— A former Guatemalan soldier accused of taking part in the massacre of more than 200 people in 1982 during the country's civil war stepped onto Central American soil Wednesday after failing to convince the United States
not to deport him because he fears for his life.
Santos Lopez Alonzo, 64, was sent to Guatemala City on a charter flight and Guatemalan authorities took him into custody, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said. His hands shackled, he was escorted off the plane and into the back of a pickup truck surrounded by two armed agents.
Upon his arrival, Lopez insisted to reporters that he was innocent.
Lopez served with an elite unit of the Guatemalan army and is among four former soldiers arrested after coming to the U.S. years after the slaughter of villagers in Las Dos Erres
. Two are serving time in American prisons for immigration crimes and one was deported and sentenced to more than 6,000 years in prison.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week at the California immigration detention facility where he was held, Lopez said he guarded women and children during the slayings but killed no one. He said he fears retribution from Guatemalan authorities or other inmates for helping U.S. investigators prosecute a former comrade.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be tortured and they're going to kill me in my country, because I gave testimony to a grand jury," Lopez said. "Because I talked about them and everything they did."
Advocates for Guatemalans whose relatives were killed were pleased to learn of Lopez's return.
"We are very happy they deported him and that he must now face Guatemalan justice, above all, for the victims, who have always demanded justice," said Francisco Vivar, a victims' advocate.
More than a dozen former soldiers have faced arrest warrants in Guatemala on allegations of participating in the massacre that wiped out the village. It took place at the height of the more than three-decade civil war, which claimed at least 200,000 lives before ending in 1996.
The country's U.S.-backed army was responsible for most of the deaths, according to the findings of an independent truth commission set up to investigate the bloodshed.
A group of soldiers was sent to search for missing weapons in Las Dos Erres in December 1982 and rounded up men, women and children, raping girls and bludgeoning the villagers with a sledgehammer before throwing their bodies into a well.
Lopez said he was a baker in the army and assigned to stand guard while others carried out the massacre. Soldiers escorted people out and returned empty-handed, he said, telling him only then that the villagers were being killed.
"He who owes nothing, fears nothing. If I had done something, if I had killed, I would be afraid, but I feel clean," he said.
More than a decade later, Guatemala's government opened an investigation and unearthed 162 skeletons at the well. Police said Wednesday that the onslaught left more than 200 people dead.
Authorities issued arrest warrants for 17 soldiers, including Lopez, but the cases languished.
After leaving the army, Lopez became a farmer in Guatemala and then went to the U.S. illegally. In 2010, he was arrested and charged with illegally re-entering the U.S. after a prior deportation order.
Authorities detained him as a material witness in the prosecution of a fellow former soldier who lied about the massacre on his U.S. naturalization forms. Afterward, Lopez tried to fend off deportation, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused last month to block it.
"The United States is not going to serve as a safe haven for individuals who have committed atrocities overseas," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said. "They may live quiet lives, but they must be held accountable for the activities in which they participated."
Lopez also acknowledged taking a 5-year-old boy from the village, claiming he saved him and raised him as a son.
Ramiro Osorio Cristales grew up to become a key voice for victims. He received asylum in Canada
, testified against some of the soldiers about his memories of the killings and cut ties with Lopez, who Osorio says mistreated him for years.
Efforts to reach Osorio, who previously testified in Guatemala about the abuse allegations, were unsuccessful. Lopez denied mistreating him.
In U.S. court filings, the Justice Department argued that Lopez kidnapped the boy and prevented villagers from escaping the massacre. While Guatemalan prison conditions can be harsh, department lawyers wrote that Lopez didn't prove he would be tortured by officials if he returned home.
His lawyer, Sarah Vanessa Perez, said Lopez is vulnerable because he cooperated with the U.S. government as a witness.
Guatemalan court findings against a group of former soldiers put Lopez at the massacre but include few details of his involvement beyond taking the boy.
Lopez said he knows the killings were wrong but could not denounce them at the time. Back then, he said the Guatemalan government had complete control.
"Orders are orders, given by the government," he said. "For speaking up, they would have killed me, too."