On September 3, 2014, Guatemala’s director of the penitentiary system, Edgar Camargo, and its former deputy director, Edy Fisher, were arrested—as were several others—for their participation in a crime ring run by a convicted felon from inside a Guatemalan prison.
These arrests were produced following an investigation done by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which is tasked with the investigation and disbanding of illicit and clandestine security structures in the country. The investigation (which is still ongoing) revealed that a convicted felon, Byron Lima Oliva, was the real authority in the Guatemalan prison system.
CICIG reported that Lima Oliva had unheard-of privileges, such as access to phones and the Internet, frequently received guests, and left prison when he wished—and documented all this on his Facebook page. Lima’s power apparently extended to running a textile factory in Pavoncito prison with the labor of other prisoners, and arranging for benefits—such as cell phones, food, conjugal visits, and the transfers of detainees from one prison to another.
Those transfers provide a good example of how the crime ring operated: Lima would receive a detainee’s request. A sum of money would then be paid to Lima’s romantic partner, Alejandra Reyes (now also detained) in the spa she operated in Guatemala City. A small part of that money would be paid to Camargo, who then authorized the transfer. During his imprisonment, Lima thus acquired a large amount of luxury properties, vehicles and horses.
This would have been a scandal in any country, but there is something that makes this case even more significant for Guatemala: Byron Lima Oliva is not just any criminal. He was a specially-trained kaibil soldier during that armed conflict, and is perhaps most notorious for his involvement in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, for which he received a 20-year prison sentence. (Gerardi was assassinated in 1998, two days after he presented a report on human rights violations committed during the Guatemalan internal conflict, the vast majority of which were attributed to the armed forces.)
Members of Guatemala’s political opposition, including Deputy Delia Back, have called for an investigation of Lima’s ties to high-ranking Guatemalan politicians. Photos on the “Byron Lima Presidente” Facebook page show Alejandra Reyes posing with current President Otto Pérez Molina, among others.
Byron Lima’s connections and power while still in prison highlight a major challenge for Guatemala: the collusion between organized crime, the military and the government. This case provides the best opportunity to date to uncover and disband those structures. If done correctly— with a thorough investigation of all those involved and their subsequent trial before the courts—these revelations could have the ability to mark a before and after for Guatemala.
However, it is no secret that Guatemala’s judicial system faces numerous challenges, including a lack of capacity, corruption and traffic of influences—not in the least because of the manipulation of judicial appointment processes by political and economic powers. This case will provide a crucial test of that judicial system, as well as of Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who was appointed following a controversial selection process that her critics say was manipulated by political actors.
In addition to the above, this investigation shows the relevance of CICIG for Guatemala, and the importance that its mandate be renewed when it expires in September 2015. The continued investigation and prosecution of illegal, high-level structures such as the one recently uncovered is crucial for democracy in Guatemala.