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30 years after massacre, family comes together again

Guatemala slaughter seemed to take everything, until DNA testing

Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda and Tranquilino Castañeda, with daughters Nicole and Andrea, looked at pictures from Guatemala.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NEWARK - The man with piercing green eyes began to shake as he stared past the checkpoint, down a crowded corridor into an unfamiliar airport terminal.

It would be the first time Oscar Alfredo Ramírez Castañeda, now 32 and living in Framingham, would meet his biological father since a squad of government soldiers slaughtered his mother and eight brothers and sisters 30 years ago in their small village during the height of the civil war in Guatemala.

Until last year, when he received a call from prosecutors in Guatemala and agreed to submit to a DNA test, Ramírez had no idea that as a young child he had been abducted by an army lieutenant who led that assault, and raised as a member of his family. Or that his real father was still alive.


Tranquilino Castañeda, with granddaughter Andrea Ramírez, had always assumed that his youngest son was dead. ‘‘I’mjust glad to have lived long enough to see this day,’’ he said.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On Monday, as his own young children giggled with excitement and held signs to welcome their new grandfather to Newark Liberty International Airport, Ramírez was not sure what to feel. “I’m nervous,’’ he said. “Anxious.’’

Ramírez said he grew up in a loving family and lacks any grudge against Lieutenant Oscar Ovidio Ramírez Ramos, the deputy commander of the notorious squad of commandos that killed more than 250 men, women, and children and wiped Dos Erres, his village in northern Guatemala, off the map.

“It’s very hard for me,’’ Ramírez would say later. “I can’t change what happened in my life. I just can’t. He was good to me. First of all, I didn’t get killed, and then he didn’t treat me bad.’’

The lieutenant died in a truck accident eight months after kidnapping Ramírez, who was 3 at the time. “Everyone I knew loved him and thought he was a good man,’’ said Ramírez. “They saw him as a hero.’’

Earlier in the day, with the help of a New York lawyer and a foundation supporting his bid for political asylum in the United States, Ramírez and his family took a train from South Station into Manhattan.


Now, with his wife, Nidia, by his side, and the children growing antsy, Ramírez began to sweat in the air-conditioned corridor at the airport. The children, dressed as if they were going to church, only knew they were going to meet their grandfather from Guatemala.

Over the past year, Ramírez and his father, Tranquilino Castañeda, now 70, have spoken nearly every day over the phone, even chatting twice by video. Ramírez has sent him money and urged him to go easy on the rum, which has been Castañeda’s companion and tormentor since he returned from the fields that day in 1982 to find his pregnant wife and other children dead.

Castañeda had always assumed that his youngest son, a chubby toddler with missing front teeth whom he called Alfredito, had been thrown down the village well and left to die with the others. He never remarried, struggled with alcoholism, and lived in a shack in the jungle after giving up on farming when the arthritis in his leg became too much.

Now he was getting on a plane for the first time, leaving his country for the first time.

“I’m just glad to have lived long enough to see this day,’’ Castañeda would say later.

As anxious as he felt, Ramírez said he knew he had to meet his father in person, to touch him, to hug him.


“I just wanted to have him with me,’’ Ramírez said. “He doesn’t have to be alone anymore.’’

A lawyer waiting with the family received a call from one of the human rights advocates traveling with Castañeda. They had landed.

A trickle of passengers grew into a surge passing through the security barrier. Then Ramírez’s girls began to jump and scream.

They instantly recognized the man in the weathered white cowboy hat that shaded his sun-creased face after years of harvesting corn. He was being pushed on a wheelchair.

The children - Andrea, 11, Nicole, 7, and Oscar, 5 - wrapped their arms around their grandfather, who was beaming. Then Ramírez, still holding 10-month-old Dulce, leaned in for a long, deep hug that lasted nearly 30 seconds.

Father and son both wiped the tears filling their nearly identical green eyes.

There would be a lot to catch up on, such as how justice is slowly coming to pass in Guatemala, where members of the military and government officials guilty of ordering mass murder have evaded prosecution for years.

A Guatemalan court last August found three former commandos who participated in the attack on Dos Erres guilty of murder and human rights violations. The defendants each received sentences of 6,060 years in prison, or 30 years for every one of the 201 identified victims, plus 30 more for crimes against humanity.

Seven suspects remain at large, including two of the squad’s top officers. Authorities told ProPublica, a nonprofit online news site that first reported the story of how prosecutors identified Ramírez, that they believe the suspects could be in the United States or in Guatemala, sheltered by powerful networks linking the military and organized crime.


They would also be able to talk about Ramírez’s adopted family, who were shocked to learn of Ramírez’s true identity. After learning the news, Ramírez’s cousins promptly invited Castañeda to the town where Ramírez grew up, and treated him graciously, like family.

At the airport, Ramírez led his father to baggage claim and then to a van waiting to take the family into New York City for a dinner arranged by R. Scott Greathead, a partner in the New York office of Wiggin and Dana, who helped arrange the visit. Greathead and lawyers from Mintz Levin in Boston will represent Ramírez, who entered the United States as an illegal immigrant, at a hearing in which Ramírez will seek political asylum. He will argue that he is at risk because he is living proof of a massacre in Guatemala and could be targeted by those hoping to avoid prosecution.

After dinner, Ramírez and his family took a train back to Boston. His father remained in New York to get some rest.

The next morning, Castañeda was driven to Framingham, where he will sleep in Ramírez’s bed. He has a visa to stay in the United States for six months.

As they chatted over a lunch of pupusas on Tuesday afternoon in the family’s cramped two-bedroom apartment, which is full of children’s toys and family photos, including portraits of the lieutenant’s mother, they talked about the price of cigarettes in the States, how to buy pants, and what life was like in Dos Erres before soldiers burned it to the ground.


Castañeda showed Ramírez pictures of those who died, including one of his sisters, a 13-year-old named Maribel.

As they talked, Ramírez’s children clung to their father and grandfather, who pinched their cheeks, gave them long hugs, and cooed with affection. He couldn’t get enough of them.

“I’m very happy to be here,’’ Castañeda said.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.