by Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
It was a day of firsts for Tranquilino Castañeda, a 70-year-old farmer from a jungle village in northern Guatemala.
His first trip on a plane. His first visit to the United States. And the first time that he would see his son, Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda, in person after almost three decades during which he thought Oscar had died in a massacre in Guatemala.
“I was very anxious last night,” Castañeda said Monday evening after disembarking at Newark Liberty International Airport in his trademark white cowboy hat. “I couldn’t sleep because I knew I was making the trip today.”
His arrival culminated an extraordinary odyssey. During the height of Guatemala’s bloody civil war in 1982, a squad of commandos stormed the hamlet of Dos Erres and killed more than 250 men, women and children. The slaughter wiped the village off the map.
But Lt. Oscar Ramírez Ramos, the deputy commander of the unit, spared 3-year-old Oscar and brought him home to his family. After the lieutenant died in an accident, his family raised the boy as one of their own. Oscar knew nothing about his true origins and revered the soldier who had overseen the murders of his mother and eight siblings.
Castañeda, meanwhile, survived because he was away from Dos Erres that day. He lived alone mourning his wife and nine children until last summer, when an investigation by dogged Guatemalan prosecutors revealed that one son was alive. Oscar had gone north to the United States in 1998. He was living in a Boston suburb, an illegal immigrant working two jobs to support his family.
Oscar, now 32, came to the Newark airport Monday with his wife, Nidia, and their four U.S.-born children: Andrea, 11; Nicole, 7; Oscar, 5; and baby Dulce, 10 months. The children had drawn signs with magic markers welcoming their newly discovered grandfather. The girls wore dresses; little Oscar donned a blue suit and tie. The welcoming committee, which included Oscar’s lawyer, R. Scott Greathead, and his wife Juliette, congregated outside the airport security checkpoint. The children kept asking why it was taking so long.
Oscar allowed that he too was anxious. He had worried that his father’s health and problems with alcohol might scuttle the trip. He was relieved that Guatemalan human rights activists Aura Elena Farfán and Fredy Peccerelli, who were instrumental in the investigation, had taken charge of Castañeda and were accompanying him.
Oscar scanned the stream of arriving passengers. He had hoped his father might be among the first.
“But of course he has to be the last one,” he said. “More drama this way.”
Then: “There he is! There he is!”
Because of a leg ailment that makes him limp, Castañeda emerged in a wheelchair. He has a craggy, weather-beaten face with alert green eyes. He has missing teeth and talks in speedy bursts. He resembles a lean Guatemalan version of Walter Brennan, the actor who played grizzled cowboy sidekicks in classic Western films.
Oscar stooped, cradling Dulce in his left arm, and enveloped his father in a silent embrace. The children bounced excitedly. Castañeda beamed, hugging each grandchild in turn, hoisting the baby. He dabbed at his eyes with a checkered handkerchief. After years alone with ghosts and sorrows, he was surrounded by family again.
“How are you?” Oscar asked
“I’m fine,” Castañeda said. “I’ve got an earache.”
“It’s the plane,” Oscar said. As his father started to climb out of the wheelchair, Oscar laughed and said, “No wait, don’t get off the horse yet.”
“Happy?” Nidia asked her father-in-law.
“Oh, yes,” Castañeda said. He insisted that he wasn’t tired after his first flight. “In Guatemala, some guys lied to me. I’m going to tell them off when I get back. They said planes were rough. It’s nothing. It’s like riding a bus.”
Oscar and Castañeda learned of each other’s existence last August after a DNA test done at the request of Guatemalan prosecutors proved they were father and son. Investigators introduced them over Skype. They have talked almost every day since then on the phone, getting to know each other. Both had a new mission in life: to reunite.
The revelation of Oscar’s true past changed his future. He is living proof of the massacre at Dos Erres, evidence for authorities still trying to bring the perpetrators to justice. During a trial in Guatemala that convicted a former commando this year, prosecutors used the DNA results and Castañeda testified about losing his family. Eight suspects have been jailed in the case, but another seven, including two commanders of the killer unit, remain at large.
As a result of the revelation, Oscar took the risk of stepping out of the shadows. He has applied for political asylum in Boston on the grounds that he would be a target if he had to return to Guatemala. The military retains great power in his native land and most atrocities from the 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, have gone unpunished.
Oscar’s interview for his asylum application is scheduled for June 21. Greathead, a veteran of human rights cases in Latin America, is representing Oscar pro bono. He believes Oscar’s chances of staying in the United States are good.
“I have never had a political asylum client who more deserved asylum than Oscar Ramírez,” Greathead said. “In an incredible twist of fate, Oscar is a victim of one of the worst massacres by a government that we helped install, and he didn’t even know it.”
Oscar’s story is emblematic of a larger phenomenon, the lawyer asserted: U.S. support of repressive anti-Communist regimes in Central America played a central role in spawning the violence, corruption and lawlessness that linger today, long after the return of democracy.
“The brutality and corruption going on in the 1980s — we created it,” Greathead said. “We set off that chain of events that created the social, political and economic conditions that have made Guatemala one of the basket cases of the Western Hemisphere, which works to drive people like Oscar to go north, because his future was picking melons.
“Now he’s working 80 hours a week raising a family, trying to live,” Greathead said. “To a certain degree, every Central American up here now is fleeing the same kind of conditions that we are responsible for in that region.”
From the airport, the group piled into a rented van and drove into New York City. Castañeda and Oscar rode together, little Oscar Jr. on their laps. Castañeda watched the industrial landscape of New Jersey whiz by, the Manhattan skyline approach. They made intermittent small talk. Castañeda was eager to buy cigarettes. He amused Oscar when he asked if there was somewhere he could have a pair of pants mended.
“Here it’s better to just buy them, Papa,” Oscar explained. “It’ll cost you more to fix them than to just buy new ones. They have all the sizes you want.”
Castañeda will stay at the family’s small two-bedroom townhouse in Framingham, Mass., during his visit. Greathead and the Guatemalan investigators helped Castañeda obtain a U.S. visa to participate in a U.S. program to raise awareness about the ongoing fight for justice in Guatemala.
On Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., Castañeda and Oscar will discuss their story in a venue that is decidedly a first for both of them: the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University. Future events are scheduled for New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Asked about the prospect of speaking in public at one of the world’s top academic institutions, Castañeda did not sound intimidated.
“Well, I’m short on words,” he said. “But I can talk about my experience.”
Read ProPublica’s original story, “Finding Oscar: Massacre, Memory and Justice in Guatemala” here.
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