Thursday, September 4, 2014

CICIG Busts a Criminal ‘Empire’ in Guatemala

Guatemalan authorities have charged imprisoned former army official Byron Lima Oliva with running a criminal network from behind bars, establishing himself as the prison’s informal boss and bribing authorities to let him leave on multiple occasions.

At the very least the story demonstrates the vulnerability of Guatemala’s penal system to criminal influence. But if Lima is to be believed, it also hints at a chronic overlap between political and illicit power structures in the country, even at the highest levels of government.

Lima is best known as one of those convicted for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, after the Church official oversaw the release of a report that blamed the military for the majority of human rights abuses committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

The investigation into Lima was begun in 2013 by the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which found evidence that Lima charged other inmates in return for cell phones and other contraband, as well as special favors like outside food and conjugal visits. As Plaza Publica documented last year, officials have claimed he practically “runs the inside” of his prison facility, and could leave it whenever he felt like it. The CICIG says he established a multi-million dollar empire in prison, even purchasing a beach house and a Porsche for himself, Emisoras Unidas reports.

According to El Periodico and La Prensa Libre, the CICIG teamed up with the Ministry of Interior and Attorney General’s Office in an operation yesterday that ended with the arrests of seven individuals, including National Prison System head Edgar Camargo and his under-secretary, Eddy Fischer. Lima was charged with organized crime and money laundering.

But the imprisoned military official, for his part, is claiming to be the victim of a political attack, pointing a finger at Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla. From the AP:
Lima, 44, has boasted in the past of having a friendship with current President Otto Perez Molina, also a former soldier, and says he had campaign T-shirts printed for the 2011 election. On Wednesday, he said he also provided the campaign with money from businessmen, delivered through Lopez Bonilla.
[…]“They are looking for revenge because I did not let them put an inmate in this place ... whom they wanted to assassinate,” Lima told The Associated Press.
Lima also claims Lopez Bonilla has personally visited his beach home, and promised reporters that he would present emails, documents and recordings incriminating the interior minister. So far the evidence hasn’t materialized, and it’s very likely that Lima is making it up. But even circumstantial evidence against Lopez Bonilla would be damning for the administration, as he has headed the ministry since Perez Molina took office.

Fortunately, the operation has an undeniably positive angle: the cooperation of newly-appointed Attorney General Thelma Aldana. While the investigation began under former top prosecutor Claudia Paz y Paz, Aldana’s support is an early indication that she will continue the latter’s legacy of taking on deeply-embedded criminal networks. Only time will tell, however, whether this will carry on once the CICIG’s mandate expires in September 2015.

News Briefs
  • Yesterday saw the release of new polls by Ibope and Datafolha, both of which brought bad news for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Ibope shows the first round results as 37 percent for Rousseff, 33 percent for Marina Silva and 15 for Aecio Neves: and suggests Silva would win 46 to 39 percent in a second round matchup.  Datafolha has first round support at 35 percent for Rousseff, 34 for Silva and 14 for Neves, with Silva beating Rousseff 48-41 in a runoff. Boz has a particularly astute analysis of these numbers, noting that Silva’s primary weakness lies in keeping her diverse coalition of environmentalists, evangelicals, progressives and business groups together, an opening Rousseff is sure to exploit moving forward.
  • Rousseff appears to be regrouping in the face of Silva’s surge. As Reuters reports, her campaign has been assessing a change in strategy since last week. Yesterday she cancelled her scheduled participation in Jornal da Globo’s series of primetime candidate interviews, and the network responded by listing a series of tough questions that she would have faced on air if she were present. Folha de S. Paulo reports that for the first time, the candidate has signaled a willingness to alter her cabinet and certain policies in a second term.
  • Semana reports on the progress of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposed political reform package, which primarily aims to end presidential re-election. On top of this, the magazine notes that the bill would change the way the inspector general (procurador) is appointed. While the position would still be elected by the Senate, lawmakers would have to choose from a list of candidates presented by the executive branch. The reform would thus end the kind of influence-peddling that current Inspector General Alejandro Ordoñez is accused of, but Semana reports that some lawmakers question whether it would pave the way for the eventual erosion of checks on presidential power.
  • Writing for news site La Silla Vacia, Dejusticia researcher Jorge Alberto Parra Norato has an analysis of main arguments against the proposed bill (the full text of which is available here) to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in the country. As he notes, conservative opponents to the measure generally question the scientific basis of medicinal cannabis, assert that it will fuel increased use, and that it will lead to full legalization, three arguments that have been proven false by the available research on the subject.
  • In time for Bolivia’s October 12 general elections, the Andean Information Network has an overview of the political and social landscape in the country, providing a useful framework to understand the interaction between President Evo Morales and various pressure groups, several of which have taken advantage of the vote to stage protests and make new demands from the administration.
  • The Guardian reports on a sign of pervasive discrimination against indigenous communities in Peru: the popularity of a television show involving caricature, “La Paisana Jacinta” a highly stereotypical caricature of an indigenous woman living in Lima. The show was removed from a primetime slot following outcry from anti-racism activists and a recommendation by the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), thought it remains on air.
  • Spanish news agency EFE reports that a lawmaker of Morales’ MAS party has described an apparent attempt by base leaders in Potosi province to intimidate locals into voting for MAS candidates in the elections. According to Congressman Luis Gallego, Potosi groups have threatened to give out “lashings” to those who vote against the party line. Bolivia’s La Razon reports that Gallego is being investigated by public prosecutors for the remark.
  • The Associated Press has an analysis of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s recent cabinet shuffle, describing it as a bid to placate various PSUV factions, including relatives of the late Hugo Chavez, the military and certain technocrats more favored by international investors. The primary loser, according to the AP, was former Oil Minister and Economic Vice President Rafael Ramirez, who had held his post for ten years. Ramirez will now serve as foreign minister and “vice president for political sovereignty.”
  • El Mostrador reports that Santiago judge heading the investigation into the 1973 murder of popular Chilean folk singer Victor Jara has expanded the list of the accused to include three  more individuals, two as direct participants and one as an accomplice. Since 2012, eight other military officers have been linked to Jara’s death. The AP notes that last year, Jara’s family filed a U.S. lawsuit against former Chilean army Lt. Pedro Barrientos Nunez for allegedly ordering the murder.