SHERMAN, Texas (CN) – A former Salvadoran military commander’s alleged involvement in the 1988 mass murder of 10 unarmed civilians during El Salvador’s civil war is not grounds to revoke his U.S. citizenship, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
To qualify for U.S. citizenship, an immigrant must establish they had “good moral character” for the five years before they filed their naturalization application.
In interviews to determine if immigrants meet the good morals standard, the government asks them if they have ever been arrested, cited or detained by any law enforcement officer for any reason.
Arnoldo Vasquez, who got a U.S. visa and moved to America in 1989 before becoming a lawful permanent resident, said he had only received three traffic tickets in a 2004 interview about his citizenship application.
He became a naturalized citizen in January 2005.
But his past as a infantry commander in the Salvadoran military came back to haunt him after Donald Trump was elected president, and his administration opened an office tasked with reviewing the files of immigrants suspected of lying to get citizenship and green cards.
The government brought a petition to revoke Vasquez’s citizenship in Sherman, Texas federal court in February 2017.
The case centers on the Salvadoran military’s murder of 10 people, suspected of ties with Communist rebels, in September 1988 in San Sebastian, a town 30 miles east of the capital San Salvador.
The government claims that, following orders from Major Mauricio de Jesus Beltran, Vasquez helped detain the 10 captives, who were lined up on a road and shot dead by soldiers at close range.
To make it appear as if the hostages died in an ambush, Beltran had soldiers light explosives and fire the kill shots after the bombs detonated.
This is just one of many gruesome incidents in a civil war that decimated El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. More than 75,000 Salvadorans were killed in the conflict between the right-wing, U.S.-backed government and Marxist guerillas known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
After the conflict ended, the United Nations set up a Commission on the Truth for El Salvador to investigate war crimes.
The commission found that government forces, including death squads trained by the U.S. military, were responsible for more than 85 percent of the killings and kidnapping during the civil war.
It also turned up dirt on Vasquez, relying on the testimony of four soldiers involved in the murders.
“In relation to the San Sebastian Massacre, the Truth Commission specifically found that the defendant ‘transmitted Major Beltran’s order to designate some soldiers to finish off the victims,’” U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant wrote in a 41-page order Thursday.
This was not the first inquiry into Vasquez’s role in the massacre.
After a lengthy investigation, in 1989 the Commission for the Investigation of Criminal Acts, a Salvadoran military commission, identified Vasquez as one of several soldiers who had killed the 10 detainees on Beltran’s orders.
The commission sent its findings to a court in San Sebastian, which ordered the military to confine Vasquez in military barracks during his criminal trial.
The court acquitted Vasquez and he was released from the barracks. No one was punished for the massacre.
“Beltran, though convicted for his role in the San Sebastian massacre, had his sentence
eventually dismissed. Ultimately, no one was held accountable for the San Sebastian massacre,” Mazzant’s order states.
To make its case Vasquez was in fact detained in the military barracks during his trial and had omitted this from his naturalization application, the Department of Justice submitted the expert testimony of Terry Lynn Karl, a Latin American studies professor at Stanford University.
Karl testified that in her opinion, Vasquez had participated in the murders, and his “testimony that he was neither detained nor arrested in connection with his alleged role in the San Sebastian massacre was implausible, unbelievable and contrary to documentary evidence,” according to Mazzant’s order.
Vasquez claims he was never arrested over the murders, and though he was housed in barracks during the investigation, he could leave as he pleased.
In fact, Vasquez said, he drove his own car from the barracks to the courthouse for a hearing before a tribunal.
Though Judge Mazzant, a Barack Obama appointee, admitted into the record Karl’s testimony about the history of El Salvador’s civil war, the San Sebastian massacre and investigations into it, he nixed her assumptions about Vasquez’s culpability.
“The government did not offer any direct testimony in the presentation of its case with respect to the defendant’s military record or the San Sebastian massacre. Although Professor Karl referenced witnesses to the San Sebastian massacre, the government did not produce the witnesses at trial,” Mazzant wrote.
Noting the “unusually high burden of proof in denaturalization cases,” Mazzant found the government had not proven Vasquez lied in his citizenship application or interview.
Vasquez’s attorney Marc Esquenazi said he could not comment on the order because the government has 30 days to appeal to the Fifth Circuit. He’s a principal in the Dallas firm Turin & Esquenazi.
The Department of Justice also declined to comment.