HomeNewsAnalysisThe Byron Lima Murder in Guatemala: A 'Crime of the State'? (Part II)

The Byron Lima Murder in Guatemala: A 'Crime of the State'? (Part II)


On July 18, the day former Army Capt. Byron Lima -- Guatemala’s one-time “king” of the prison system -- was killed in an apparent squabble with another powerful inmate, his younger brother Luis Lima posted a video on his Facebook page.

“This isn’t a normal riot, a fight for power in a jail, like what some media are saying or what the government will likely say is its hypothesis,” he said, his eyes tearing up. “This is a crime of the state.” (See video below)

The accusation was more than a metaphor for the way that Lima’s murder occurred: inside the Pavón prison at the end of a high caliber handgun with as many seven shots, several to the face; 13 others died with Lima, and 10 were injured, some of them when a grenade exploded.

Byron Lima was larger than the prison system that he once controlled, and his murder certainly seems like it was much bigger than just a dispute over drug trafficking, as has been peddled by some authorities in the days following his spectacular assassination. 

State Secrets

Put simply, Lima held state secrets. These secrets are in part related to the case for which he was jailed: the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Gerardi and his cohorts at the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala had just released “Nunca más,” or “Never Again,” the compendium of violations committed -- mostly by the army of which Lima, his father and his grandfather were all honored members -- during the country’s 36-year civil war.

The question following the Gerardi assassination was not who did it -- suspicion immediately fell on the country’s military and its vaunted intelligence apparatus -- but how high the conspiracy reached inside the government.

When Lima, his father, retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada, Maj. Sgt. Oscar Villanueva and a priest who lived with Gerardi were arrested and convicted for the murder, few were satisfied with the verdict. Many in Guatemala said they were scapegoats for what everyone called a “crime of the state.” 

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

But were they scapegoated so the real intellectual authors in the army's intelligence services could skate free? Or were they made scapegoats to satisfy an international community -- and especially nongovernmental and human rights organizations -- that was insisting someone had to pay for atrocities committed during the war?

For his part, Lima played both sides of the story. On the one hand, he complained about the human rights groups.

"We won the war militarily," he famously told Guatemalan Journalist Claudia Méndez Arriaza in 2001, who was a journalist at elPeriódico and is now an editor at Contrapoder. "But we lost it politically."

On the other hand, Lima intimated that he had more information, that he knew who the real intellectual authors were inside the government.

“I want to say that this is a problem that starts at the top and is going to blow up,” he told Mendéz Arriaza in the same interview. “It could blow up in the Defense Ministry or in the Presidential Security Services.”

These statements from someone who was trained in intelligence and counterintelligence seemed to be more than just banter to fan the flames of the conspiracy theorists inside Guatemala. They gave Lima real power inside his new world, Guatemala’s chronically-troubled penitentiary system.

“Byron Lima’s power lies in his silence,” an official at the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), told InSight Crime. CICIG is the United Nations-appendage to the Guatemalan justice system.

In other words, Lima would accept the blame for Gerardi's murder, but it would come with a price.

"I'm not going to fight this," he told Mendéz Arriaza. "Let the chips fall where they may. I don't want any more problems."

A Prisoner with Power

The CICIG, the Attorney General’s Office and others have investigated just how much power this silence bought Lima. By their count, the former army captain not only started several thriving businesses inside and outside of jail, was able to blackmail drug traffickers for millions of dollars, and was contributing money to political campaigns, he was naming nearly all of the top officials in Guatemala’s prison system. (More about this to come in Part III.) He became rich in the process, investigators say, accumulating properties and fancy cars, which he used in forays to Guatemala City nightclubs. (See CICIG presentation of the case here in pdf)

Lima’s control of the system also stemmed from the extensive military and civilian network he had established while in the army’s special forces and working in the Presidential Security Service (Estado Mayor Presidencial  - EMP). The EMP was the government’s most feared and trusted network.

His one-time boss at the EMP was Gen. Otto Pérez Molina. Pérez Molina would later retire, start a political party and become president. Lima would remain close with the general throughout, as well as with his family -- Lima trained Pérez Molina's son in the army. The younger Pérez later became a mayor.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Prisons

Lima was also part of the government’s anti-kidnap unit in the late 1990s, working to save the sons, daughters, and brothers-in-law of the country’s traditional economic elite. He allegedly saved the First Lady Patricia de Arzú from a drunk driver in 1996. One of his cohorts, the same Maj. Sgt. Oscar Villanueva who would later be convicted with him for the killing of Gerardi, shot and killed the driver, in an incident that is as questioned as Lima himself. Villanueva went to jail for the killing, but prosecutors said authorities let him out of prison to participate in the murder of Gerardi.  

Lima’s loyalty to the Arzú’s has also been used as an explanation of his power inside the prison system. Arzú’s son was allegedly having a relationship with a priest who lived in the parish with Gerardi, and Arzú's son was supposedly in the parish when the bishop was killed in 1998. That priest went to jail for the crime. Lima kept quiet. 

“I have asked him a million times,” Luis Lima told InSight Crime about the Arzú story. “Because they mention it so often, you have doubts, you know. Could it be true that he is covering for the kid? But he assures me, ‘I’m not going to sacrifice my life to cover up for someone.’”

For his part, Luis Lima was confident that the government was going to reopen the Gerardi case. He told InSight Crime that they had found one of the long lost witnesses, someone with a connection to "the real" perpetrators of the crime, the Valle del Sol, a violent criminal group that stole everything from cars to religious relics to sell on the black market.   

In his statements the day his brother was murdered, Lima made reference to the Gerardi case, saying the FBI had a “protected witness” in the United States.

This was the first part of his “crime of the state” theory: the “state” did not want the case reopened because it would illustrate that Lima was a scapegoat, and it would open the possibility of prosecuting other people.

The irony, of course, is that Lima was not thinking of those in the army or the EMP who may have been the real intellectual authors of the crime. He was thinking of those in the human rights community, the NGOs, and the former guerrillas who he says have sought revenge for losing the war by prosecuting military personnel like his brother and his father.  

“The Human Rights Office of the Archbishop is not going to like this,” he told Prensa Libre. “This has been their banner, their insignia.” 

Others went much further than Luis Lima, posting to social media pictures of representatives of the human right community and former government officials who they say framed “the hero” Byron Lima and were responsible for his death.

Too Much Power for His Own Good?

However, Luis Lima added even more intrigue to the “crime of the state” theory with his second insinuation.

“The other thing that sources we had in the the presidency told us was that there was a plan afoot to kill Byron, so they could reform the penal system,” he said in his Facebook post.

Luis Lima added that he had purchased and brought to his brother a bullet-proof vest in the days prior to his murder but that those who killed his brother were "not average criminals."

"There has to be someone behind this," he told Prensa Libre. Someone "with logistics, with permission to bring in weapons, grenades, because weapons and handguns don't just walk in." (See Prensa Libre video below)

The timing of this accusation is propitious. There is plenty of money in the construction of prisons, and prison reform is already in motion. It is being financed and led, though, by the United States government, specifically the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) wing of the US State Department.

Lima does not think the INL killed his brother. He says the plan came from the Interior Ministry, which manages the prisons in Guatemala and has the most to gain financially from reform and construction. This is especially true given the expected influx of funds from the “Alliance for Prosperity,” the name given to a US aid package to Central America that totals $750 million.

The accusation seems fantastical, bordering on delusion. But Luis Lima is convinced, and there is some truth to what he says about the weapons inside the prison system and the professional nature of the crime. 

In the days following the murder, a video surfaced (warning, graphic content). Lima told InSight Crime he got the video from a prisoner who went to the scene of the crime shortly after his brother's murder. The video shows several people, one of them apparently Lima, slain with blood around their bodies. They are fully clothed. Later, pictures shared with InSight Crime showed several of the same victims, barely clothed.

“This was much more planned than a simple fight between criminal groups in Pavón,” he said in his Facebook post the day his brother died, his eyes red from sadness, or rage, or both.

Read Part III in the coming days - The Murder of Guatemala’s Prison "King" Byron Lima: A 'Self-Coup d’etat'?

Read Part I - Who Killed Guatemala's Prison "King" Byron Lima?

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