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Feds: Man falsified citizenship papers to hide role in 1982 Guatemalan war crimes

Relatives of victims of the slaughter in the village of Dos Erres hold roses in August 2011 in Guatemala City during the trial of military men involved. (JOHAN ORDONEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

During his three decades in the United States, Jose Ortiz Morales’s alarming past in Guatemala never caught up to him.

For 11 of those years, he toiled as a mail clerk at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies — just off Dupont Circle in the middle of Washington.

What few, if any, knew was that Morales had served in a special forces unit known as the “Kaibiles” that in 1982 descended on the small village of Dos Erres. They raped women and children, bashed their heads with a hammer, shot others, threw bodies down a 40-foot well and then threw a grenade into the well. By the time the soldiers left, they had killed more than 200 villagers.

That past was laid bare this week in U.S. District Court in Maryland, where Morales, 55, pleaded guilty to fraudulently trying to gain U.S. citizenship.

He also is wanted by Guatemalan officials on criminal charges of murder, war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Dos Erres massacre, according to federal officials.

“Those who would evade charges for atrocities committed abroad will not find safe haven in the United States,” Andre R. Watson, a special agent at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said earlier after Morales’s arrest.

Morales was born in 1962, served in the Guatemalan army for eight years and migrated north in 1988, court records show. After unlawfully crossing into the United States, the records show, he made his way to Maryland.

In 1990, he applied for and was granted lawful permanent residency status in the United States. He was hired by Hopkins in 1995 and worked as a mail clerk at the Advanced International Studies school, leaving in 2006, said Dennis O’Shea, a Hopkins spokesman. O’Shea declined to comment further.

According to online Maryland court records, Morales has never been arrested in the state and appears to have kept a low profile. Nor was there any reason to know his connection to the Kaibiles.

“Hopkins didn’t do anything wrong,” Stephen Schenning, the acting U.S. attorney in Maryland, said Friday. His office said that Morales had “legally worked for many years,” including at Hopkins.

Morales’s troubles here appear rooted in actions he took in 2006 when he applied to become a U.S. citizen. He falsely claimed that he hadn’t been part of any group the government needed to know about and “did not list his membership in the Kaibiles,” court records state.

On forms, Morales “marked that he had never participated in any crimes for which he had not been convicted,” the records state.

He repeated the falsehoods during a citizenship interview.

It is unclear how immigration investigators caught up with him. And it couldn’t be learned Friday where Morales worked after he left Hopkins.

But on Jan. 6, 2017, agents from ICE arrested Morales, who lived in Hyattsville, Md. Immigration officials said he was the fifth participant in the Dos Erres massacre living in the United States “to be targeted by ICE for enforcement action.”

One of those men, Pedro Pimental Rios, was deported to Guatemala, convicted there for his role in the massacre and sentenced to 6,060 years in prison, according to ICE. The other three are either serving time in the United States, after which ICE will move to deport them, or had been deported to Guatemala.

In court papers this week, Morales admitted to trying to conceal his role with the Kaibiles.

“He also knew the wrongfulness of the actions of his military unit at Dos Erres,” according to a statement of facts he signed in the case. In the court papers, Morales did not admit to any specific acts in the village.

Desiree L. Lassiter, an attorney for Morales, declined to comment. Morales has a sentencing hearing scheduled for September on his immigration plea and faces a maximum sentence of 10 years, federal prosecutors said.

In concealing being in the Kaibiles, Morales was hiding the fact that he had been part of the special forces unit that “indiscriminately killed innocent men, women and over 100 children,” according to federal court papers.

“Many of the women were raped by the soldiers before they were forced to walk at gun point to a well in the center of the village, where they were bludgeoned in the head with a hammer, and their bodies were then thrown into the well,” the federal court records state. “Those villagers who did not die of the blow to their head were killed when a soldier fired a weapon and threw a grenade into the well.”

In about 1994, according to ICE officials, an Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team exhumed the village’s well and recovered 162 skeletons, including those of young children.

Other villagers’ bodies, according to ICE, had been left in nearby woods.

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