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Amid U.S. Drug War in Central America, Who Is Capt. Byron Lima and Why You Should Care

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Guatemala City -- Sometime after nightfall Friday, two SUVs were intercepted making their way into Pavoncito Prison, east of the capital. When police officers opened the doors of the armored Land Rover, inmate Capt. Byron Lima was sitting inside. He was being escorted back to the prison by five guards and the prison's director. There were guns in the car too.

No, it wasn't a jailbreak. Lima had exited the prison on business. He told reporters he had been to the dentist. Later that night, Lima was charged for misconduct and sent back to the same jail. All of the guards were detained and the prison director fired.

The bizarre episode with Lima was the latest in a slew of news. The night before, a prominent lawyer was gunned down close to the U.S. embassy and the charges against nine soldiers prosecuted in October for the extrajudicial assassination of eight people and wounding of 34 were downgraded to dereliction of duty. For those following Central America, the region home to the world's highest homicide rates, these stories ring too familiar.

But Lima isn't a run of the mill criminal. In 2006, he was found guilty for the 1998 slaying of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi. The middle-rank officer that served important generals and ex-president Alvaro Arzu's guard bludgeoned the activist clergyman in his garage. Gerardi had released a 1,400-page report that accused Guatemala's military of being responsible for civilian deaths and massacres that took place during the 1960-1996 war. The intellectual authors who ordered the killing were never found.

Shortly after entering prison, he became Guatemala's most notorious inmate. After all, he wasn't a typical gang leader. Lima had rubbed shoulders with members of the country's political and economic elite. Worst of all, he knew their secrets. In less than a decade Lima went from captain to capo. Once a foot soldier willing to murder in order to cover up war crimes now turned organized crime general.

As El Salvador's El Faro points out, he used this capital to solidify his grip over the prison system. Slowly but surely he also monopolized all legal and illegal business out of jail. "Lima could get any clothing or food item, he could get you a cellphone. He could get you the credit to recharge your phone. Lima could get any drug."

In many ways Lima's life reads like the perfect metaphor of Guatemala; a country plagued with rampant social inequality that was engulfed in a bloody civil war. That same country failed to complete a democratic transition and embraced political limbo. This created a haven for organized crime and corruption to overrun the nation of 14 million.

And yet this is happening as the U.S. tries to make new inroads in the drug war by increasing military aid -- the biggest involvement of this kind in the last 50 years. In February, the Associated Press published a story examining how the drug war strategy that began in Colombia moved to Mexico and is now anchoring in Central America. Martha Mendoza writes, it's a place "where brutal cartels mark an enemy motivated not by ideology but by cash."

Something highlighted by recent State Department reports. Guatemala is struggling with unlawful killings and widespread corruption that weakens their rule of law.

Like Lima, others have raised similar ranks. Lima may be the most notorious example, but he isn't the only one. If Lima's biography is a trope of any kind, it signals similar fates could be true of partners the U.S. tries to enlist in its battle.

Something about the Lima incident was eerie. But it wasn't the fact that prison guards were helping him "tour" the capital aboard an exuberant SUV when he should have been locked behind bars. Lima's reappearance was evocative of an era where the U.S. continues to spend millions of dollars maintaining a ruthless political climate. Short of asking more questions and demanding accountability, it seems as though history is bound to repeat itself.