Guatemala: bishop’s killer runs prison ring

On Sept. 3 the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) announced that a joint operation with Guatemala's Public Ministry and Governance Ministry had captured seven members of a criminal network that took bribes to arrange transfers for prisoners; the ring also supplied prisoners with cell phones, special food, conjugal visits and other benefits. According to the authorities, the network's leaders were Penitentiary System Director Edgar Camargo Liere and a prisoner, Byron Miguel Lima Oliva, who is serving a 20-year term for carrying out the April 26, 1998 murder of Catholic bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, a well-known human rights campaigner. A total of 14 people are charged with participating in the bribery ring, but apparently not all had been captured as of Sept. 3. (CICIG, Sept. 3)

Lima Oliva, a former army captain who is an inmate in the Pavoncito prison south of Guatemala City, reportedly had an arrangement with Penitentiary Director Camargo that enabled him to charge a prisoner as much as $12,000 to be transferred. Lima Oliva himself apparently was living well in the Pavoncito. He was equipped with as many as five cell phones for his business, made frequent trips out of prison in armored cars, including a Porsche, and invested in real estate, including a beachfront property. The Mexican daily La Jornada reported that the corruption in Pavoncito "was always known." Lima Oliva himself has claimed to be friends with President Otto Pérez Molina and to have connections with Governance Minister Mauricio López Bonilla; he says he arranged the printing of the campaign polo shirts for Pérez Molina's successful 2011 election campaign. In February of this year Lima Oliva was apprehended while going to the dentist and overstaying his authorized time outside the prison; he and his entourage were traveling in vehicles used in the 2011 campaign by Pérez Molina's Patriotic Party (PP).

According to the court that convicted him in June 2001, Lima Oliva bludgeoned Bishop Gerardi to death just two days after Gerardi released a report on abuses during Guatemala's 36-year civil war; the report blamed many of the abuses on the military. Also convicted were Lima Oliva's father, former colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada, and a former soldier in the Presidential General Staff (EMP), Specialist Obdulio Villanueva Arévalo. The elder Lima was given an early release in 2012 for good behavior; Villanueva was decapitated during an inmate riot at the Preventive Center prison in northern Guatemala City in February 2003. Lima Oliva was in the same prison but was unharmed. He denies any role in Gerardi's murder and says he's a scapegoat.

Lima Oliva's apparent connections with the government have led to suspicions that the prosecution of the former captain may not be successful. La Jornada correspondent Sanjuana Martínez asked the judge in the case, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, if he might end up fleeing the country, as happened with the chief prosecutor in Lima Oliva's 2001 conviction. "I hope not," Judge Gálvez said. When asked if he was afraid, he answered: "Of course, especially since this is a very complex country." (Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 5; Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept.11; LJ, Sept. 14; The Guardian, UK, Sept. 14, 2012, from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, September 14.

See our last post on the prison crisis in Latin America.