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Arrest of Director of Prisons Helps Take Down Extortion Ring

Guatemala’s Director of Prisons, Edgar Camargo, was arrested on Wednesday, September 3, helping to bring down an alleged extortion group that raked in millions of dollars, property and luxury cars.

Also charged were the former deputy director of prisons, Edy Fischer, and Byron Lima Oliva, the purported mastermind of the operation, who was serving time at Pavoncito prison for his role in the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi.

More than 800 policemen descended on Pavoncito last Wednesday, in one of 15 coordinated nationwide prison raids.  Lima Oliva was transferred to Brigada Militar Mariscal Zavala, a maximum security military prison. Camargo later joined him there, after receiving treatment for hypertension at a private hospital in Guatemala City.

Camargo was named director of prisons in February 2013, after the dismissal of José Luis González Pérez.  González Pérez left office after Lima Oliva was found in a convoy of cars last year, celebrating with various jail officials and women after being allowed out for dental treatment.

Appearing in front of Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, a judge in Guatemala’s Corte de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court), Camargo appeared unconcerned about the allegations.  "He who owes nothing fears nothing," he said.

Lima Oliva, for his part, has been described by investigators from the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala —CICIG)  as the de facto ruler of Guatemala’s prison system—where prisons like Pavón (where Pavoncito now stands) were surrendered to prisoner control decades ago. He was completing a 20-year sentence and was eligible for parole on September 12, expressing a wish to run for president once released.  To achieve these goals, his supporters set up a Facebook page and website in 2013, and he received high profile guests, foreign dignitaries, congressmen, and sports and entertainment stars in prison. 

Growth in Lima Oliva’s real estate holdings first led CICIG to open an investigation against him in 2013. While in prison, Lima Oliva had netted several properties, including one at the beach and one in an exclusive condominium, as well as luxury cars and bulletproof vehicles, CICIG reported

“Lima is the hub of a criminal network operating in the country's prisons, and for many inmates, Lima was the true authority and they turned to him to apply for transfers, favors and rights,” said CICIG Director Iván Velásquez.  “Lima Oliva exercised undeniable influence in the prison system."

According to CICIG investigators, the former military intelligence officer sold benefits ranging from access to cellphones for extortion, to better food and conjugal visits—plus transfers to prisons with more lax regimes, which netted at least $6000 per move. Proceeds were allegedly shared with Camargo and others, although the lion’s share reportedly went to Lima Oliva—supporting the upkeep of a spa for his lover and at least nine thoroughbred horses. Lima Oliva also allegedly profited from a convoy of microbuses that were used to transport families of inmates at Pavoncito. 

Lima Oliva denied the accusations. Speaking to The Associated Press, he said, “They [the government] are looking for revenge because I did not let them place an inmate here [...] one they wanted to assassinate.”

The case could bring some uncomfortable exposure to dealings between the government and Lima Oliva, who was rumored to enjoy state protection.  One such accusation is that a factory within the prison was making campaign propaganda for the Partido Patriota.  Lima Oliva also alleged that he had dealings with Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla and gave him money for campaigns.

In total, 13 people face charges of illegal transfer of prisoners, money laundering, conspiracy, racketeering, dereliction of duty, and active and passive extortion.  The investigation will continue and further charges are expected, potentially including murder.

Sources say that more arrests are likely in coming weeks.  CICIG’s mandate in Guatemala is due to expire in September 2015. However, this investigation could be difficult for local authorities, and it is likely that CICIG’s continued presence will become a focal point of next year’s elections.

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, CICIG, Byron Lima Oliva

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