A Guatemalan army captain sentenced to 20 years for the slaying of a Roman Catholic bishop was charged with money laundering and organized crime for allegedly building a multimillion-dollar illicit prison empire based on threats and corruption.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that Byron Lima Oliva took money from other inmates in return for favors such as prohibited cellphones and appliances, as well as special food and conjugal visits.
“Lima represents for many of the inmates the true authority, and so they turn to him to seek transfers, favors and rights. Lima Oliva exerts undoubtable influence in the penitentiary system,” Ivan Velasquez, head of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala told reporters.
The U.N.-backed team of police and prosecutors targets crime and corruption in Guatemala.
Reached by phone, Lima denied the allegations and said he is the target of a vendetta by government 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 The Associated Press.
Velasquez, Attorney General Thelma Aldana and Interior Secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla announced the investigation, which began last year and identified Lima as the lynchpin of a criminal organization that has been in place for at least 15 years.
National prison system director Sergio Camargo, who allegedly received money from Lima, was also charged and appeared before a judge Wednesday.
Lima was expected to be moved to a different lockup, and he said he feared his life could be in danger elsewhere.
Prosecutors said at least 12 other people were implicated in the case. Police raided several homes of officials and associates of Lima in search of evidence.
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.
The president’s office declined to comment Wednesday.
Lima was sentenced in 2001 along with three other men for the killing of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, an activist clergyman.
The 75-year-old Gerardi was bludgeoned to death with a concrete block at his seminary on April 26, 1998, two days after he presented a report blaming the military for most of the 200,000 deaths in the 1960-1996 civil war.
Also convicted in the murder were Lima’s father, a military figure himself; a former presidential guard; and a priest at the seminary.
Velazquez, the commission chief, said the investigation found Lima was in possession of several properties, including a beach home, and luxury vehicles such as a Porsche, a Jaguar and an armored Land Rover.
Lima said he has been financially solvent since a young age, and his family has owned land for generations.
“What sin is that?” Lima said. “The interior secretary himself has been at my beach houses.”
Authorities began investigating Lima’s prison activities last year.
Lopez Bonilla, the interior secretary, recently said that “Lima has been a problem because I know everything that this man is running inside the prison.”
Lima allegedly imposed order on other inmates, including work and exercise regimens, and was allowed to leave jail on multiple occasions with the consent of prison authorities.
From behind bars, he posted photos on social media of visits from dignitaries including politicians, journalists and TV personalities.
Lima apparently has political ambitions for after prison. Online, he described his ideology as “100 percent anticommunist, against the imperfections of democracy, nationalist, progressive, promoter of the culture and identity of his country, defender of his homeland from foreign invasion.”
Those aspirations resonated with some conservative political groups, to the alarm of some in Guatemala.
“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,” said Nery Rodenas, director of the Catholic church’s Office of the Archdiocese. “Definitely that would be a step back.”
Lima would have been eligible to apply for parole on Sept. 12, but the new charges could mean more prison time.