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Mass. father, Guatemala son reunite 30 years later


Mass. father, Guatemala son reunite 30 years later

May 30, 2012, 10:09 pm


NEW YORK (AP) — Tranquilino Castaneda thought that his son Oscar died when Guatemalan army commandos killed the inhabitants of a hamlet called Dos Erres in 1982.

It took him 30 years to realize he was wrong.

The 72-year-old father and his son were reunited in New York on Monday, just a few months after discovering that each other existed.

"After the massacre, it took me five years to go back to Dos Erres. It was dangerous," Castaneda told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

When the special forces of the Guatemalan army, known as "kaibiles," killed the 201 inhabitants of Dos Erres during the morning of Dec. 7, 1982, Castaneda was away working in the fields of a relative.

At the time, he believed his wife and all nine of his children were killed. His wife and a daughter were both pregnant. Since then, he dedicated his time to work in the fields, far away from Dos Erres. He never married again and started drinking.

He did not know that one of his children, Oscar Alfredo Ramirez Castaneda, who was 3 years old when the massacre occurred, had survived. The child was abducted by one of the military officers, Lt. Oscar Ovidio Ramirez Ramos.

"Yesterday I had the chance to see him in person. It is quite different from seeing him on the computer or on pictures," Tranquilino said. The Guatemalan farmer has green eyes and the leathery skin of someone who has worked in the fields all his life. He is a man of few words.

Tranquilino and Oscar, who is 33, met for the first time at a New Jersey airport, just a few hours after Castaneda landed there from Guatemala. Ramirez, his son, traveled to New Jersey from Framingham, Mass., a blue-collar suburb of Boston where he lives with his wife and four children.

Ramirez, who has lived illegally in the United States since 1998, has asked for asylum to avoid being sent back to Guatemala. He believes his life would be in danger there once people learn his case.

"You can imagine it, it is very dangerous to go back there," Ramirez told the AP during a phone interview.

The Dos Erres massacre was part of a policy called "tierra arrasada," or "scorched earth," that took place during the 36-year-old civil war in the Central American country. Guatemalan former dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt was recently charged with genocide and crimes against humanity stemming from the Dos Erres killings.

Among the 17 kaibiles that took part in the massacre, five of them have been convicted. Both Tranquilino and Ramiro Cristales, another man abducted as a child, have testified against kaibiles and could next be called as witnesses for the prosecution against Rios Montt.

Military commandos allegedly threw newborns and children down into a well.

But Oscar Ramirez survived. Ramirez, a lieutenant who was single, took him with him.

Oscar Ramirez does not remember anything about Dos Erres. His adoptive father died several months after the massacre in an accident. His mother raised the child.

"I had a normal life, like a normal family has," Ramirez said.

In May 2011, Ramirez learned that his real father was not the lieutenant. He discovered the truth after a call from Guatemalan attorney Sara Romero, who was in charge of the Dos Erres investigation.

Investigators asked him to take a DNA test. The test results confirmed that Tranquilino was his father.

Since then, father and son have kept in touch on the phone and on videoconference. On Monday, they met in person.

"What happened in Dos Erres was very sad but we are living something good now. I am very happy," Ramirez said.

He said that, although the Ramirez family was surprised when they learned the truth, they also felt "very happy."

Oscar said he keeps in touch with one aunt who helped raise him. The lieutenant's mother also has died.

His real father, Castaneda, also met the Ramirez family and his daughter-in-law's family. "Both families were very nice to me," he said.

The Guatemalan farmer was granted a six-month visa to stay in the United States, where he is spending some time with his son and grandchildren.

Aura Elena Farfan accompanied Castaneda to New Jersey. Farfan is the director of the Association of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Guatemala, an organization that seeks justice in the Latin American country. Farfan directed the investigation into the massacre before Guatemalan authorities did, and was key in finding Oscar.

Castaneda already has testified against one of the authors of the massacre, Gen. Pedro Pimentel Rios, who in March was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for the killing of 201 people in Dos Erres.

Castaneda said he will testify again against other soldiers involved in the killings. "It helps a lot to see that they are paying for what they did," he said.

Ramirez was raised with the idea that his adoptive father, the lieutenant, was a hero. He still feels the same.

"My opinion about him does not change," Ramirez said. "Thanks to him I am alive and I did not have a bad life."

Ramirez was not the only child who survived.

Ramiro Cristales was 5 years old when soldiers abducted him. He still remembers how his siblings were killed.

Cristales, now 34, lived with one of the military officials who kidnapped him and his family in Guatemala. He told the AP that he was mistreated. He kept silent about what happened in Dos Erres until he escaped to Canada.

"I was very scared about saying the truth, that I was one of the survivors," Cristales said in a recent interview.

According to Cristales, four children were abducted. Farfan told the AP they are trying to track down the other two victims.

"The Dos Erres judicial process is making history," said Claudia Lopez David, head of Lawyers Without Borders in Canada.

"Retired Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt is linked to it with charges of genocide and crimes against humanity," she said. "This is something that was unthinkable two years ago in Guatemala."


Eva Font reported from New York and Romina Ruiz-Goiriena from Guatemala.

2012 May 30