Guatemala’s anti-impunity body the CICIG has made dramatic new allegations in the case of the so-called “king” of Guatemala’s prison system, implicating one of the most powerful politicians in the country and revealing the depths to which corruption has penetrated Guatemalan society.
On July 18, 2016, Byron Lima Oliva was murdered in El Pavón, the prison he had made into his own private fiefdom. But the investigations into his extensive network of corruption have continued.
On October 5, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) presented testimonies, communications intercepts, surveillance images and a cache of documents revealing just how far that network reached.
The allegation sent shockwaves through the Guatemalan establishment: Lima had corrupt dealings with a man he referred to as “Señor Oro,” or “Mr. Gold” — former president and current mayor of Guatemala City Álvaro Arzú.
Arzú, a political caudillo who has occupied the capital city mayor’s office since 2004, attended the press conference to face his accusers, at one point even attempting to grab the microphone, reported Reuters.
Arzú is now the third Guatemalan president, current or former, targeted by the CICIG. An investigation by the United Nations-backed body helped topple the now jailed ex-President Otto Pérez Molina, but so far has failed in attempts to breach the impunity of current head of state Jimmy Morales.
Referring to the CICIG’s failure to prosecute Morales, Arzú told reporters that CICIG chief Ivan Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana “are trying to get back at me because they couldn’t carry out their ‘coup’ with another president.”
Prison King’s Political Ties
Arzú’s relationship with Lima began in the 1990s, when Lima, an army officer, formed part of then President Arzú’s security detail. In 1998, when Lima took part in the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, which began his life as a prisoner, Arzú attempted to put a halt to the investigation, the CICIG detailed.
The relationship continued as Lima began his ascent through the prison system and Arzú entrenched himself in the mayor’s office of Guatemala City. The CICIG documented aspects of this in letters between the pair, in which Lima refers to Arzú as “Señor Oro” and signs off using the pseudonym “Julio.” Among the letters obtained by the CICIG is one in which Lima requests approximately $99,000 for lawyer and auditor fees.
The main accusation laid out by the CICIG is based on the activities of the “cooperative” Lima operated from within the prison, Torre Fuerte. Numerous political parties contracted Torre Fuerte to produce campaign promotional material, including Arzú. However, the CICIG says Arzú paid for Lima’s services not out of campaign funds, but with money siphoned from the municipal budget through false invoicing.
The materials were not the only one of Lima’s services allegedly paid for with public money. Lima also staged workshops to recruit voters for Arzú, and the CICIG offered evidence that these were funded in the same way.
In addition to the allegedly corrupt contracting, several members of Lima’s family and his connections, among them his romantic partner Alejandra Reyes and her mother, were also taking a wage from the municipal government for what the CICIG says were non-existent “ghost” jobs.
Arzú was not the only high profile figure in the CICIG’s sights at the October 5 press conference. The body also offered further evidence in the investigations into a prison racket involving former interior minister and head of police, Mauricio López Bonilla, who is currently wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges.
According to the CICIG, the arrival of military strongman Otto Pérez Molina to the presidency and the appointment of López Bonilla to the position of interior minister, “opened the doors for Lima Oliva to exercise power inside the national penitentiary system,” extending his power beyond the confines of El Pavón.
The man appointed as head of the prison system, Luis Alberto González, was suggested by Lima himself. According to the CICIG, López Bonilla then passed on a message to Lima through González: He was giving Lima a gift, 150 prison transfers into the relatively comfortable life of El Pavón, for those willing and able to pay the price.
The results of this pact, the details of which are discussed in emails between Lima and López Bonilla presented by the CICIG, were plain to see. In 2011, 11 prisoners were transferred to El Pavón. In 2013, just two were transferred. But in 2012, when Lima, González and López ran their racket, 127 inmates were transferred.
Tentacles of the Mafia State
The CICIG also documents how several of these transfers were allegedly paid for with luxury vehicles, whose journeys illustrate the workings and the reach of the network.
One case involves Kevin Overdick, son of one of Guatemala’s most infamous drug traffickers, Walther Overdick. Lima allegedly secured Overdick’s transfer to El Pavón in 2012. In return, he received a Mercedes Benz that he used to chauffeur around his daughter Andrea.
After Lima was caught outside of prison without the appropriate permits in 2013, the vehicle moved into the hands of Moisés Galindo, a lawyer who has represented numerous powerful military and political figures, including former military dictator Efraín Rios Montt and ex-President Pérez Molina.
When police seized another vehicle made as a payment to Lima in January 2017, evidence obtained by the CICIG shows Galindo passing the car to Lima’s partner Alejandra Reyes, who reportedly offered her cooperation to authorities shortly after Lima’s July 2016 death.
Another inmate to pay with a vehicle was the author of one of Guatemala’s most infamous crimes of recent years, Alfonso Rafael Menéndez Castillo. Castillo paid for his transfer with a vehicle registered in the name of his father, whom he had murdered shortly before because, investigators believe, he wanted to claim the life insurance.
The prison transfers were just one aspect of Lima’s dealings with López Bonilla and González, according to the CICIG. Lima was also able to name officials to positions and secure them contracts through González, while González’s personal security detail also contained Lima’s associates.
In total, 11 people have now been arrested over the allegations, among them González and Galindo. Another three have pending warrants and five more have been summoned to give testimony. The list includes military colonels, drug traffickers, lawyers and public officials — titles that speak to the extent of the corruption that has become embedded in Guatemala’s system of government.
Previous judicial actions have begun to uproot these still-powerful networks, while elites have fought these efforts at every turn. The latest round of accusations shows that authorities are continuing to unravel the extensive threads of corruption in Guatemala. But history suggests this work won’t be completed quickly or easily.