US embassy cable - 03GUATEMALA428


Identifier: 03GUATEMALA428
Wikileaks: View 03GUATEMALA428 at
Origin: Embassy Guatemala
Created: 2003-02-18 17:59:00
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

E/0/ 12958: N/A 
1. Summary.  Sergeant Jose Obdulio Villanueva, serving a 
30-year sentence for the murder of Bishop Gerardi, was 
decapitated along with three other inmates during a 
prison riot on February 12.  The riot was an internal 
power struggle between two groups of inmates.  The sixth 
prison uprising in the past seven weeks, this one has 
taken on added significance due to the presence of 
several former military men involved in Guatemala's two 
most prominent Human Rights murder cases.  Conspiracy 
theories are running rampant due to Villanueva's key 
role in the Gerardi murder coupled with the successful 
evacuation of three military officers being held in 
connection with the murder of Myrna Mack.  End Summary. 
Background to a riot 
2. On December 23, 2002, the bloodiest prison riot in 
recent Guatemalan history left 14 dead in the Pavoncito 
Detention Center (reftel).  Although Pavoncito remains, 
in large part, under the internal control of the 
inmates, many gang members were transferred to the Zone 
18 Detention Center.  Within three days of their 
arrival, these inmates attempted an unsuccessful riot. 
The Zone 18 Detention Center has been largely under the 
control of inmates with military and police backgrounds, 
led by Captain Lima who, like Villanueva, received a 30- 
year sentence for his role in the Gerardi murder. 
Lima's control, maintained through extortion and 
violence, was challenged by the ex-mayor of Cuilapa, 
Edwin Franco, an inmate with connections to organized 
What happened 
3. In the early morning of February 12, just after 
prisoners from cell block eight were released into to 
the yard for routine exercise, inmates from the Franco 
faction in blocks one and two either broke out or were 
let out of their cells (there are conflicting official 
reports as whether the cell doors were forced).  The 
prisoners entered the empty block eight and proceeded to 
break through the wall into block seven--exclusive 
territory of the military inmates.  For about forty 
minutes, the inmates in block seven managed to hold off 
their attackers and at the same time to open another 
hole in the opposite wall through which many escaped 
into a patio area near the center entrance that was 
under police custody.  By noon the worst was over and 
some wounded inmates were transferred to San Juan de 
Dios Hospital.  By 3:00 PM authorities were able to 
remove visiting family members trapped by the violence 
in the center.  At 9:00 PM authorities were able to 
confiscate cell phones and numerous improvised weapons. 
Full control has not been restored as a result of a 24- 
hour ultimatum issued to prison authorities by Lima, 
some 200 gang members were transferred back to 
The Mack Suspects 
4.  Police removed the three military officers 
implicated in the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna 
Mack (General Edgar Godoy, Colonel Oliva, and Colonel 
Valencia) from the detention center without incident. 
The officers were taken to the military's Cuartel 
General but, in a positive development, the Cuartel 
Commander refused to take custody because the police did 
not have a judicial order authorizing the transfer.  The 
suspects were then taken to El Boqueron, a newly re- 
opened maximum security facility in Santa Rosa 
Department where they are currently the only inmates. 
Note: Prison directors have authority to make transfers 
without judicial orders under emergency circumstances, 
even to military jails.  Human rights groups have been 
concerned that these officers would easily escape if 
transferred to a military prison.  In the 1990 murder of 
American citizen Michael Devine, Captain Contreras 
escaped within hours of being convicted and transferred 
to a military prison.  End Note. 
5.  Although Villanueva's violent execution was the 
result of a riot sparked by an internal power struggle, 
the persistence of the conspiracy theories and rumors 
fueled by these latest prison riots are a fresh 
indication of how little faith Guatemalans have in their 
government.  The zone 18 riot harshly reminded the 
public that official corruption threatens lives.  Over 
the last several weeks, news of official corruption, 
prison riots, and skyrocketing crime rates have been the 
daily fare of all major news networks.  News of the 
latest riot also reminded the public that their 
government has not been able to reassert complete 
control over the inmates in Pavoncito (where gang 
members have just been reinserted).  Captain Lima's 
successful ultimatum confirmed for most Guatemalans that 
criminals run the prison system. 

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