Shortly after Otto Pérez Molina was elected president of Guatemala, Byron Lima Oliva, the once-decorated former army captain, jailed for the murder of a bishop, sat down to write an email to the newly named minister of Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla.
“Don Damián,” he began, using López Bonilla’s nom de guerre. The three of them -- Pérez Molina, López Bonilla and Lima -- were all in the army together. “Here is the list of ideal people for the most important posts in the Penitentiary System’s Board of Directors, who will be the base for an optimal administration of your future activity as interior minister.”
The email, which was obtained by Contrapoder, recommended 65 candidates, including the director, the subdirector and numerous mid-level functionaries, some of whom had graduated from the military academy with Lima and at least one of which was a relative by marriage. Lima had been jailed 11 years prior for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, but he had maintained his contacts and used them to gain control of everything from contraband liquor sales to the use of telephones inside the prisons.
López Bonilla eventually named about half of the suggested candidates, Contrapoder said. The magazine said these functionaries referred to Lima as “Capi” or “Jefe,” and consulted with him before making decisions. They also schemed with him to make money: in Lima’s regime, it would cost upwards of $7,000 to transfer from one prison to another.
And they opened the door to other corruption, such as collecting millions in bribes from drug traffickers in return for keeping them “safe” in jail while they awaited extradition to the United States. In one case, a suspected trafficker who refused to pay $800,000 was taken to a room where a bag of human feces was placed over his head, government investigators told InSight Crime. The inmate later paid, then allegedly put a price on Lima’s head for the same amount: $800,000.
A Counter-corruption Revolution
The corruption in the penitentiary system was the tip of the iceberg for the Pérez Molina administration. Beginning in April 2015, investigators from the Attorney General’s Office and its United Nations-appendage, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), began making public a series of corruption cases that have since landed Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, López Bonilla and many other officials and ex-officials in jail while they face trial.
The Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG have followed these up with cases against local and national politicians, international and Guatemalan companies, hotel and bank owners, among others. There are so many cases that most Guatemalans are having a hard time sorting through them, a danger in a country where disinformation and confusion are often used to overturn even the most noble causes.
The cases are part of a slow-moving revolution that is upending the status quo in a country where economic elites, military officials, politicians, judges and virtually anyone else with money and connections are assured that justice does not apply to them.
On the one side are the Attorney General’s Office and the CICIG. Most recently, they have been joined by the Interior Ministry and Guatemala’s version of the Internal Revenue Service, known as the Superintendencia de Administración Tributaria (SAT). Their patron is the US Embassy, whose Ambassador Todd Robinson, along with the CICIG's Colombian Commissioner Ivan Velásquez, have become their ad hoc spokespeople.
On the other side is everyone under indictment and their allies. This includes, of course, former administration officials Pérez Molina, Baldetti and López Bonilla, as well as parts of the traditional economic elite, who also suddenly find themselves on the defensive. It also includes former and current military officials, some of whom have been connected to nefarious criminal networks that sprung from the army’s intelligence services. These groups also have allies in the presidency, mostly former military since President Jimmy Morales' own party was formed by a group of former army officials.
Lima’s father, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, was connected to one of the more nefarious networks, which are often referred to as Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS). He participated in at least two coups, a successful one in 1983, which unseated President (and General) Efraín Ríos Montt; and another failed one in 1988, against the first civilian president in 25 years, who the colonel referred to regularly as a “communist.”
The CIACS and Byron Lima
The younger Lima’s relationships with these networks is a bit more fluid. He has been tied mostly to the network run by former President Pérez Molina. Known as the Sindicato, or the Union, this group came from a slightly more forward-thinking part of the military that eventually advocated for peace talks with the guerrillas and the downsizing of the military. Pérez Molina continued to reinvent himself and spread his alliances into the circles of the country’s foremost economic elites.
Lima has also been tied to the older guard network, known as the Cofradía, or the Brotherhood. The Cofradía’s longtime leader is retired Gen. Francisco Ortega Menaldo. In addition to working in various parts of military intelligence and as the head of the Presidential Security Service (Estado Mayor Presidencial - EMP), Ortega Menaldo also worked in the Finance Ministry and had an incredible knack for putting his allies in the Customs Office and the ports, long an area where military officials had been collecting bribes for the movement of contraband and illicit drugs.
Lima's connections to the Cofradía are much less likely. His father clashed with Ortega Menaldo in the failed military coup attempt of 1988. (See US Government memo on this coup here in pdf) And in 1993, Lima's mentor, Pérez Molina, clashed with Ortega Menaldo when then-President Jorge Serrano tried to throw Congress out in what was described then as an "autogolpe," or a “self-inflicted coup d'etat.”
Ortega Menaldo was Serrano’s top advisor. Pérez Molina was head of army intelligence, the D2, and opposed the self-coup, which eventually failed. For some, it showed a triumph of the more progressive wing of the military. For others, it was part of a long-standing battle over the most important revenue stream for current and ex-military alike: customs and border protection.
Cracks in the System
By the time he became president in 2012, Pérez Molina’s alliances had evolved. He appeared to be at peace with some of the Cofradía. He even appointed some suspected members to his security team and his administration named others to work in the customs agency. He also appeared willing to share in the spoils that came with power, especially as they related to customs and border protection, which was managed in part by his ambitious vice president, Baldetti, as well as former and current military officials.
But there were cracks in the system, beginning with the prisons and Byron Lima. Lima seemed to be overstepping his bounds, soliciting 100 official “leaves” from prison in February 2013 alone. In that same month, he was stopped by police, returning from one of these leaves to the “dentist.” Interior Minister López Bonilla held a press conference, denounced Lima, and removed the head of the prison system who Lima had named in that infamous 2011 email addressed to “Don Damián.” (See parts of the press conference video below)
Lima did not take kindly to the seeming hypocrisy. He called López Bonilla a “traitor,” and a “communist.” He told InSight Crime later that it was López Bonilla, and not him, who was blackmailing drug traffickers and putting bags of feces over their heads if they did not pay him the "protection" fee. And he threatened to reveal the multiple schemes López Bonilla had for giving companies tied to him contracts from the Interior Ministry.
“Investigate who owns the telephones in the jail system,” he told InSight Crime in April. “Who does that belong to? Investigate who runs the food services in the jail system. Who is the owner? López Bonilla’s son. Investigate the cameras. López Bonilla…”
Lima’s list continued: vehicles, computers and photocopy machines, all rented by the ministry from companies connected to or owned by López Bonilla; none of the contracts with the option to buy, Lima said. InSight Crime inquired with the Interior Ministry, which said simply they were investigating numerous claims of corruption during the López Bonilla period.
An Assassination Plot
Once these former officials were jailed for corruption, their needs changed radically. With the the US firmly behind the investigations and institutions leading them, the jailed former officials and their allies understood that they could not engineer a formal coup d'etat. They do not have the power or the cohesion to actually achieve it. And they are not necessarily against President Jimmy Morales. As noted, they have allies in the presidency, some of whom work in Guatemala's version of the Secret Service, the Secretary of Administrative and Security Matters of the President (Secretaría de Asuntos Administrativos y de Seguridad de la Presidencia - SAAS).
Instead, they had to think of ways to rid themselves of their investigators. In other words, they needed their own self-coup d'etat, something to upend the system that is altering the status quo and jailing them and their allies -- from the military to the politicians to the bankers -- in the process. Ambassador Robinson and Commissioner Velásquez are virtually untouchable, so it was decided that the target would Attorney General Thelma Aldana.
For her part, Aldana had come full circle. When she was named attorney general by Pérez Molina in 2013, Aldana was thought to be in the presidency’s pocket. She had been flagged by the CICIG twice while she was a high court judge, and she had a relationship with then Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
However, Aldana had proven adept at seeing which way the wind was blowing, and to the surprise of many observers, became a willing partner with CICIG, the US government and the other Guatemalan government allies that were pushing for these corruption cases to move forward.
The details of the plan to kill Aldana are sketchy, but both Guatemalan and US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the threats were credible. They said that the man who was asked to organize the assassination is a suspected drug trafficker who was also former military, and that he had the means to do it. But he asked for too much money. Those plotting turned elsewhere, officials said, perhaps to Mexican or Honduran nationals.
In a June 19 column, elPeriódico owner José Rubén Zamora said that Byron Lima was “the link” between the assassin and the military network that wanted Aldana killed. This network, Zamora claimed, was firmly placed in the presidency. Zamora adds that he was also a target of the plot.
When the US, CICIG and others got wind of the plot, they whisked Aldana out of the country for a few weeks. With the plot thwarted -- or least stalled -- Zamora says the conspiracy moved on to eliminating witnesses, namely, Lima. And on July 18, in a surprise assault inside the Pavón prison facility, Lima was assassinated. Twelve other people were killed in the process and 10 more were injured.
Getting rid of Lima served a second purpose as well, especially for López Bonilla, Pérez Molina and others who maintained connections with Lima while he was in prison: it eliminated a seemingly willing witness to their transgressions while they were in office.
Plan B: Dethrone the Interior Minister?
Zamora’s theory about the motives behind Lima's murder has holes in it. The mastermind of the supposed plot to kill Aldana is the brother of one of Lima’s military academy classmates, and someone that Lima’s brother, Luis Lima, described to InSight Crime as, “with us.”
Luis Lima also said Byron’s alleged involvement in the plot is absurd because he was struggling to get released, so, “Why would he want to kill Thelma Aldana?”
However, Lima's death could still be part of a plan to destabilize the government, execute a type of self-coup d'etat. After Aldana, the second logical target for those being prosecuted for corruption is Interior Minister Francisco Rivas. Rivas is a seasoned prosecutor who has spent his career in the Attorney General's Office, and he has become a critical part of the alliance to unseat the status quo. But he is surrounded by wolves at the Interior Ministry, as Zamora also pointed out in his column. Some of these officials are still loyal to López Bonilla, and Rivas looked like a deer in headlights in his press conference after Lima's death. (See below)
Rivas' fragile hold in the ministry is offset by the firm backing he has from the US government. But Lima’s death, and the subsequent chaos it creates within the penitentiary system, may lead to his downfall and thus serve a similar purpose as removing Aldana would.
Ministry officials are certainly worried. They have moved quickly to replace several top prison officials and launch an internal investigation into how such a sophisticated attack occurred inside prison walls. But they can do little to quell the conspiracy theories.
As noted in this three-part series on Lima’s July 18 murder, his list of enemies was as long as it was sordid. And the central question is as much who did it, as who wins with Lima's bloody inglorious end inside prison walls.
See Part I - Who Killed Guatemala's Prison "King" Byron Lima?