico2

The U.S. arrests helped jolt Romero’s investigation back to life.

The Guatemalan military had been more responsive to requests from U.S. authorities than its own prosecutors, turning over documents about the fugitive commandos caught by ICE. American investigators sent the material to counterparts in Guatemala, where Jordán’s confession and other evidence strengthened the cases against about a dozen suspects still at large.

The atmosphere in Guatemala had changed. In late 2010, a new attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, was appointed by President Álvaro Colom. Guatemala’s first female attorney general launched an unprecedented campaign against human rights abusers, charging former dictator Ríos Montt with genocide and crimes against humanity.

In addition, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica had ruled in favor of the lawsuit by Guatemalan activists, forcing Guatemala’s Supreme Court to order the Dos Erres prosecution to resume.

Fifteen years into the case, prosecutor Romero ordered a new round of arrests in 2011. Police were able to capture three of the commandos and Carias, the former local commander.

Investigators faced danger and hostility. A witness in another atrocity case was murdered. Military families in the Guatemala City neighborhoods where suspects lived threatened to lynch police who were hunting for war criminals. Col. Roberto Aníbal Rivera Martínez, the former lieutenant in charge of the Dos Erres unit, had escaped when the arrest team arrived at his home, which was equipped with a tunnel connected to another building. Prosecutors suspected that some of the fugitives were hiding on army bases or in areas dominated by the military.

During questioning in Guatemala City, a captured commando described the abduction of the two boys. The judge supervising the case ordered Romero to redouble her efforts to find Oscar. Years before, she had been thwarted by the resistance of Oscar’s family. The newspaper story about her investigation had not helped.

But once again, in May 2011, Romero returned to Zacapa, where Oscar had been raised. Again she sat down with Oscar’s uncle, the prominent doctor. During her previous visit, he had accused her of slandering the lieutenant’s honor with her questions about the boy. This time, the doctor was a bit more cooperative. He disclosed that Oscar was living in the United States and now had a family. He said he did not know their phone number.

“His wife’s nickname is La Flaca (The Skinny Girl),” the doctor said.

Armed with that lead, investigators located a merchant who helped them identify Nidia and track down her family in a nearby town. The prosecutor interviewed Nidia’s parents. They gave her Oscar’s email address, which incorporated the word Cocorico2. Romero realized that Oscar used the same nickname as Lt. Ramírez.

A few days later, after hearing about her visit, Oscar called Romero. She kept the conversation brief, not wanting to deliver a bombshell over the phone.

Then she sat down to compose an email. She struggled to find the best words to explain that his entire life had been based on a lie. Romero knew Oscar was an illegal immigrant. She imagined his existence far from home. She thought about the impact the email might have. How would he take the news? Would he need psychological counseling?

She pushed ahead. It had to be done. She began with the phrase: “You don’t know me.”

In the moments after he read her message in Framingham, Oscar whirled through convoluted thoughts and emotions. The prosecutor was claiming that he had lived a completely different life until the age of three. He found it hard to believe. He could summon no mental picture of Dos Erres. The people he knew as blood relatives in Zacapa had treated him as a full-fledged member of the family.

Then he thought back to the newspaper article about him and Ramiro from a decade before — the story that his relatives had dismissed as unthinkable. The doubts flooded back.

Oscar called Romero and agreed to take a DNA test. Last June 20, a Guatemalan human rights investigator named Fredy Peccerelli arrived in Framingham to collect the evidence that would determine Oscar’s true identity once and for all.

The two men hit it off. With his shaved head, weightlifter’s physique and Bensonhurst accent, Peccerelli seemed more like an action hero than a scientist and human rights crusader.

Born in Guatemala and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 41-year-old Peccerelli was one of the top forensic anthropologists in Latin America. His private, internationally funded Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation supported state investigations of atrocities and high-profile crimes, exhumed remains at massacre sites and clandestine cemeteries, and performed DNA tests at a state-of-the-art lab behind high walls in Guatemala City.

In 2010, Peccerelli’s foundation had analyzed the Dos Erres remains recovered years earlier by the Argentine team. The forensic investigators used sophisticated technology to take DNA from relatives of the victims and look for matches.

When they met, Peccerelli tried to imagine what Oscar had gone through as a boy. Had he seen his entire family being killed?

Peccerelli felt protective toward Oscar. The young man was wary at first. Peccerelli told him he knew what it was like to be an immigrant in the shadows. His father had been a lawyer in Guatemala, and when Peccerelli was a boy, the family had fled death threats by rushing to the United States.

Gradually, Oscar opened up, telling the story of his own clandestine odyssey from Guatemala. After the Guatemalan visitors took the DNA sample, Oscar and Nidia cooked a big meal for Peccerelli and a fellow investigator in the kitchen of their townhouse.

Peccerelli had spent years piecing together the secrets of shattered skeletons. Now, for the first time, he was face to face with living evidence. He had a rare chance to ask important questions. In past cases, children who had been abducted by soldiers had been raised abusively, like Ramiro, forced to sleep in barns and work 20 hours a day. Peccerelli was fascinated to hear about a firsthand experience.

“How did they treat you?” Peccerelli asked Oscar.

“Where I was raised, I was raised well,” Oscar said in his serene, laconic way. “I wasn’t treated differently than any other kid.”

Peccerelli returned to Guatemala to complete the tests. He had the impression that Oscar was deeply curious, but also ambivalent.

At some level, he thought, Oscar hoped the whole thing might not be true.

How We Reported Oscar’s Story:
See source notes for Chapter 6.

This article first appeared in ProPublica.

With reporting fromHabiba Nosheen, Special to ProPublica, and Brian Reed, This American Life

[Photo by ugaldew ]

Read Chapter 1 HERE.
Read Chapter 2 HERE.
Read Chapter 3 HERE.
Read Chapter 4 HERE.
Read chapter 5 HERE.

“Finding Oscar” is available as an e-book with a preface by Sebastian Rotella and exclusive afterword by author Francisco Goldman.

Our Partners
This story was co-reported with This American Life from WBEZ Chicago, which produced a one-hour radio versionairing this weekend on these stations and available for download at 8 p.m. EST Sunday.

Also co-reporting was Fundación MEPI in Mexico City, which published the story in Spanish.

The Faces of Dos Erres
by Sebastian Rotella and Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica, May 25

Oscar’s Story

by Sebastian Rotella and Krista Kjellman Schmidt, ProPublica, May 25


The Dos Erres Massacre and the Hunt for Oscar
by Krista Kjellman Schmidt and Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica, May 25

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