A notorious Guatemalan prison 'king' was killed during a bloody riot

Byron Lima was convicted in 2001 for the murder of a prominent Catholic bishop three years before. While incarcerated he controlled drugs and the black market economy behind bars, allegedly with the support of the country's now disgraced ex-president.

by Nathaniel Janowitz
Jul 19 2016, 5:55pm

Photo de Moises Castillo/AP Photo

A massive riot in a Guatemalan prison involving a grenade and multiple firearms has killed a notorious jail "king." It also killed his visiting Argentine girlfriend and 11 others.

Byron Lima — a former army captain serving a 20-year sentence for killing a Catholic bishop in 1998 — was one of the most powerful inmates within the nation's corrupt prison and proved able to gain control of the black market economy inside all the prisons in which he was held.

The violence began on Monday morning when a rival gang attacked Lima with a grenade and then executed him with two gunshots to the head. Four of the remaining dead were reportedly decapitated and a further 25 people were injured.

Interior Minister Francisco Rivas told reporters that Lima's attackers were sent by another inmate known as El Taquero, or the taco vendor, who wanted control of the facility for himself.

Lima's brother, Luis, however, told local media that he believed the riot was a smokescreen for a state-sponsored assassination.

"An operation like this isn't done by just any old criminal. There must be someone behind it, with resources, logistics, and the ability to get weapons in," Luis Lima told the newspaper Prensa Libre. "I consider this an extrajudicial state execution."

Lima said he believed the plot was hatched in response to efforts to reopen the investigation into the assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, for which his brother was convicted in 2001. He said this rested on the emergence of a new witness hiding in the United States who had already been interviewed by the FBI.

The bishop had been an outspoken critic of Guatemalan military abuses during its 36-year civil war that included hundreds of massacres of indigenous people in a scorched earth campaign aimed at eliminating any possible support for left wing guerrillas. The war ended with peace accords in 1996, and the death of the bishop at a time when the wounds were still so fresh rocked the country.

Years later the bishop's death hit headlines again when the spotlight turned on the alleged link between Lima and former intelligence chief Otto Pérez Molina who was elected Guatemala's president in 2012.

Francisco Goldman, author of a book about the slaying of Bishop Gerardi published in 2007, alleged that Pérez Molina and Lima had a mentor-protege relationship which involved several visits in prison. Goldman also alleged that Lima became a powerful inmate in Guatemala's prison system because Pérez Molina allowed him to create a profitable criminal mafia in return for his silence about the night the bishop was killed.

Pérez Molina resigned from the presidency last September, hours before being arrested and imprisoned for his alleged involvement in a scheme in which government officials demanded bribes from importers in exchange for reduced tariffs.

"It's sad, he is not responsible for the assassination of monsignor Gerardi," incarcerated former president Otto Pérez Molina told reporters on Monday, after attending a hearing in the trial against him. "It's a really unjust story. Byron Lima, I'm not going to say he's a saint, but he was a good person."

Lima was facing additional charges for his activities behind bars at the time of his death.

Related: Guatemala's former president Pérez Molina faces new charges of massive corruption

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz