U.S. immigration special unit targets war crime suspects
Efforts boosted to find, deport people accused of human rights abuses
LOS ANGELES— When Carlos de Graca Lopes took over as director of Sao Martinho Prison in Cape Verde in 2001, he warned inmates: He had one hand made of velvet and another made of iron. Grab the velvet hand and be rewarded. Grab the iron hand and face the consequences.
Over the next five years, Lopes ruled with his iron hand, according to a government indictment filed against him in Cape Verde. More than 150 times, the indictment alleges, he ordered or personally carried out the beating and torture of prisoners.
In 2006, despite a government order that Lopes remain in the island country off Africa’s Atlantic coast while under investigation, he was granted a tourist visa to the U.S., where he disappeared.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of alleged human rights and war crimes violators who managed to emigrate to the United States, often with legal authorization. Although federal immigration officials have long sought to find and deport such offenders, efforts to prevent their entry and punish violators have grown in the last few years.
In 2009, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement opened the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center, tasked with identifying and tracking suspected rights violators and war criminals around the world.
Its work has led to several high-profile arrests, among them a martial arts instructor and a maintenance man, both in California, accused of taking part in the massacre of at least 160 people during the Guatemalan civil war; a Georgia man who was allegedly part of a Serbian paramilitary group that killed thousands during the Bosnian war; and a Chicago-area grocery store worker wanted in Rwanda on charges of genocide and war crimes.
Nearly 10 years ago, Amnesty International issued a report calling the U.S. a haven for torturers and identifying more than 1,000 suspected human rights violators living in the country. At the time, federal officials expended little effort to track them down, the rights group said. But officials in the Homeland Security and Justice departments, who had long focused on Nazi war criminals, were now looking at alleged offenders from Central America, Bosnia, Rwanda and other countries. Over the next few years, arrests mounted and the Justice Department launched its own unit similar to Ice’swar crimes center.
“As we began to be successful, we got more resources, more bodies,” said ICE Unit Chief Tom Annello.
The ICE center now has about 28 full-time employees, including attorneys, researchers and analysts. They use declassified U.S. government documents and other data to identify possible culprits. The compiled names, which so far number more than 3,000, are then shared with U.S. agents and officials tasked with approving visas.
Vienna Colucci, a senior policy adviser at Amnesty International, said that dealing with the problem through immigration “isn’t ideal.” Preventing a person from entering the country or deporting them without handing them over to a court “doesn’t help to stop atrocities,” she said.
The U.S., she said, needs to be more willing to use criminal prosecution at home.
Over the years, Congress has adopted laws aimed at allowing the prosecution of torture and human rights abuses committed abroad, a move applauded by human rights groups.
But the laws cover only atrocities committed after the laws were adopted, or sometimes apply only to U.S. citizens or members of the military. So far only one person, Chuckie Taylor, the son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, has been successfully prosecuted. Taylor was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 97 years in federal prison.
More often, officials said, they settle for lesser charges that can later result in deportation.
“We’ll go after them for visa fraud, perjury, jaywalking. We don’t care,” Annello said.
In Lopes’ case, when immigration agents, acting on a tip from the FBI in Senegal, found him about a year after his arrival in the U.S., he was living outside Boston and making frozen pizzas for grocery stores.
Agents took him in for overstaying his visa and waited to see what he would do, according to a person familiar with the case.
Rather than accept deportation, Lopes applied for asylum, according to court records. On his application, he wrote, “I have never been formally charged with any crimes,” according to a federal indictment. Because of those and other answers he gave, he was charged with fraud, misuse of a visa and perjury. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in federal prison.
Lopes, 49, completed his prison term last year and was returned to Cape Verde in September 2010.
He is being detained at a military base while he awaits trial. In a telephone interview, he said he was sentenced harshly in the U.S. because of crimes he was only accused of in Cape Verde.
He recalled being housed in solitary confinement in an “aluminum box” with no air conditioning before he was transferred from New York to federal prison in Arizona.
“They kept me there for 30 days — it was the worst time of my life,” he said. “American justicewas not just with me.”