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Former Guatemalan police chief accused of lying about murder conviction to get green card

The former National Police chief was convicted for the murder of two student activists in 1987 and is a fugitive after the Guatemala Supreme Court reinstated his conviction.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The former police chief of Guatemala's second-largest city is on trial in federal court in LA for allegedly lying about his conviction for the murder of two student activists when he applied for a U.S. green card.

Catalino Esteban Valiente Alonzo, 82, who was the chief of the National Police in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, had been living in Fontana, California, when he was arrested five years ago and charged with visa fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison if he's convicted.

In October 1987, Valiente Alonzo 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.

Valiente Alonzo was arrested the following December, along with a number of his subordinates, and charged with kidnapping and murder. Two years later he was convicted of double murder and sentenced to 30 years in prison. His case received significant publicity in Guatemala at the time, because it was the first in which police officers were charged and convicted.

In 1990, a Guatemalan appeals court overturned Valiente Alonzo's conviction, purportedly in error, and he fled the country immediately after his release from prison. He arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing between Mexico and the U.S. and applied for asylum. On his application he allegedly lied about being convicted and sentenced in Guatemala.

The Supreme Court of Guatemala in 1993 reinstated Valiente Alonzo's murder convictions and issued a warrant for arrest. But he remained in the U.S. and applied for a green card four years later, in September 1997, and again allegedly lied on his application about his conviction and imprisonment.

"Despite being a fugitive, he again covered up his criminal past," Assistant U.S. Attorney Joshua Mausner told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday in downtown LA. "He knew that, had he told the truth, he wouldn't have been allowed to remain in the U.S. and he would have to face justice and a 30-year sentence."

Valiente Alzono's defense didn't challenge the fact of his conviction in Guatemala but instead argued that he was the victim of fraud by a "notario," which is an individual who helps Spanish-speaking immigrants with their applications even though they aren't immigration lawyers.

Notarios, according to Ramanujan Nadadur, one of Valiente Alonzo's public defenders, prey on immigrants who don't speak English and who are misled into believing they are dealing with actual attorneys, by offering one-stop immigration shops that handle all aspects of the application process, including filling out the applications, which they aren't legally allowed to do.

Valiente Alonzo was an open book, Nadadur said in his opening statement, who at one point drove an ice-cream truck while living in the U.S. His conviction in Guatemala was well publicized and he didn't try to hide anything, the attorney said.

"He used his own name, passport and valid visa to come to the U.S.," Nadadur told the jury.

The notario who incorrectly filled out Valiente Alonzo's green card application has since died, but he made many mistakes, such as putting down Mexico as his place of birth and putting down "male" as the sex of his wife, according to the lawyer. He either didn't ask whether the former police chief had been arrested or convicted in Guatemala, or if he did, he put down the incorrect answer, Nadadur said.

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, a Barack Obama appointee, is presiding over the trial, which is scheduled to proceed for four days.

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