Former Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla — a decorated war hero and a longtime US ally — finds himself treading water amidst a flurry of accusations about corruption and his connections to drug traffickers. López Bonilla is not the most well-known suspect in the cases against former Guatemalan officials, but the multiple schemes connected to him represent the apex of the Guatemalan state’s spiral towards a mafia state, and the complicated and perhaps ongoing relationship between him and the international community.
In late 2012, Mauricio López Bonilla, then Guatemala’s Interior Minister, received a message from Marllory Chacón Rossell. At the time, López Bonilla was the United States government’s most important partner on security matters in Guatemala. The ministry controls the police and the prison system, and manages a budget larger than that of the vaunted Guatemalan military.
But the ministry was also connected to some dubious deals, such as the one that López Bonilla would soon forge with Chacón. Chacón was a known money launderer and suspected drug trafficker. The US government had been investigating her for years, and, in January 2012, the US Treasury had named her as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker.
In its press release, the Treasury Department said she had operations in Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala, and called her one of the “most prolific traffickers in Central America.” It added that she had laundered “tens of millions of US dollars in narcotics proceeds each month.”
More popularly known as the “Kingpin Act,” the Treasury’s designation made Chacón (pictured below) a target, not just of the US government but also of her underworld enemies and possibly high-level politicians who, after the designation, thought that she might turn on them.
When they met in person, Chacón confirmed this, telling López Bonilla that she was working with the “gringos” to clear her name from the Kingpin list, and that this had put her in danger. López Bonilla was not contacted by the US government about her case, and the Guatemalan government was not using Chacón as a cooperating witness against other traffickers.
Yet López Bonilla decided to dedicate government personnel and resources to protect her — specifically, he provided an armored vehicle and two trail cars staffed with six armed guards per shift who would accompany her wherever she went for the next several months.
The quid pro quo for this protection was never clear. Chacón would later say that no money was exchanged, but she claimed that she did invest in a private security company López Bonilla told her he was going to create. Guatemalan investigators said that López Bonilla collected money from Chacón, but they have yet to present any evidence of this and have not charged him with anything related to Chacón’s security detail. For his part, Lopez Bonilla did not respond to repeated requests to answer questions on the record for this story.
Still, López Bonilla’s “protection services” led to questions. Why had he offered state resources to protect a known money launderer? What was exchanged in return for this service? And if he knew about her criminal activities, why didn’t he jumpstart a formal investigation into her?
On these questions and many more, the answers get decidedly more fuzzy, but they are the core of a central issue floating around Guatemala these days: for some US and Guatemalan investigators, López Bonilla was the beating heart of what became a mafia state in Guatemala, combining both corruption and outright criminal activities to enrich himself, his family, and his business partners.
However, in public statements and declarations to the justice system, López Bonilla has denied most of these claims. He also has been a friend of the international community and played a key role in renewing the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a United Nations-backed appendage of the Attorney General’s Office that has spearheaded the prosecution of numerous high level government officials including the president, the vice president and even López Bonilla himself. What’s more, the US has yet to indict him, an indication that he may still be a useful ally, even from his Guatemalan jail cell.
A Modern Military Man
López Bonilla sees himself as a modern military man, a US ally, and a friend of the international community. And, for a long time, the United States saw him in the same way. His service to his government, and by proxy to US interests, dates back to his storied time in the military when Guatemala was enmeshed in a nearly four-decades long civil war.
The war was brutal, and at times without quarter, and López Bonilla lived it up close. In 1981, he led a group of more than a dozen Special Forces troops that dressed as rebels and infiltrated a guerrilla camp. After waiting weeks for the right moment, López Bonilla and his fellow undercover soldiers surprised and killed 28 insurgents from one of the most formidable rebel factions at the time. The daring act earned López Bonilla, who took on the nom de guerre “Don Damián,” a reputation for cunning and malevolence in an institution known for merciless acts.
The war also boosted the role of the military, which ran the government off-and-on for decades. At times, army generals took turns amongst themselves in the presidency. In 1982, as a young officer on the rise, López Bonilla participated in one such coup against a military government that replaced it with another military government.
López Bonilla quickly became one of the ad hoc youth spokespeople for the administration, which later became the most storied dictatorship in Central America. The new government, under the leadership of General Efraín Ríos Montt, implemented a scorched earth policy, killing thousands of suspected insurgents and civilians. López Bonilla was part of the Ríos Montt cabinet, or what was known as the “Special Advisory Board to the President.”
In the mid-1980s, however, López Bonilla turned his attention more to matters of peace and democracy. After Guatemala returned to civilian rule in 1985, he became the liaison with civil society groups and the private sector as the government sought to start negotiations with the rebels. One of his colleagues was then chief of the Presidential Security Service (Estado Mayor Presidencial – EMP), Colonel Otto Pérez Molina. The two would continue to work together in the early 1990s once formal peace talks began. Pérez Molina was the public face of the military for the dialogue; López Bonilla was the military’s private emissary — even traveling to Cuba to meet with rebel leaders — assuming a role that would later lead some of his former military cohorts to turn on him.
Peace was signed in 1996, and López Bonilla retired from the military in 1997, as the Guatemalan government was reducing its size by two-thirds as part of the accords. The end of the war changed the face of organized crime in Guatemala. Tight knit official cadres — often linked to graduating classes of the military academy — began forming sophisticated criminal groups.
These groups used their legal businesses, connections in the government, and experience in intelligence gathering to provide services for criminal groups ranging from human smuggling and illegal arms deals to contraband and drug trafficking. They also actively undermined any investigations into human rights violations committed by the military and other security forces during the war. Sometimes they paid off judges using money from corruption schemes. Other times, they organized hit squads to eliminate those investigating or accusing them of crimes.
Perhaps their most infamous act came on April 26, 1998, when current and former military personnel arranged for the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera and the cover up that followed. Gerardi, a prominent member of the Catholic Church, had led an effort to chronicle the human rights violations during the war. The results — titled Guatemala: Nunca Más — were damning for the government, particularly the military. Gerardi, it appeared, had paid with his life.
Eventually, these military-criminal networks took on a name: Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad – CIACS). And they would form the core of the reason why the government would later approve of the formation of the United Nations-backed CICIG to assist the government in its investigations of criminal organizations operating inside the state, which it has since 2007.
SEE ALSO: CIACS Profile
By the mid-2000s, some of these CIACS had morphed into something with a wider variety of partners and greater reach, which often included political parties and businessmen. Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party (Partido Patriota – PP) was the not the first, but it was the most successful, and it would meld these interests into the mafia state that emerged under his presidency.
Still, for a long time before he became president, Pérez Molina projected the image of a modern military man — a democrat with an ability and willingness to wield a stick. In addition to helping to forge the peace, he had a cordial relationship with the human rights groups, businessmen and the United States government. Just three years after forming the PP, he lost a presidential runoff in 2007, but secured the backing of traditional economic elites.
As Pérez Molina geared up for another run at the presidency in 2010, he chose as his running mate Roxana Baldetti, a former beauty queen turned congresswoman who was the head of the PP. He also reached out to another modern-day former Guatemalan military man, López Bonilla, to head up his campaign.
After the war, López Bonilla had become a private consultant working for businesses, governments and foundations around the region in security matters, risk analyses and communications strategy. One of his partners came under some scrutiny for supposedly running a smear campaign to undermine Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo. But for the most part, López Bonilla had stayed in the shadows.
He had also returned to school, earning an advanced degree in political science and obtaining credentials to certify airport, seaport and other operations. His companies helped operate x-ray machines at Guatemala’s airport and oversee parts of the country’s busiest port, among other services provided to the Guatemalan government and private industry in the country. It was, he would say later, “a resume of education and dedication, not that of a criminal.”
When Pérez Molina came to him with the offer to help his bid for the presidency, López Bonilla told him he would do it on one condition. True to his word, on November 10, 2011, just days after he won the presidential elections, Pérez Molina complied with his former comrade’s request and announced his first cabinet member: Mauricio López Bonilla.
The Model Prisoner
Shortly after he was named interior minister, López Bonilla received an email from Byron Lima Oliva, a decorated former army captain and prisoner at a jail on the outskirts of Guatemala City. López Bonilla is a few years older than Lima, but the two had crossed paths in the army. Both were Kaibiles, Guatemala’s special forces unit. López Bonilla knew Lima’s father, who had been a commanding officer when López Bonilla was rank and file.
López Bonilla’s and Lima’s wives had also met on more than one occasion, often at the nail salon of Lima’s wife in Guatemala City. Lima said the women had a close relationship and showed photos of his wife with López Bonilla’s to prove it (see below). But López Bonilla would later say that the connection between their wives was a coincidence related to the proximity of his home to the salon. And the former minister vehemently disputed the oft-repeated characterization that he and Lima were tight.
Keeping his distance from Lima is imperative for López Bonilla. Lima and his father served jail time for the infamous murder of Bishop Gerardi. The elder Lima was released in 2012. The younger Lima, however, remained behind bars where he had been employing his training, his experience in intelligence and counterintelligence, his guile and his military contacts to take control of much of the penal system. There he developed his contraband networks and established businesses inside and outside of the prison, becoming rich in the process and establishing a reputation that he burnished via his Facebook page, “Byron Lima Presidente.”
Part of Lima’s contacts were at the top of the Patriotic Party. Lima had been a loyal soldier to Otto Pérez Molina for years, working with him in army intelligence and the EMP. He had also helped train the president’s son. He used these contacts to obtain a grant to promote rehabilitation inside jail prior to the elections. There Lima started a sweatshop that produced, among other items, bright orange shirts, hats and frisbees (see pictures below) for the PP’s 2011 presidential election. (To show his non-partisan capitalist spirit, the sweatshop also produced paraphernalia for Daniel Ortega’s 2011 presidential campaign.)
Byron Lima’s prison sweatshop produced political paraphernalia. Source: Facebook
After the PP won, Lima expected payback, and it was in this context that he sent the email to López Bonilla. It was addressed to “jefedecampanaPP@gmail.com,” the address López Bonilla had used during the campaign.
“Don Damián,” the email began, an intimate reference to the two men’s shared past in the military. “Here is the list of ideal people for the most important posts in the Penitentiary System’s Board of Directors, who will be the base for an optimal administration of your future activity as interior minister.” (See copy of email below)
It was the beginning of a series of strange coincidences in the relationship between the two men while López Bonilla was minister. According to Contrapoder, which obtained the email, of the 65 names on Lima’s email list, 36 became high-level officials in the penal system. These selections included two people who became sub-directors as well as a host of important administrative personnel. Among the people Lima recommended were some of his military academy classmates, as well as at least one of Lima’s relatives, his father-in-law, who became a high level administrative staffer.
With his picks in place, Lima — who had already worked hard to secure control of the jail where he was held — had what he needed to exert even more control over the entire penal system: an email that showed he was working with the interior minister and several classmates in top positions pulling the strings. Contrapoder magazine declared that beginning in January 2012, when López Bonilla became minister, “the jails worked under the orders of a staff selected by a prisoner: Byron Lima Oliva.”
While López Bonilla was interior minister, Lima regularly left the prison to visit his wife and children (37 times in 2012, according to Contrapoder), and was reportedly spotted on more than one occasion in Guatemala City nightclubs, prison guards in tow. He also expanded his purview over the prisoners and their lives on the inside, providing everything from permits for businesses to computer classes to jobs. Prisoners also allegedly paid nominal sums upwards of $7,000 to be transferred between jails. “Need a job? A chat with Lima Oliva resolved that problem,” Contrapoder wrote. “You need someone transferred? The captain has the contacts to do that for you.”
According to Lima, López Bonilla would also communicate with him via various chat services and intermediaries, and Lima intimated that the quid pro quo was to be the eyes and ears in the penal system and the underworld.
López Bonilla saw Lima as a potentially positive influence inside the prison, especially as it related to work projects and control of the volatile inmate population, which suffer in overcrowded and decrepit conditions. López Bonilla would later call this faith in Lima “naïve.”
Extorting Prisoners, Neutralizing Rivals
On June 10, 2012, Guatemalan authorities captured Walter Montejo, alias “Zope,” in the northwestern province of Huehuetenango. The capture was considered a victory for López Bonilla, and he was one of numerous leaders of several powerful Guatemalan drug clans who had been arrested in recent months. Once in official custody, though, these traffickers confronted a new regime: López Bonilla’s prison system, where Byron Lima held sway.
At some point, the drug traffickers and their families were threatened if they did not pay for what was politely termed a “protection” fee. Montejo, who is now in the United States serving time for drug trafficking, said that when he refused to pay he was stripped, beaten and water boarded; part of the torture was to put human feces in a bag and put it over his head. Montejo eventually paid an estimated $850,000. (Montejo also allegedly put an $800,000 price on Lima’s head.) Others paid as well.
Montejo contacted Marllory Chacón (the two had the same lawyer) to complain about how Lima was extorting him in López Bonilla’s name. By that point, Chacón’s relationship with López Bonilla had gone from utilitarian — and possibly financial — to personal. Chacón later said the two had discussed forming a private security company together that would work directly with the Guatemalan government. She also claimed that she gave him $500,000 for the venture, the only money the two exchanged, according to her.
With regards to this jail extortion case, Chacón relayed to him what Lima was doing to Montejo and the other prisoners, which led him to visit the prison where numerous traffickers were being held to assure them that he was not behind the extortion scheme.
For his part, Lima told InSight Crime that López Bonilla was behind the extortion of drug traffickers and claimed that it was his refusal to participate in the scheme that led to the rift between the two. He added that López Bonilla was jealous because of his relationship with President Pérez Molina.
“Instead of gaining an ally and using what I knew about the jails, he tried to demonize me for having a close relationship with the president,” Lima told me when we met in jail. “He tried to create a wall so I couldn’t have contact with [the president] and tell him how things were.”
To be sure, there was a certain tension within the Pérez Molina administration. López Bonilla was a trusted advisor and there were rumors that the minister was positioning himself to run for high office, possibly even president, but he was not part of the president’s inner circle yet. And in spite of his issues, Lima seemed to have a connection to the president that López Bonilla never did.
Lima was not López Bonilla’s only problem in this regard. Vice President Roxana Baldetti was also shutting him out of the presidential palace and strengthening her own power base by controlling the public works projects at the state level, as well as allegedly collecting quotas for various corruption schemes, including one that ran through the customs office.
At first, the minister confronted these problems on his own, but this backfired. When López Bonilla’s security forces intercepted Lima on his way back from one of his many visits to Guatemala City in February 2013, and paraded him in front of the cameras for violating his privileges, the fight between the two spilled into public view. In the months that followed, the former army captain boiled openly with rage, referring to López Bonilla as “Don Damián,” calling him a “communist,” and threatening to expose his nefarious schemes, which he said extended to government contracts to remodel the prisons, video surveillance systems and telephone services.
Before or during court appearances, Lima would also hint about López Bonilla’s criminal activities and their relationship. In one instance (see below), he showed the press the famous email he had sent to López Bonilla, along with photos of their chats and of his wife with López Bonilla’s wife as they exchanged gifts after one of them had traveled abroad.
With Lima throwing his dirty laundry into the street, López Bonilla turned to the CICIG, the UN-backed appendage of the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office. The commission had been in the country for seven years, but had produced mixed results. Many in the government, including President Pérez Molina and Vice President Baldetti, seemed ready to jettison the special judicial body despite its strong international backing, not least because there were indications that the CICIG was investigating their administration.
To survive, the CICIG needed both big cases and more allies in the government, and working with Minister López Bonilla, they got both. According to a former CICIG investigator, the minister provided the commission with vital information following the capture of Lima outside of jail, so that it could begin a formal investigation into Lima’s illegal schemes from prison. The information resulted in the first big, new case the commission had in years when it formally charged Lima in September 2014, for taking upwards of $7,000 to orchestrate the transfers of prisoners between jails.
However, by the next year, President Pérez Molina was still hinting that he would not renew the commission’s mandate. To distance himself from the political fallout of getting rid of the CICIG, the president created a special panel to study the matter and provide him with a recommendation.
The panel was made up of the Supreme Court President, the Attorney General, and Minister López Bonilla, and most believed that it would rubber stamp the president’s wishes to get rid of the CICIG. López Bonilla, however, surprised the others with his strong backing of the commission.
The CICIG also dropped its own bombshell on the process, when, just days before the panel was to present its recommendation to the president, the commission unveiled a massive customs fraud case. Dubbed “La Línea,” the case reached to Vice President Baldetti’s office and sent her top aide on the run from law enforcement. The special panel followed with its own recommendation that the president renew the CICIG’s mandate another two years, and the president accepted. Within two weeks, Baldetti resigned. Soon after, she was jailed.
In early 2013, Marllory Chacón and Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla had a meeting at her house. These types of meetings were not uncommon while the minister maintained Chacón’s state-sponsored security detail. Chacón did a lot of business in her home. She was sophisticated in her own way and a highly educated woman. When people came to do business with her at her house, she would make them feel comfortable and welcome, and they would talk freely.
What these visitors did not know was that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had installed listening devices and cameras in her house, and, as part of her cooperation with the US government, had asked her to continue her business as usual.
By various accounts, López Bonilla felt at ease in Chacón’s home as well, and even laughed when she presented him with a bribe from Jairo Orellana, a well-known Guatemalan drug trafficker. At 6’0, and some 220 pounds, Orellana, alias “El Pelón” or “Baldy,” cut a formidable figure (pictured below). He had risen through the ranks of the underworld — originally as a go-between for weapons for drugs deals with Colombian rebels — in one of the foremost drug trafficking clans in Guatemala because of his guile and his intimate and familial contacts with hitmen networks. When the Mexican group the Zetas took control of several eastern Guatemalan drug routes in 2009, El Pelón began supplying them with cocaine, furthering his stature as both tough and savvy. Eventually, he formed his own organization, which was known for theft and resale of cocaine moving through the country as well as its penchant for violence (although to this day, the drug trafficker disputes these characterizations).
But while Orellana was known as a thug, he also understood the subtle game of bribery. And when he started to feel too much heat from authorities and rivals alike — which included a dramatic attack on a clinic where he was getting plastic surgery that had nearly killed him and left seven of his bodyguards dead — he had turned to Chacón because he knew she had access to the minister and could pass him a bribe. Chacón says that after López Bonilla accepted the money, he said he would put it into their joint venture — the security company.
The bribe, however, did not save El Pelón from authorities. In a dramatic raid on May 15, 2014, more than a dozen local special forces and international counterdrug agents riding in helicopters surprised and surrounded the drug trafficker in one of his mountainside hideouts. The firefight and chase that followed left a helicopter with numerous bullet holes, as well as one Guatemalan policeman and one of El Pelón’s bodyguards dead; a second bodyguard was injured.
“I never had any relationship — not through intermediaries of anyone — with drug traffickers,” López Bonilla later told the Guatemalan press. “On the contrary, after Jairo Orellana was captured, I received congratulations from the State Department of the United States for his capture.”
US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield did send a letter to López Bonilla after Orellana’s capture (see below). (One investigator said that López Bonilla thinks it’s his “get-out-of-jail-free card.”) But according to Contrapoder, the operation happened behind López Bonilla’s back. The drug trafficker bought his security, the magazine said, by giving the Patriotic Party campaign contributions and by paying López Bonilla directly.
What’s more, the payments allegedly continued after Orellana was jailed. Prison authorities placed him in a special cell. Orellana had his room remodeled and painted, as well as added a bar, a flat screen TV, and a refrigerator. He also called in a few favors. Shortly after he was jailed, he got married to his longtime partner, Marta Julia Lorenzana — the daughter of his one-time boss and mentor, Waldemar Lorenzana — with whom he had a daughter. And he paid for the transfer of a rival drug trafficker who had stolen cattle from him. The rival was brought to his cell where Orellana beat him to a pulp for the transgression.
The Ideal Partner
On the surface, López Bonilla did much of what you would hope from an interior minister. He increased the size of the police. He obtained weaponry that the government could better trace to prevent leakage of weapons to criminal groups. He started a community police program, which includes 3,000 patrolmen. He improved the police officer school.
López Bonilla’s relationship with the DEA was also seemingly solid. His Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU) reportedly increased threefold from 18 to 60 members. His ministry also “nationalized” several US helicopters, training 3 police pilots and 15 mechanics. As mentioned, his ministry helped capture numerous suspected drug traffickers, many of whom were later extradited to the US.
He was a professional communicator, so he knew how to transmit concise and positive messages to the public, to the press, and to his counterparts. His sophisticated demeanor drew international partners as well, some of whom were the foremost specialists in the region on things such as drug policy and violence prevention.
However, beneath that surface, something was amiss. According to Guatemalan interior ministry officials and the government’s Office of Budgetary Affairs (Contralería General de Cuentas – CGC), López Bonilla contracted out nearly every aspect of the ministry’s business. The contractors were both friends and relatives, these investigators say. They included everyone from service providers to car rental services to huge telecommunications companies.
The contracts, according to the budgetary office, were wildly overvalued. What’s more, many of the contractors stood to get even more money because the ministry rented instead of purchased items. Ministry officials said López Bonilla’s ministry, for instance, rented armored vehicles and motorcycles for at least three years.
Four of the most scrutinized contracts his ministry signed were with the telecommunications giant Tigo. In 2014, Tigo secured the contracts to provide the ministry with video surveillance in six municipalities. The company, which is owned by one of the wealthiest people in Central America, was the sole bidder and rents as many as 5,000 video cameras to the government for as much as $2,000 per camera per month, representing a huge portion of the ministry’s budget.
“That contract has nearly bankrupted us,” one current ministry official, who wished to remain anonymous because the investigation into the deal is ongoing, told InSight Crime.
In all, the budgetary office asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate 23 “irregularities,” which range from rental of vehicles, video surveillance, food services, expansion of jails, to renting office space, purchasing uniforms, and contracting of personnel. (See Prensa Libre’s complete list of investigations here.)
On this last point, one current ministry official told InSight Crime that there are now six people working for the unit the official manages. When the official arrived, the unit had 70 people working for it; the boss of the unit traveled as much as three months per year, the official said, often sucking up per diems from both the ministry and the entity that invited the boss.
“People’s wives. Their kids. Their cousins. They all had jobs,” the official said.
The official has worked for 11 ministers, but had never seen anything like the type of corruption under López Bonilla. To describe it, the official had but one word: colossal.
The proceeds of these schemes were kicked up to the top, according to a joint CICIG – Attorney General’s Office investigation. The so-called “Cooperacha” case describes how money from corruption was handed over in cash or luxury items to President Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
López Bonilla was captured and jailed for the Cooperacha case in June of this year. Investigators say that López Bonilla gave 2,513,000 quetzales and $98,000 US dollars, money that was handed to the Vice President’s private secretary in cash and went towards purchasing vacation homes, a boat and a helicopter. López Bonilla was charged with illicit association, money laundering, bribery and fraud.
The schemes were designed to perpetuate a deeply entrenched pay-for-play system in Guatemala, which the CICIG – Attorney General’s Office designated as the “Cooptación del estado.” Roughly translated as the Capture of the State, the Cooptación case was an elaborate plan that investigators say began well before the PP took the presidency, and eventually involved dozens of operators, government entities and private companies.
The companies provided campaign contributions through third parties and later were the beneficiaries of favorable legislation, tax breaks, or government contracts. The example the CICIG – Attorney General’s Office provided was that of Radiotelevision Guatemala S.A. and Televisiete S.A., which they said provided contributions to Baldetti’s campaign via at least five companies in monthly payments that totaled Q17,679,200. Once the PP took power, investigators say the media companies received “multimillion” quetzal contracts.
At the heart of the Cooptación is what the participants euphemistically called the Incentivo Comercial Monetario (ICM), aka bribes. These bribes were to be at least “10 percent” of the value of the contracts. Investigators say there were at least 450 of these deals in place once the PP took power. The ICM, investigators estimate, were worth as much as Q500 million.
“The strength of the parties is not based on their political program or their proposals but rather their ability to bring in donors, candidates, [and] to attract contractors,” CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez said when they presented the extraordinary case to the public. “At the same time, these donors do not establish connections with the parties for ideological reasons but for purely utilitarian reasons — the party is just a temporary vehicle to win a government post. And in this process there is no loyalty to any one party but rather a near constant effort to get reelected so that these political-economic-illicit networks can continue, maintain their power.”
Government investigators eventually implicated López Bonilla in the Cooptación case. And when asked whether he would collaborate with the justice system, he remained defiant.
“Even if you connect me to the most despicable cases, I will take my secrets to the grave with me,” he told the court. “I don’t think it’s ethical to save your own skin by undermining a lot of people who once confided in you.”
In early 2014, Marllory Chacón lured Hayron Borrayo Lasmibat to Paris for what Borrayo believed was an amorous encounter. Alias “El Oso,” Borrayo sold drugs and laundered money for the Zetas. His wife, Mirza Silvana Hernández Reyes, helped her husband conceal their earnings and had long been close to Roxana Baldetti, allegedly providing campaign funding to the Patriotic Party during the 2011 bid for the presidency.
Part of what put Chacón in the cross-hairs was her knowledge of the relationship between Borrayo’s wife, Hernández, and Baldetti; it was part of what led then Minister López Bonilla to assign a security detail to her. The irony of this story is, of course, thick: López Bonilla was protecting a would-be informant of his then boss, Baldetti. Baldetti would have her own perverse revenge: her former top aide is cooperating against López Bonilla in the corruption cases against him.
Borrayo gathered his things and traveled through Mexico to France. When he arrived, he was captured by French authorities who deported him to the United States to face drug trafficking charges. Chacón’s cooperation in cases like this led to the indictment of numerous other high level traffickers in the region as well, including several from Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia. One DEA agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, called her “perhaps the greatest asset we have ever had.”
But López Bonilla was not privy to this information, nor was he part of the DEA efforts. During his dealings with Chacón, López Bonilla did not coordinate with US authorities. He never investigated or attempted to prosecute Chacón. What’s more, the protection detail lasted a long time — close to a year, according to Chacón.
In López Bonilla’s defense, it is clear that Chacón was in danger and may have survived because of the protection. In addition to protecting her from the likes of Borrayo and Vice President Baldetti, Jairo Orellana also initially wanted her dead because he blamed her for the 2012 assault on the clinic that nearly killed him.
Sensing the increasing danger herself, Chacón left the country in early 2013, and in September 2014, officially surrendered to US authorities where she began her judicial proceedings. These culminated in May 2015, but the case is sealed, as is the final sentence. That sentence could be lowered as she continues to cooperate with US authorities, including the evidence she collected while in Guatemala.
The recordings from her house are perhaps the most damning evidence against López Bonilla. They reportedly show the then minister accepting the bribe from Jairo Orellana. Orellana was extradited to the United States in September 2015, where he is also reportedly cooperating with US authorities on multiple investigations including the potential case against López Bonilla. López Bonilla says Orellana is simply trying to get a better deal with the US government.
“Criminals are always going to try to negotiate a better situation when they have to confront justice, and that’s the same in the United States,” he told journalists when asked about the accusations of his relationship with Orellana. “They are always going to say that they had some kind of relationship with some official or [talk about] something specific that happened.”
It was in May 2015 that the Patriotic Party-run mafia state also began to crumble. The CICIG brought its now famous corruption case La Linea against the vice president and the president, leading to their resignations and indictments in Guatemala. López Bonilla also resigned, and spent more than a year jockeying to stay out of jail before he was arrested for the Cooperacha case.
“Time will finally determine the truth,” he would later tell a judge. “The absolute truth will rise above.”
(The “absolute truth” quickly started trending on Twitter (#verdadverdadera) and inspired more than a few memes.)
From jail, his old nemesis Byron Lima beckoned, adding new charges to his list of López Bonilla’s transgressions such as calling him a “tumbador,” lingo in the underworld for someone who steals money and drugs from other drug traffickers.
“Whoever does bad, gets worse,” Lima told the press during one court appearance. “And we are awaiting his arrival in jail. I hope he stays here in Guatemala. Let’s see what jail that thief, ‘tumabador’ Don Damián gets put into.”
The rivalry also spilled onto Lima’s Facebook page where he regularly posted pictures of López Bonilla, along with disparaging remarks. When López Bonilla was arrested on the corruption charges, memes appeared on the page depicting López Bonilla’s terror at serving jail time in Lima’s kingdom. (See below) “There’s not enough room in this world for the two of us,” Lima reportedly told his former army comrade.
In the weeks after López Bonilla was incarcerated, there were attempts to clear the air between them, but it was too late. On July 18, Lima and his entourage were ambushed in the prison where he was being held. The attack left the former army captain and 13 others dead, and it opened a series of questions about who might be powerful and savvy enough to kill him. In this discussion, López Bonilla’s name came up as a suspect.
For López Bonilla, more trouble followed. Just days after Lima’s assassination, a 2014 recording taken in jail between one of Orellana’s bodyguards, a jailed prosecutor and a drug trafficker named Eduardo Villatoro appeared on social media. In the recording the prosecutor talks about a raid on an alleged drug trafficker’s farm in which money, drugs and purebred horse were reportedly stolen from the farm. The men speaking on the recording blame López Bonilla, calling him on several occasions a “tumbador,” the same way Lima had described him. The prosecutor later confirmed that it was him speaking in the audio.
The United States has not yet formally indicted López Bonilla, and it is not clear if it will. But following López Bonilla’s arrest, the Guatemalan press said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) formally requested information from the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office about the case. This would presumably include the alleged payment from Orellana, accusations of him being a “tumbador,” and, of course, the former minister’s interactions with Marllory Chacón.
*This investigation was done with the assistance of Sweden. Additional reporting was provided by Julie López and Héctor Silva Ávalos.