There is a problem in Guatemala’s main prison, which is home to politicians, business owners, judges, military personnel and drug traffickers.

The justice and prison systems have succeeded in preserving the lives of the powerful once they are sentenced, but they have failed to prevent them from conspiring to commit crimes from the prison, located inside the military barracks of Mariscal Zavala.

During the presidency of Álvaro Colom (recently arrested for corruption), 2010 marked the first time that Interior Minister Carlos Menocal, Attorney General Claudia Paz and the then-head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) Carlos Castresana began to systematically arrest drug trafficking kingpins, high-ranking politicians, major business leaders and “efficient” collaborators, the latter being the legal term given to those who inform on their leaders in criminal structures and collaborate with the courts in exchange for sentence reductions.

Apartment-cells at Mariscal Zavala Photo Credit: Carlos Sebastian

They converted spaces in the Matamoros and Mariscal Zavala military bases into centers where they could hold inmates whose lives were potentially in danger.

*This article was originally published in Nómada and is reprinted with permission. Read the original article here.

Mariscal Zavala and Matamoros are known as VIP prisons because high-ranking officials such as ex-President Otto Pérez Molina, ex-President of the Bank of Guatemala Julio Suárez, former Supreme Court judge Blanca Stalling and former Congresswoman Daniela Beltranena are serving sentences there. Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti is the only official incarcerated in a facility for the general population, at the Santa Teresa prison.

At Mariscal Zavala oversight is so lacking that a journalist from Guatemalan media outlet Nómada entered the compound without showing identification. When the journalist spoke with prisoners about the escape of an inmate, one of them said that they stay at Mariscal Zavala because they want to, and because if they get caught their sentences will be increased.

Given that anyone can enter and exit the prison freely, and the inmates enjoy privileges such as unlimited internet access, the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG are concerned over crimes being orchestrated from Mariscal Zavala. In fact, current CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez believes such prisons should be closed.

Why Are They Still Operating?

On several occasions the Attorney General’s Office has asked judges to move inmates to other prisons.

“The requests must be substantiated with evidence demonstrating that the life of the prisoner is at risk or the individual is responsible for additional crimes within the prison,” explains Rottman Pérez, secretary of criminal policy at the Attorney General’s Office.

Even if the judge approves the transfer request, inmates may use legal means to appeal the decision, such as petitioning the court for a habeas corpus or an amparo, which is similar to an injunction in the United States.

One of the most notorious cases is the transfer of Gustavo Alejos, entrepreneur, pharmacist and political financier, who was moved from Mariscal Zavala to Pavoncito in November 2016. The Attorney General’s Office submitted a request for the transfer of Alejos and nine other people because it learned from intercepted phone calls that former officials such as ex-President Molina were still giving orders from inside the prison.

But 15 days after the transfer, the court system’s Femicide Chamber granted Alejos a petition for habeas corpus. According to the defense attorney, the businessman’s family had received death threats, the conditions under which he was being held were unfavorable, and he feared for his life at Pavoncito. Once the judge granted the writ, the prison system had to transfer Alejos back to Mariscal Zavala.

The hands of the justice officials were tied.

“If there is a resolution that favors the prisoner, the criminal procedure code accepts it, and so must we. If not, we could be considered in violation of the law. To attempt the transfer again, we and the Attorney General’s Office are required to have a different reason than the one that was denied,” explained judge Ericka Aifán regarding the reversed transfer of the pharmaceuticals mogul.

System Failure

The penitentiary system’s situation is critical. According to the World Prison Brief’s database, Guatemala has the fifth most overcrowded prison system, with a 293 percent occupancy rate. Even the VIP prisons are full. Mariscal Zavala has 248 people in a space meant for 135, and Matamoros is close to capacity with 30 prisoners in an area designed for a maximum of 32.

Throughout the country there are 4,286 prison guards who work in 2 shifts, meaning that there are only 2,143 active at a time. There are 23,328 prisoners in the entire country. This equates to 11 inmates per guard, double that of the 5 inmates per guard ratio in countries such as the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Outside of the VIP prisons, inmates are kept in deplorable and inhumane conditions, in constant fear of assassinations and riots. Prison system spokesman Rudy Esquivel says that the system needs to be revamped because it has exceeded its lifespan. This has, in turn, caused the inmate housing capacity to reach almost 300 percent. There are not enough guards, and highly dangerous inmates are mixed in with the general population, increasing risks for everyone.

“The facilities cannot take in any more prisoners under the system we have now, and that is why we have been working on a plan since 2013 to ensure that in 20 years we can have an updated prison system,” says Esquivel.

But those plans do not include any solutions for immediate problems, one example being the prison in Guatemala City’s Zona 18, where most of the population are gang members, and which records the highest rates of extortion, threats and murders in the country. Prisoners in high-profile cases, such as Otto Pérez Molina and Juan de Dios Rodriguez, former president of the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social – IGSS), cannot be transferred to such prisons as it puts their lives at risk.

They cannot be moved to Matamoros either, a place with tighter controls than Mariscal Zavala and with space available, because since it began to be used as a prison, some of the most dangerous inmates have been sent there, such as Marvin Montiel, “el Taquero,” a drug trafficker convicted for the deaths of 16 Nicaraguans and a Dutchman and accused of murdering the high-profile prisoner Byron Lima. In Matamoros, the prison system is unable to safeguard the life and security of the former president.

“We cannot make transfers without a judge’s orders. The only reason for which we could make such a decision would be extraordinary circumstances under which an inmate is in grave danger, but even in those cases it is reported immediately to the judge,” says Esquivel.

Unclear Responsibilities

The prison system and judges should both guarantee the lives of the inmates and ensure they do not commit crimes from prison, but are not achieving this either in the general prisons or the exclusive ones for powerful prisoners.

At Mariscal Zavala, the inmates are in an enclosed, fenced off space and guarded, but they have a large open area and apartments, not cells. Matamoros, on the other hand, is a prison with entirely controlled spaces, restricted schedules for open-air exercise and bars covering the inmates’ cells.

As happens in facilities with areas controlled by gang members, in Mariscal Zavala inmates are assigned to the prison based on their connections with each other. Once inside, each prisoner must seek out a position to occupy and negotiate the conditions with other inmates.

The CICIG has requested that the prisons in military installations be closed, but the judges say there are no safe places to send the prisoners, and officials at the Ministry of the Interior say they do not perform transfers without the order of a competent judge.

In the end, the prisoners — both low and high profile — can continue to orchestrate crimes from within the detention centers.

*This article was originally published in Nómada and is reprinted with permission. Read the original article here.

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