A former army captain who was convicted in the murder of a bishop and later became known as the "king" of Guatemala's infamous and dangerous prison system was killed in a surprise attack, authorities said. Byron Lima's death gives rise to a series of intriguing questions in a country already brimming with conspiracy theories.
Details are still emerging about how Lima was killed during a disturbance at Pavón prison reported to have left 13 others dead and 10 injured. The riot that began early on July 18, appeared to have finished by early evening. Lima was the only victim authorities identified.
An Interior Ministry official told InSight Crime that Lima had been shot twice in the head. The official, who asked not to be identified, said others who were killed in the attack on Lima suffered gunshot wounds as well. He said some of the victims at the prison may have been killed in the riot that apparently followed the attack on Lima and continued for hours. Some of these victims were decapitated, according to the Interior Ministry.
In a press conference, Interior Minister Francisco Rivas said they believed that inmate Marvin Montiel Marín, alias "el Taquero" -- sentenced to 800 years in prison for his role in a 2008 attack on a bus that came to Guatemala from Nicaragua in which 16 people were killed -- was the leader of the attack on Lima. Montiel Marín, a local drug trafficker, and 13 co-conspirators were said to be looking to steal a drug load when they intercepted the bus and took it to a farm. They then killed all 16 people, doused the vehicle with gasoline and set it afire.
For his part, Lima was convicted in 2001 of the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a prominent human rights activist who had released a damning report days before his death about atrocities committed by the army during the country's four-decade long civil war. He had been housed at the Pavón prison since November 2015, and InSight Crime had interviewed him three times in the last four months in what appeared to be an office set off from the rest of the prisoners. The Interior Ministry source said that is where the attack took place.
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During tours of the prison with InSight Crime, Lima was accompanied by several bodyguards, at least two of which were former members of the military. He moved throughout the prison with confidence, chatting with other prisoners. After speaking with one inmate, Lima said he had shot and arrested the man when he worked with the government’s anti-kidnapping unit in the late 1990s.
Lima, an ex-intelligence officer and member of the special forces, was thought to exercise control over the Pavón prison, whose more than 2,700 prisoners include a wide array of gang members, high- and low-level drug traffickers, and common criminals.
Lima’s ability to survive other attacks in jail -- including one in 2003 in which gang members decapitated one of his co-conspirators in the murder of Bishop Gerardi at a different prison in Guatemala City -- made him a legendary figure.
Since his incarceration in 2000, Lima had bounced around the system, spending time in 8 of the country’s 22 prisons. He was almost always accompanied by his father, retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada, a military intelligence officer who was imprisoned for taking part in the Gerardi murder as well. Lima Estrada was released in 2012 on good behavior, for completing extracurricular activities and due to his advanced age.
At each facility, the younger Lima managed to gain control of the prison's economy, its social life, and its security system. His guile was renown. And when others challenged him, they paid the price. Four of the gang members who decapitated his military cohort in 2003 were themselves decapitated five years later in a jail that Lima controlled.
Lima’s ability to control the prisons where he was housed was given to various factors. In addition to his military and intelligence training, Lima had a keen understanding of the lowest rung prisoners. Known as “rusos,” or “Russians,” these prisoners were routinely abused and extorted by the leaders in their jail sectors. Lima befriended them and made them his army. He also channeled their grievances to higher ups, got them work and provided classes, such as a Portuguese course that he taught.
Lima also understood the prison economies. From the beginning, he used his abilities and his contacts to take over the liquor business, the then novel cellular phone business, and various other contraband services in the prison.
Lima also had a powerful political and military network, and was said to call in favors for his silence regarding who the "real intellectual authors" were in the Gerardi murder. Even while he was in jail, his classmates from the military academy and soldiers who had trained him, or who he had trained, moved up the ranks, gaining influence within the government. Some of them became officials of the prison system itself, especially with the arrival of the Patriot Party founded by one of Lima’s longtime mentors, President Otto Pérez Molina.
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Pérez Molina won office in 2011, and Lima, sensing an opportunity to put his stamp on the jail system, sent a list of between 50 and 100 names to Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla, according to government investigators. Many of those on the list had graduated from the military academy with Lima, including one man who became the director of Guatemala's prison system. Another person on the list was Lima’s father-in-law, who became a high-level administrator.
Authorities from the Attorney General’s Office say Lima used these contacts to his advantage, arranging prison transfers for a price. He regularly left the prison where he was housed during the Pérez Molina administration, and was reportedly seen on more than one occasion in Guatemala City nightclubs. Lima also was allegedly collecting large amounts of protection money from jailed drug traffickers.
This last venture seemed to have caused problems for Lima’s relationships with some of his high level contacts, including López Bonilla. In 2013, the minister surprised Lima and his two car, six prison-guard entourage as they were re-entering prison after what López Bonilla said was an unauthorized visit to the city. Lima disputed the claim and won in court.
But his problems were not over. In 2014, Lima was charged by the Attorney General’s Office of setting up a scheme to collect money for prison transfers, charges that Lima also disputed, vilifying López Bonilla in the process. To be sure, in interviews Lima said it was López Bonilla and not him who was charging drug traffickers -- many of whom were later extradited to the US -- for their short stays in Guatemala’s prisons.
López Bonilla has since been arrested on unrelated corruption charges and in interviews with InSight Crime has denied collecting money from drug traffickers and using Lima’s list to select his prison officials. Pérez Molina is also in jail awaiting trial in several corruption cases.
The question now is who killed Lima and why. While it appears that Taquero may have been the triggerman, there is a long list of other people -- gangs, drug traffickers, former officials -- with reason to want the former army captain dead. The surprising thing is that someone actually succeeded in killing him.