Three years ago, a woman waiting in line at a Walgreen’s in Providence, R.I., recognized the man behind her — his face and black sombrero — the man she believes is responsible for the disappearance of her father and uncle.
It was Juan Samayoa, a paramilitary leader from the country’s civil war, who’s haunted her since she was a little girl.
She confronted him outside the store.
“I told him he is very famous. Then I asked if he remembers [my uncle and father]. He started to shake and his facial expression changed. Then I got a lump in my throat, and I never saw him again,” says the woman, who requested anonymity because she fears allies of the alleged war criminal could come after her children here in the United States.
“My father disappeared on July 12, of 1982, and two years later my mother died of cancer,” she says in Spanish. “We were alone. We suffered hunger, pain, fear, and insecurity — we were children.”
And the man she believes killed her father, owns a house less than a mile from her home in Providence.
Samayoa, 67, has been living in the country illegally since the 1990s. He’s been in and out of immigration proceedings since he fled Guatemala, but managed to stay in Providence, working as a landscaper.
Last fall, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested him for immigration violations after investigating his activity during the war.
Authorities in Guatemala say they’re waiting for Samayoa with an arrest warrant — for crimes including rape and murder.
“I think he is a very bloodthirsty person with a great level of cruelty — given the way he killed his victims. They were subjected to torture,” says Hilda Pineda, Guatemala’s top human rights prosecutor.
Court documents supplied by Pineda accuse Samayoa of involvement in 38 murders, dozens of kidnappings, and 14 rapes carried out in the early 1980s.
The accusations include burying people alive and torching their homes.
Pineda says she wants Samayoa deported so he can face charges.
“That’s what we’re looking for — for him to be sentenced based on the facts,” she says.
Samayoa declined to comment through his attorney, Providence-based Hans Bremer.
But in immigration court, Bremer cast doubt on the war crimes allegations. He portrayed Samayoa as a law-abiding resident of the United States, without even a traffic violation on his record.
As for his time as a paramilitary leader, Bremer told the judge it was basically self defense during a horrible war.
For the woman who believes Samayoa is responsible for the death of her father and uncle, his deportation proceeding is a cause for hope.
“For me as a daughter, this opens a new hope of knowing where my father is, to recover his bones and give him a Christian burial,” she says.
But she and other members of the Guatemalan community in the U.S. lack faith in the Guatemalan justice system.
The courts there overturned a guilty verdict against perhaps the most notorious author of Guatemala’s genocide — the former president.
But advocates point to other war crimes convictions as evidence there will be a reckoning for Juan Samayoa.
Samayoa — and the prosecutors trying to deport him — will lay out their arguments Friday, in court.