Original article posted in Spanish on Plaza Publica.
After more than a year of investigations, the CICIG (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), under the direction of Colombian lawyer Iván Velásquez, was able to achieve something that not one of the previous three governments have been able to: dismantle a criminal network allegedly headed by former Army Captain Byron Lima Oliva, who is considered to be the most powerful inmate in Guatemala. This accusation by the CICIG also brings into the spotlight the current Minister of the Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla, and further distances [Byron Lima's] hope for a reduction in the sentence he is serving for the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi.
Report: Rodrigo Baires Qezada (04/09/14)
The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) brought former Army Captain Byron Miguel Lima Oliva into the spotlight when they discovered a criminal network operating inside Guatemalan prisons allegedly led by [Oliva]. Oliva was convicted in 2001 for the murder of Bishop Juan José Gerardi. Other accusations have been made against the Director General of the Penitentiary System (DGSP) Edgar Josué Camargo Liere who, according to investigations, received no less than $6,000 US from Lima Oliva for each inmate transfer from one prison to another, which was the principal activity of this network.
During the previous three administrations, public and penitentiary security officials in Guatemala have identified Lima Oliva as one of the most powerful inmates held in a Guatemalan prison, and have accused him of “governing” the Preventative Centre for Men “Pavoncito,” where he headed the criminal network, with an iron fist. . For more than a decade, Lima Oliva has been suspected of being responsible for alleged crimes committed inside of prisons, but until now, no one was able to prove any illicit activity.
During this time period, the Public Prosecutor’s Office opened 12 criminal investigations against Lima Oliva for crimes such as threats, extortion, assault, and drug trafficking, but each investigation was dismissed, filed away, or did not have the sufficient amount of proof to bring the case in front of a judge. Lima Oliva last made headlines in February 2013 when he was implicated in a case of evasion of justice in collusion with penitentiary authorities, but the case was dismissed in the first legal phase. As a result, the head of the DGSP and the director of Pavoncito were both dismissed from their posts. Lima Oliva returned to his domain and through an appeals process, was never transferred to a maximum security prison despite requests made by the Minister of the Interior.
Now, the CICIG claims to have the sufficient proof to bring Lima to trial.Lima had been waiting for a September 5 decision to dismiss charges on a legal case against him for falsification of documents, after which he could apply for a reduction in the 20-year sentence he is serving for the assassination of Gerardi. Attorney General Thelma Aldana led the press conference on Wednesday, September 3, to share information about the investigation against him that started a year ago. The investigation included a review of internal documents of the DGSP, telephone wiretaps tracing the transfer of money, vehicles and people, and the verification of purchases and transfers of property, amongst other offences.
According to Aldana, there were 13 people accused of the improper transfer of prisoners in exchange for payments in cash or property, in addition to the accusation against a prison official for negligence of duty. Lima Oliva headed the network. Under him were seven alleged members of the powerful criminal structure, including Camargo and six civilians – Carlos Cermeño Espina, José Ávila Mazariegos, William Estuardo Salguero Tobar, Christian René Picón Cifuentes, Martín Arévalo Godoy and Alejandra Saraí Reyes Ochoa.
Former Deputy Director General Edy Fisher Arbizú was also arrested and accused of breaching official duties. He was connected with telephone calls made to the Captain, although the content of said phone calls was not disclosed. “There is no evidence that he participated in the [inmate] transfers,” said the Director of the CICIG, Colombian Iván Velásquez Gómez.
According to the CICIG, prisoners Fabio Campos Morales, Juan Fernando de León Amézquita, Andy Cristian Urbizú Castillo and brothers Silverio Otto Guillermo Chicas de León and Edgar Enrique Chicas de León paid into Lima’s network in order to be transferred from the Preventative Detention Centre in zone 18 to Pavoncito, on orders directly signed by Camargo at different moments in 2013 and 2014.
Camargo has been accused of passive bribery, illicit association and conspiracy to launder money. His house was one of several residences, businesses and offices of the DGSP that were searched on September 3 by 15 different teams made up of police and prosecutors in zone 1 of the capital.
The first hit by Commissioner Velasquez
Since the departure of the former head of CICIG – Costa Rican Francisco Dall’Anese – in September 2013 – the UN body has maintained a low profile. Velásquez was not seen as a contentious candidate in the review during the postulation commission [for the head of CICIG], as was the case with Carlos Castresena who was the first commissioner in 2009 and 2010. Nor has he made any previous allegations, as Dall’Anese did in his report “Judges of Impunity”, presented in November 2012.
Velásquez Gómez has said that he would rather conduct investigations than give statements. But on September 3, he spoke with reporters about the power Lima Oliva holds: “On occasion, the power inmates hold has resulted in a variety of activities taking place that are paid for by certain benefits.” He spoke of certain benefits that range from the most minimalist of security conditions to privileges “incompatible with any penitentiary system in the world,” such as the control of visitors, cell phone use, internal business management and negotiations for the transfer [of inmates]. “Just look at his Facebook account to see the power he holds.”
Of 975 inmate transfers, only 216 were requested by competent judges. The remainder – 759 cases (77.75%) – were ordered by the General Director.
“Lima Oliva gave orders to others to transfer inmates, for which he received payment that he then shared with those involved in order to carry out the activities,” affirmed Velásquez Gómez. According to the investigation, which was opened after Fabio Campos Morales – accused of drug trafficking – was transferred, the structure operated in the following manner: Salguero Toban (Lima Oliva’s former brother-in-law who joined him in prison in February 2013), Ávila Mazariegos and Cermeño were in charge of contacting inmates, negotiating payments which could reach $100,000 US (around 880,000Q), and carrying out the transaction. Lima Oliva made the requests for transfer to Camargo. Afterwards, Cermeño handed over at least $6,000 US (around 53,000Q) to the General Director for each transfer.
To carry out the transfers, Camargo used a loophole in the Prisons Act. Under Article 8, the punishment of any offender is under the control of the respective judges for the case of the person accused. Those judges are the only ones who can authorize the transfer between one penitentiary centre and another, or to a medical centre. However in an emergency, the law grants the DGSP the authority to transfer prisoners, provided that the corresponding judge is immediately informed.
According to national statistics gathered by the Centre for National Economic Investigation (CIEN), the number of cases of prisoner transfer for emergencies increased between September of last year and March of this year. Of the 975 prisoner transfers, only 216 were requested by competent judges. The remaining 759 cases (77.85%), were done at the request of the General Director.
The CICIG determined that Salguero Tobar, alongside Arevalo Godoy, Reyes Ochoa and Picon Cifuentes (former director of the “Canada” prison farm in Escuintla, and contractor for the first half of 2014 as adviser in the 189 division of the Ministry of the Interior) were figureheads in the acquisition of property and vehicles. Sarai Reyes Alejandra Ochoa, the girlfriend of Lima Oliva, was responsible for the management of bank accounts and other assets.
“He brought in significant revenues, according to what we have found so far. We hope that the investigation will provide more concrete results,” said Velásquez Gómez. He said the the properties and vehicles are registered under the names of his direct collaborators, but that he had the documentation to proof that the true owner is Lima Oliva. According to the commissioner, there are documents that show administrative control over these properties: furthermore, those who are listed as property owners do not have the economic capacity to manage them.
According to the CICIG, the figureheads for Lima Oliva held six properties, including a house at the beach, nine luxury vehicles, two vehicles to transport visitors within the Pavoncito prison, a spa and nine race horses. Velásquez Gómez said that next week, the case will be sent to Asset Forfeiture Court.
The Minister’s Discomfort
The telephone of the Minister of the Interior Mauricio López Bonilla rang just after 6:00 am on Wednesday, September 3rd. On the other end of the line was Camargo Liere. “They are breaking into my home and they have an arrest warrant against me,” he said. This call was the first warning the Minister received that the official who he appointed with great fanfare 19 months ago was under investigation by the CICIG. That call was the beginning of a rough day for López Bonilla.
At noon, after Velásquez Gómez made a statement, the Minister of the Interior took on a frugal tone: “This is an issue that has been under the investigation of the CICIG and Public Prosecutor’s Office, and as the Ministry of the Interior, we are required to give our full cooperation,” he told reporters. He did not mention a single name of the accused nor confirmed the comments made by the head of the international commission. “This is not the end of the investigation. This is the first phase,” he added.
López Bonilla’s feelings of discomfort were not over. In February 2013, after Lima Oliva was arrested outside the Pavoncito prison, then-Director General José Luis González Pérez was ousted and replaced by Camargo Leire.
That February 20, Camargo, a graduate of the Chilean Police School and holding a degree in Resource Management and Technology, wore a salmon shirt and knitted tie. He flaunted his beard and drew a slight smile when he was sworn in as Director General of the Prison System – a position for which he had no experience.
Until then, Camargo had been the Director of the Executive Secretariat of the Commission against Addictions and Illicit Trafficking (SECATID), a unit under the management of the Vice President since 2008. In addition, he ran the School for Prison Studies and collaborated with the training of the Metropolitan Police of the municipality of Mixco. The closest that the prison official came to the topic was participating in a panel reviewing the failed November 2013 bid for a project constructing and equipping prisons. The failed bid, for Q543 million, was instead granted to a Las Vegas-based company with links to Carlos Castellanos Fabian – a friend of the Minister of the Interior.
But López Bonilla had a different point of view. From his perspective, Camargo had done an outstanding job in strengthening the School for Prison Studies and his work with various organizations of civil society on the issue of rehabilitation of inmates gave him the “full backing” to provide continuity to what he called the strategic plan of the prison system.
That same day, Edy Fisher Arbizú who, up until that point, was the Institution’s Deputy Director of Operations, took over as Deputy Director General, relieving Nicolás García Fuentes who had held the post for the previous three years. “For me it is a guarantee that these two officials are at a high level and have gone through constant reliability processes under the cooperation programs of the National Security Agency of the United States (NSA, for its acronym in English),” noted López Bonilla. Fisher’s former position would be taken on by Néstor Rainier García Contreras, the previous head of security.
Fisher, the comrade, the friend
The journalists who were gathered in the press room on the 8th floor of the Public Prosecutor’s Office seemed to be looking for someone to be guilty, and López Bonilla was the target of these criticisms. How could he not be after defending the nominations of Camargo and Fisher? How could he not be questioned after [the newspaper] El Periodico published an investigation that showed his direct ties and his common past as a comrade in arms with Fisher alongside Lima Oliva?
According to the yearbooks for the Polytechnic School, Fisher and Lima Oliva were classmates in the graduating class 108 of the military institution. This was the same generation of Juan de Dios Rodriguez, president of the Institute of Guatemala Social Security (IGSS) and former private secretary for the President, Congressman Stuart Galdámez Ernesto Juarez from the Patriot Party of Quiché, and Edgar Hernandez and Rolando Franco, the former chiefs of requisitions and shipping in the DGSP.
In an interview with La Hora, Fisher himself acknowledged the friendship with Lima Oliva. ”Byron is my friend. We were together in the army. He is part of my life. I cannot deny something that is true and everyone in the world knows. In the press, everyone in the world knows it,” he said on September 26, 2013. His friendship would not have been relevant if it were not for the fact that he was in charge of signing the entry permits for vehicles coming into Pavoncito to transport Lima Oliva out. He was later arrested in February 2013 when he was allegedly returning from a dentist appointment - an event that Velásquez Gómez now refers to as the “genesis” of the investigation.
Two days after swearing in the new officers, López Bonilla came back to the press to defend their appointments. He reminded the press that both officers had passed various skills tests and he assured them that Fisher had complied with the chain of command in signing the admission documents and handing them over to his superior – the now-dismissed Director González. “You can have suspicion (as they belonged to the same class), but they are on my team,” said the Minister. On September 4, once more he repeated to journalists: “Under the law, we do not have to answer for being in the same class (in the Polytechnic School), but for the things we do as individuals.”
Even President Otto Pérez Molina said the candidate selection was ideal. “You can rest assured that the Director was carefully selected,” he said. Then he softened his speech: If evidence existed to the relationship between officers and any given inmate, it would be investigated and if necessary, there would be no hesitation in their dismissal. “We are not going to allow these abuses to continue, where inmates continue to do whatever they want,” he said.
The Captain went even further: he accused Lopez Bonilla of having requested a weekly fee from each penitentiary system.
Whether Camargo and Fisher were investigated or not remains unknown, even though three days after taking on the new offices, García Contreras appeared in a photograph posing alongside Lima Oliva and one of the hostesses during an event organized by inmates at Pavoncito. The image appeared on Lima Oliva’s Facebook wall – an image that Camargo downplayed because, he said, inmates always wanted to take pictures with officials.
It would be six months before García Contreras left his post as Deputy Director of Operations. An additional six months after that, in February 2014, Fisher left his post as Deputy Director General of the Penitentiary System, relieved by Silvia Chavarria Guinea. That year, both worked under the 189 division of the Ministry of the Interior. [Contreras] was contracted for one year in the Deputy Director General of Studies and Doctrine of the National Civil Police (PNC) and as a expert in the Department of Defence Equipment and Materials, with a salary of 15,000Q. [Fisher] was contracted for nine months (from May to December 2014) as a professional technician in the Centre for the Coordination of Institutional Information (CECOIN), with a salary of 20,000Q.
The accusations of Lima Oliva
If during the press conference, criticisms rained down heavily on López Bonilla for having defended the officials he appointed during his time, and for contracting officers who would be dismissed from the DGSP, the statements made by Lima Oliva – after having been transferred to the courthouse in zone 1 – were the cherry on top of a bitter pie for the Minister.
Lima Oliva was upset. In only 48 hours, he would have a hearing to close a pending case against him for the falsification of documents. Without this legal obstacle, his lawyers would be able to ask for the benefit of a reduction in his sentence. “Coincidentally, every time I am about to gain my freedom, another problem arises,” he told reporters. Afterwards, he claimed that he had enough money to hold all of the properties and vehicles that the authorities argued were the result of payments for illegal transfers.
Lima Oliva said he supported the presidential campaign of the Patriot Party (PP). “You can see the same trucks used in the campaign that today, I am being accused of owning,” he said. He added that he personally gave a list of names to the Minister to fill the posts of the DGSP. Hours later on the Antigua Channel show “At 8:45,” López Bonilla acknowledged that both facts are true.
The captain went even further, accusing López Bonilla of having required a weekly fee from each prison. “It was Q100,000 a week, but we refused to pay,” he said. The Minister was angry with him, he said, because he thwarted the bid of Q543 million for the construction and equipping of new prisons in 2012, to be paid from the government of Taiwan. “The problem is that I ruined the Minister. I spoke with Ambassador Adolfo Sun and said that he was using a shell company ,” he said. It was not possible to verify this information with the Taiwanese diplomat.
López Bonilla had another version: the legal injunctions filed against Lima Oliva that prevented him from being transferred from Pavoncito to another penitentiary centre – despite being a convicted criminal and not a person awaiting sentencing – strained the relationship they had once had. Bonilla recognized that he was Lima Oliva’s instructor at the Polytechnic School.
“I have all the emails sent to me by the Minister of the Interior, all of the text messages, all of the photos and the videos, and will make them available to you because there is a a conspiracy against me,” Lima told the judge.
Lima Oliva and the other detainees, with the exception of Leire Camargo who was taken to a hospital in zone 10, were sent to the prison in Mariscal Zavala. Alejandra Sarai Reyes Ochoa was sent to the Santa Teresa Women’s Prison in zone 18.
“They want to send me to a maximum security prison with the intention that I’ll be murdered. Are you planning on killing me?” yelled Lima Oliva, as he left the courthouse. These will not be the last words on this case from the Captain, as he said that if President Pérez Molina wants transparency in his administration, he should turn López Bonilla over to the authorities so that he can be investigated for the accusations against him. “I have all the emails and messages with the Minister, and photos and videos with other officials,” he said, his voice sounding like a threat.