LOS ANGELES (CN) — A former Guatemalan police chief was found guilty of lying about his 1989 conviction for the murder of two student activists to get a U.S. green card.
A jury in Los Angeles federal court took just three hours to return a verdict Friday. They found Catalino Esteban Valiente Alonzo guilty of knowingly lying to immigration officials to become a legal permanent resident, which would have been unlikely had he disclosed that he was convicted for the murder of the two activists by Guatemalan police and that he was a fugitive from the law. He faces as long as 10 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee set a sentencing date for May and denied the prosecution's request to have the 82-year-old jailed immediately.
Ramanujan Nadadur, one of Valiente Alonzo's two public defenders, declined to comment on the verdict.
A Guatemalan court in 1989 had sentenced Valiente Alonzo to 30 years in prison, the maximum allowed, for the double murder, but an appeals court overturned his conviction for lack evidence the following year. After his release from prison, he immediately came to the U.S. and applied for asylum without disclosing his criminal history. The Guatemalan Supreme Court reinstated his conviction in 1993 and issued a warrant for his arrest.
When Valiente Alonzo applied for a green card in 1997, he again didn't disclose that he was convicted of murder or that he was a fugitive, nor did he share that information during his interview with an immigration official in 2000. He was arrested and charged five years ago.
According to Valiente Alonzo's defense, he was a victim of fraud by a so-called notario, individuals who provide immigration advice and services to immigrants, often from Central America, even though they aren't lawyers and they aren't authorized to do so. Valiente Alonzo, his lawyers argued, didn't fill out his green-card application and supporting forms himself, but relied on a since-deceased notario who provided the false information.
"He doesn't speak English," Christine O'Connor, Valiente Alonzo other lawyer, told jurors in her closing argument earlier Friday. "Nobody took the time to make sure he understood any of it."
According to O'Connor, notario Mario Castillo prepared Valiente Alonzo's green-card application and checked "no" for the question whether he had ever been arrested, charged, detained or imprisoned. Castillo, the lawyer said, ran a classic notario scam in one-stop shop for immigration services and simply shuffled the application through with numerous errors that Valiente Alonzo wouldn't have made if he could have filled it out himself.
"This is the job of a shoddy notario who doesn't care about repercussions down the line," O'Connor said.
Anne Schaufele, an immigration services fraud expert, testified Thursday that notarios often operate from offices in immigrant neighborhoods, offering various services, from check cashing to tax preparation, and serve as "document mills" for Central American immigrants seeking to navigate the asylum or visa application process.
"It's a huge problem," Schaufele testified under questioning Nadadur. "People sometimes have no idea what applications were prepared for them because they rely on notarios to do the work for them."
Whereas in Guatemala a "notario" refers to someone who has a law degree, the notarios that solicit business from immigrants in the U.S. typically only have a notary certificate and no legal training. Spanish-speaking immigrants can mistakenly believe that a notario has legal qualification to help them with their application, whereas in reality they aren't permitted to represent them in immigration procedures.
The judge barred Schaufele from opining conclusively as to whether Valiente Alonzo's green-card application had been prepared by a notario, finding that a question for the jury to decide.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Mausner told jury in his closing argument Friday morning that the notario fraud defense was just smoke and mirrors. Valiente Alonzo wasn't a typical migrant but a former police chief in Guatemala who had studied in the U.S. in the 1970s as part of a State Department program, Mausner said, and he would have been familiar with filling out official forms and would have known that his criminal history would have been an issue in being allowed to reside in the U.S.
"The United States is a haven for victims, not for perpetrators," Mausner told the jury. "This wasn't a speeding ticket or a bar fight but the murder of students who were protesting against the police."
Valiente Alonzo was the chief of the National Police in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, the country's second-largest city. In October 1987, he is said to have ordered an "investigation" into two political dissidents involved with anti-police protests at local universities. The two students, Danilo Sergio Alvarado Mejia and Rene Leiva Cayax, were kidnapped in broad daylight by police officers soon after. Their bodies were found days later at separate locations on the side of the road outside the city. They had been beaten and tortured before they were killed.
According to Guatemalan Supreme Court decision in 1993, Valiente Alonzo was the mastermind and the "intellectual author" of the students' murder, Mausner told the jury, which gave him a strong motive to lie on his green card application to avoid having to go back to prison in Guatemala.
His lawyers did not challenge the fact of his murder conviction but stressed to the jury that he wasn't on trial for what happened in Guatemala more than 35 years ago.
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