Guatemala's Minister of Government admitted that an elite group of prisoners are enjoying privileges in Guatemalan jails, another example of the region's dysfunctional penal system.
Following outrage over the revelation that prisoner Byron Lima Oliva, an ex-army captain, had left jail for 12 hours without permission, Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla acknowledged during a press conference that certain prisoners were able to come and go as they pleased, among other privileges.
The minister referred to 12 "VIP" prisoners, according to newspaper Prensa Libre, though that figure was not reported elsewhere. Lopez cited one case in which a prisoner had left jail for 20 days to have plastic surgery. Sources also told the paper that Byron Lima was able to run an extortion network within the prison involving prison officials.
"There are things that happen behind my back and without authorization," said the minister. "Not just with [Byron Lima] but with other prisoners."
Byron Lima is one of Guatemala's most high profile prisoners, as he was convicted in 2001 of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi's 1998 murder. It was a landmark case in Guatemala, as it was the first time that members of the military were tried and found guilty in civilian courts.
InSight Crime Analysis
Certain prisoners enjoying privileges unavailable to other inmates has long been a typical feature of Latin American jails. Byron Lima's case appears to have struck a particularly sensitive chord in Guatemala, as his conviction was viewed as a vital step forward for reforms in the country's justice system.
Nevertheless, other cases of "VIP" treatment abound. Colombia's jailed paramilitary commanders were known to enjoy Internet access in their cells, and had permission to throw extravagant parties. El Salvador saw a recent controversy involving the brother-in-law of the national prisons director, who was given favorable treatment while serving time.
The allegations that Byron Lima could be running an extortion network inside the prison are also unsurprising. Guatemalan inmates frequently use prisons as a safehaven in order to continue running criminal networks via outside contacts. Running extortion rackets via cellphones is a particularly common practice, while organizations like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 use prisons to organize and train up members.