The Prison Kings of Guatemala

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Guatemala’s most dangerous prison has a new king.

Howard Wilfredo Barillas Morales, better known as “Matazetas,” is the latest convict to control all aspects of life in the Pavón prison — a notoriously lawless detention center just outside Guatemala City.

Housed in an isolated sector, he has 10 inmate bodyguards and manages an alleged “army” of 60 prisoners who maintain his operations, extorting new detainees and bribing security guards.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile

Barillas Morales has also gained enough power to demand a 10 percent fee on all items smuggled and sold in the jail, from bread to marijuana, according to testimonies from other inmates.

InSight Crime Analysis

Barillas Morales’ reign began sometime after the death of Byron Lima, a former army captain who had established control of the jail until he was murdered by other inmates in July 2016. Matazetas is said to have gained Lima’s confidence and learned from him, though the pair came to jail from vastly different routes and at different times in Guatemala’s tumultuous history.

Lima was a longtime military officer who fought against leftist guerrillas, and then worked in intelligence and with the presidential guard. He had a celebrated military career until he was convicted in the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi. In 2001, he was sentenced to a 30-year prison term.

Barillas Morales was sentenced to 31 years in jail after a 2012 kidnapping. As a gang leader he amassed a diverse arsenal and boasted of not fearing any Mexican cartel, namely the murderous Zetas, earning him the nickname, “Matazetas,” or “Zetas Killer.”

Lima’s time in the military had left him with an abundance of powerful connections, including prominent members of the penitentiary system and the presidential palace, which he used to transfer unwanted detainees to other prisons and obtain contraband at far lower prices than his competitors. This is a luxury which the current king of Pavón does not appear to enjoy. Barillas Morales was himself transferred to a different detention center in 2016.

But both men came to monopolize all facets of life within Pavón, controlling everything that detainees need, want and consume. This not only provided them with a lucrative way to tax commerce inside the jail, it also allowed them to distribute resources in a way that favored their allies and deprived potential rivals of basic goods. Matazetas, for example, is said to reward those loyal to him with marijuana, whereas Lima made a fortune by selling phone calls to prisoners hoping to speak with family, friends and business associates.

Lima also first built an army of devoted prisoners and bodyguards. Commanding such manpower was crucial to managing daily prison operations, such as contraband flows and spying on rival detainees. The former captain also relied on complicit prison guards, who would even accompany him whenever he left Pavón for a night on the town.

SEE ALSO:  Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Lima transformed his housing sector into a barracks — banishing rivals and installing discipline among trusted inmates using military-style drills. He used the intelligence experience gained in his military days to set up espionage teams, which gathered information on other detainees and the prison administration.

Barillas Morales’ living quarters, like those of his predecessor, are free from rivals who could mount a challenge against his leadership.

The pair, however, differ on a key criminal economy within the prison: extortion.

Lima chose to eliminate the so-called talacha — an extortion fee that new inmates must pay in Guatemalan jails to guarantee a place to sleep and to avoid abuse. The former captain was initially a victim of the talacha, but once he was in control of the prison he ousted the extortionists — a move which helped convert the prison rank-and-file. Lima also claimed to provide security, health services and work for prisoners, telling InSight Crime in 2016 that he was motivated by a “humanitarian impulse.”

Matazetas, on the other hand, collects talachas from Pavón’s new arrivals, who are also routinely beaten and locked in bathrooms.

But what’s clear from both men’s stories is that for several decades now this prison has been integral to organized crime in Guatemala.

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