Jose Ortiz Morales has led a very quiet life since crossing into the Texas illegally in 1988. The Guatemala native made his way to Washington D.C., settled in Prince George's County and held a series of forgettable jobs, including 13 years in the mail room at Johns Hopkins University.
He has not received so much as a traffic ticket, according to online state court records.
Along the way he applied for a green card as a permanent legal resident. In 2006, he filled out the application for U.S. citizenship. Under oath, on the form, Morales omitted a key incident from his past: his alleged war crimes.
Immigration officers arrested Morales in January, saying he is wanted in Guatemala for his alleged involvement in the Dos Erres massacre.
On May 23, the Acting U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Stephen M. Schenning, charged Morales with making false statements on that immigration form. Yesterday Morales and his lawyer signed a plea agreement that could net him 10 years in prison for the false statements. He is jailed pending his Sept. 8 sentencing date.
Meanwhile, the sentence Morales faces in Guatemala could top 6,000 years. The crimes he is accused of happened in a tiny village called Dos Erres, on Dec. 6 and 7, 1982.
A unit of elite Guatemalan soldiers called the Kaibiles showed up a couple of days after insurgents had attacked a military convoy nearby, killing 20 soldiers. The Kaibiles's commanders told them the village was full of rebel sympathizers, so they killed everyone they could find there—about 200 people. They bashed the children's heads in with hammers and threw them into a well. They killed all the men, and all the women, and threw them into the well. They fired guns into the well and tossed in a grenade to be sure.
Then 15 more people showed up. The well was full of bodies by then, so the Kaibiles marched the people a few kilometers out of the village and killed them there. The young girls, they kept for themselves, raping them for a few days before strangling them. (Those wanting to know more about this could check "This American Life," which interviewed survivors a few years ago).
Morales, in his plea agreement signed yesterday, admits that he was a member of the Kaibiles, and that he concealed that fact on his N-400 immigration form. It is not clear from the scant documentation in the case file how U.S. Immigration officials caught up with him.
Morales lawyer declined comment.
A spokesman for Schenning says the U.S. found out "through investigation and talking to foreign counterparts."
ICE says Morales is the fifth participant in the massacre they've caught. Since 2009, the agency has a special war crimes unit, the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, to track down people like Morales. Typically they are charged with immigration crimes, serve their sentence here, then are deported to face charges relating to the alleged war crimes.
The Guatemalan government has sought the ex-Kaibiles for years. In 2010, Gilberto Jordan, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was arrested in Florida and tried in Miami. He got 10 years for immigration fraud—the same charge Morales now faces—and is expected to be released in 2019. Another ex-Kaibil, Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa, was extradited from Canada to the U.S. in 2011 on similar charges and also received a 10-year sentence. His citizenship was revoked in 2014.
In 2011, a Guatemalan court found three soldiers and a lieutenant who participated in the massacre guilty, sentencing them all to 6,060 years in prison.
In Baltimore, Schenning commended Homeland Security Investigations for their work in the Morales investigation and thanked Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel M. Yasser, who is prosecuting the case, and trial attorney Christine Duey, of the Department of Justice's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.
He told City Paper he is unsure of what will happen to Morales, but that "at the end of the rainbow, he might have to go to Guatemala to face charges there."