AN ARMY captain serving 20 years for killing a bishop has been charged with building a multimillion-dollar prison empire based on threats and corruption.
Guatemalan prosecutors have accused Byron Lima Oliva, 44, of money-laundering and organised crime, saying he took cash from inmates in return for prohibited mobile phones, food and conjugal visits.
“Lima represents for many of the inmates the true authority, and so they turn to him to seek transfers, favours and rights,” said Ivan Velasquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity, which targets crime and corruption in Guatemala. “Lima Oliva exerts undoubtable influence in the penitentiary system,” he added.
Mr Velasquez said the investigation found that Lima possessed several properties, including a beach home, and various luxury vehicles, despite being behind bars.
Lima denies the allegations and claims he is the target of a vendetta by officials because he prevented extortion and other crimes in the prison.
“They are looking for revenge because I did not let them put an inmate in this place… whom they wanted to assassinate,” Lima told reporters.
Mr Velasquez, attorney general Thelma Aldana and interior secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla announced the probe, which began last year, and identified the former soldier as the linchpin of a criminal organisation.
Prison system director Sergio Camargo, who allegedly received money from Lima, was also charged and appeared before a judge on Wednesday.
Lima is now expected to be moved to another jail, and said he fears his life would be in danger elsewhere.
Prosecutors said at least 12 other people were implicated in the case, and police raided homes of officials and associates of Lima.
Lima has boasted in the past of friendship with the president, Otto Perez Molina, and claims to have helped provide his 2011 campaign with money from businessmen. The office of the president, also a former soldier, declined to comment.
Lima was sentenced in 2001 along with three other men for the killing of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi. The 75-year-old activist clergyman was bludgeoned to death in 1998, two days after he presented a report blaming the military for most of the 200,000 deaths in the 1960-96 civil war.
Speaking about his properties and luxury cars, Lima said he has been financially solvent since a young age. “What sin is that?” Lima said. “The interior secretary himself has been at my beach houses.”
From prison, Lima posted photos on social media of visits from politicians and TV stars.
Lima apparently has political ambitions, perhaps suggesting why he did not use his influence to escape prison permanently.
Nery Rodenas, director of the Catholic Church’s Office of the Archdiocese, said: “He has the possibility to go free, get involved in politics and win some public position, because he has the means to accomplish it and unfortunately Guatemala has no conscience of people with a criminal background.”
Lima would have been eligible to apply for parole next week but, if proven, the new charges would mean more prison time.