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Colonel Byron Disrael Lima Estrada: Alleged Mastermind behind the Murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi of Guatemala

Declassified Records from the U.S. Department of Defense

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 25

Published – February 14, 2000

Edited by Kate Doyle and Michael Evans

For more information contact:
Kate Doyle or Michael Evans 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Project Link

Guatemala Documentation Project

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Washington, D.C., February 14, 2000 – On January 21, Guatemalan police detained retired Col. Byron Lima Estrada and his son, Capt. Byron Lima Oliva, in connection with the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan José Gerardi.  Although the two officers had been under suspicion since shortly after the prelate's murder, it was not until newly-elected president Alfonso Portillo took office that the government was willing to act.  In the wake of the arrest, the National Security Archive's Guatemala Documentation Project examined declassified U.S. documents pertaining to the elder Lima's 30-year career with the Guatemalan armed forces.  The documents shed light on the depth of U.S. involvement in the training and material development of the Guatemalan Army through the 1960s and 70s, and enhance our understanding of the conservative backlash that threatened to undermine Guatemala's democratic transition in the late-1980s.  As a case study, the nine Defense Department records selected for this Electronic Briefing Book portray Lima Estrada as a highly-motivated, ultra-conservative, and anti-democratic intelligence officer, bent on preserving the military's grip on power, even after the transition to civilian leadership that began in the mid-1980s during the regime of General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores.

Like many of the most promising young Guatemalan officers in the 1960s, Lima Estrada's military career developed under the tutelage of the U.S. Army.  His early training included a basic infantry officer class at Fort Benning, Georgia, a stint at the now-infamous Army School of the Americas to attend a military police course, and–perhaps most important for the budding intelligence officer–counterintelligence instruction from a U.S. Army Mobile Training Team (MTT) on loan from the 610th Military Intelligence Detachment based in Panama.  According to one of the training manuals used by MTTs in Latin America at the time, his counterintelligence training would have included techniques in counterespionage, counter-sabotage, counter-subversion, counter-terror, and other “special operations.”  For the United States, the training of officers like Lima provided an opportunity for daily contact with the future leaders of the Guatemalan military (and indeed the country itself).  As one document (Document 2) puts it, an objective of the course was to find the “Best ways of gaining subject's confidence and exerting influence on him."  Lima also profited from the U.S. Army presence in Guatemala during the mid-1960s, serving in several elite counterinsurgency units trained and equipped by the U.S. Military Assistance Program (MAP).

Lima Estrada spent his formative years as a platoon leader, participating in the army's first concerted counterinsurgency effort aimed at extinguishing incipient rebel forces in Zacapa and elsewhere in the countryside.  In 1968, the young lieutenant was transferred to a military police unit in the capital, just as the urban “counter-terror” campaign was accelerating.  As the National Security Archive has documented elsewhere, the armed forces organized a clandestine wave of kidnappings and murders aimed at crushing the intellectual infrastructure of the guerrillas in Guatemala City [See the Archive's Electronic Briefing Book on U.S. Policy in Guatemala, 1966-1996 -- documents 1, 2, 4 and 5].

Lima Estrada's career in military intelligence took off in the 1970s after his U.S. counterintelligence training.  In the mid-1970s he was posted to the Regional Telecommunications Center (RTC), a special political intelligence unit located inside the presidential palace, and was soon made the unit's deputy director.  The RTC was the predecessor to the notorious "Archivo," a group credited with hundreds of disappearances and clandestine executions during the bloody military campaigns of the 1980s.  Although there is little on record regarding Lima's role at RTC, a report on its director at the time notes that duties included "planning and participation in raids on insurgent groups, interrogations and surveillances."1

Colonel Lima Estrada went on to serve as senior officer in key operational units during the army's "scorched earth" campaign against the Mayan villages in the northern highlands.  He also served as commander of the Tactical Security Group (Agrupamiento Táctico de Seguridad – ATS), an airborne special forces unit heavily involved in the counterinsurgency campaigns of the period.  It was during this period that he is said to have founded an elite "Kamikaze Counterinsurgency Tactical Unit" to carry out political executions and other "hits" directed by the president and his key intelligence advisers.

Indeed, Lima's résumé reads like a guide to a career in repression.  Following the bloodless military coup against Efraín Ríos Montt in August 1983, Lima was appointed to head the Guatemalan army's intelligence apparatus by the new chief of state, General Oscar Mejía Víctores.  Although the D-2 was technically separate from the notoriously violent presidential intelligence unit, Archivo, under Mejía Víctores the two worked hand-in-hand to attack suspected subversives in urban and rural areas alike.  The extraordinary "Death Squad Dossier," disclosed last May by the National Security Archive and other public interest groups, documents the disappearance and murder of dozens of Guatemalan citizens during the 1980s.  The D-2, with Colonel Lima as its director, is identified as one of the intelligence units involved in interrogating and disappearing the victims.  In February 1999, the Commission for Historical Clarification, a group established with the signing of the Oslo peace accords, published its final report, concluding that Guatemalan military intelligence "played a decisive role in the militarization of the country," assuming "functions beyond those normally assigned to intelligence systems within the framework of the democratic rule of law."  These duties included the infiltration of social organizations "where many activists subsequently became the victims of grave human rights violations."

With the inauguration of President Vinicio Cerezo in 1986, the Guatemalan army, under the leadership of General Héctor Gramajo, began to disengage from politics, gradually submitting to civilian rule.  Colonel Lima saw his star fall during this period as Gramajo worked to curb the worst abuses of the military intelligence organization that Lima had formerly directed, ending up in command of a remote military garrison on the eastern border.  Frustrated by his fall from grace, Colonel Lima became a key player in a 1988 plot to oust President Cerezo, restore military rule, and reinvigorate the war against the guerrillas.  The coup was easily put down by loyal security forces, but Lima Estrada, despite his participation, was not expelled from the army, a testament to the continuing influence of hard-liners in the military.  In explaining his decision, Defense Minister Gramajo explained, "If I had ousted Lima, the leader of the hardline officers, he would have become a civilian and a hero—a free civilian moving around the country where he would have gathered forces with the economic power groups and had even more power."2  Instead, Lima was sent into "exile" as military attaché in Perú, and then Nicaragua, before his career ended in retirement in 1991.

 


THE DOCUMENTS

Document 1: Department of Defense Biographic Report, "Byron Disrael LIMA Estrada," Circa 1968.

This biographic report, produced by the Defense Intelligence Agency, chronicles the early career of Lieutenant Lima Estrada as he rose through the ranks of the Guatemalan army in the 1960s.  Significantly, during much of this period Lima was posted in elite units that were specially trained and equipped by the U.S. Army through the Military Assistance Program (MAP).

From December 1964-July 1966, for example, he served with the 1st Battalion of the Captain Rafael Carreras Military Brigade, a MAP unit in the department of Zacapa, the locus of the army's counterinsurgency operations.3  In August 1966 he was transferred to another MAP unit in Quezaltenango, an area considered among the best for the counterinsurgency and other kinds of training then being offered by the U.S. Army.4  Lima Estrada later transferred to a military police company in Guatemala City, at a time when the army's police units had become front line forces in the counterguerrilla campaign.

The document also notes his travel to Georgia in 1965, a reference to his enrollment in the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning.  The fourth and fifth pages of the document contain biographical data pertaining to this period, probably based on information provided by Lima Estrada himself during his U.S. visit.

 

Document 2: Department of Defense Intelligence Information Report, "Capitán de Infantería Byron Disrael LIMA Estrada," prepared by 610th Military Intelligence Detachment, 8th Special Forces Group, January 20, 1971.

This document updates biographic information on Lima Estrada, now a captain, following his participation in a counterintelligence training course taught by instructors from a U.S. Army Mobile Training Team (MTT) in Guatemala City. The team, from the 610th Military Intelligence Detachment of the 8th Special Forces Group based in Panama, "had daily contact with [Lima] over a period of five weeks," according to comments provided on the fifth page of the document.  His American instructors praise Lima as "a very competent officer" who "could have extremely good political potential."  His attendance at a military police course taught by the U.S. Army School of the Americas in 1968 is indicated on page three.

 

Document 3: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "Possible Replacement for the GT Director of Intelligence," June 28, 1984.

Lima Estrada was appointed as the army's director of intelligence (D-2) following the coup that ousted President Efraín Ríos Montt in August 1983.  As D-2, he oversaw a military intelligence apparatus that had become infamous during the regime of President Romeo Lucas García (1978-82) for its use of kidnapping, torture and murder against labor leaders, political opponents and suspected guerrilla sympathizers.  Under the new regime, General Oscar Mejía Víctores, a hard-line conservative, revived the so-called CRIO (Centro de Reunión de Información y Operaciones), a group of senior military and intelligence officials that assembled hit lists of individuals to be targeted by death squads organized through the D-2 and the presidential staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial – EMP).  According to one account, Lima Estrada had been the founder of the "Kamikaze Counterinsurgency Tactical Unit" of CRIO in 1980.  As D-2 from 1983-85, he almost certainly participated in these meetings.5

This short cable comments on rumors that Colonel Lima is to be replaced as D-2 due to "ongoing differences" with Colonel Pablo Nuila Hub, the chief of the presidential staff and director of the notorious presidential intelligence unit known as "Archivo."  It seems likely that such differences would have threatened to undermine the close coordination necessary under the CRIO system and weakened the efficiency of their "counter-terror" operations.  Lima was not removed from his position until February 1985 when he was named commander of the bloody Quiché military zone.  His demotion from D-2 coincided with the Mejía regime's preparations to transfer state power to a civilian government the following year.

 

Document 4: Defense Intelligence Agency Biographic Sketch, "Colonel Byron Disrael LIMA Estrada," June 1985.

A more recent biographic report chronicles the career path that led Colonel Lima to be named the army's intelligence chief in 1983.  While his early years were spent as an officer in the infantry and military police, his specialization in military intelligence gained momentum after counterintelligence training provided by a U.S. Army Mobile Training Team in 1970.  He went on to serve as an intelligence officer (S-2) in Puerto Barrios, the capital of the contested Zacapa region.  The document also notes his service as deputy director of the Regional Telecommunications Center (RTC), a special political intelligence unit located inside the presidential palace (described above).

After his promotion to colonel, Lima Estrada moved on to serve as executive officer at the Huehuetenango army garrison, located in the heart of the army's scorched-earth campaign in the Guatemalan highlands.  He was later named commander of the Tactical Security Group (Agrupamiento Táctico de Seguridad – ATS) in Guatemala City—an airborne special forces unit—and is said to have founded the "Kamikaze Counterinsurgency Tactical Unit" of the CRIO (discussed above) in 1980.  Following his time as intelligence chief, Colonel Lima went on to command troops in Quiché, one of the bloodiest regions in the army's war against the Mayan communities.

 

Document 5: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "MOD’s Credibility with Officer Corps Eroding," April 8, 1988.

Despite his influence, Gen. Héctor Gramajo, the reformist defense minister, was deeply unpopular among key factions of conservative military officers who believed him to be too closely aligned with President Vinicio Cerezo’s Christian Democratic party which came to power in 1986.  This cable notes the rising discontent among these officers, many of whom had become openly defiant of Gramajo’s authority as defense minister.  Page two of the document recounts a minor but telling incident where Lima contradicts Gramajo’s assertion that former President Jacobo Arbenz—ousted in 1954 following a coup inspired and supported by the CIA—was not a communist.  The following month, Lima Estrada would be a key participant in an unsuccessful effort to topple President Cerezo.  [See the Archive's Electronic Briefing Book ,"The CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents"]

 

Document 6: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "Second Echelon Movers and Shakers in the Guatemalan Military," April 8, 1988.

This document provides brief profiles of twelve colonels touted as potential future leaders of the Guatemalan army. Colonel Lima, who was then among a handful of officers in line for promotion to general, is characterized as an extremely capable commander with an outstanding reputation among his peers, despite his current assignment in the relatively tranquil department of Chiquimula.  Nevertheless, the document points out, the colonel's hard-line philosophy and differences with Defense Minister Gramajo over "the importance of democratic survival" make him "a bit dangerous in a budding democracy."  The document also notes that Colonel Lima would ascend "like a comet" if conservatives ever mounted resistance to Gramajo’s policies.  The following month, Lima Estrada, in collusion with several other conservative officers, staged an unsuccessful coup against President Vinicio Cerezo.

 

Document 7: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "Army Investigating Reports of Corruption on the Part of Three Senior Officers," April 27, 1988.

In the mid-1980s, after serving nearly two years as director of intelligence, Colonel Lima commanded military forces in the department of Quiché, an area of intense military activity and one of the army's most important military garrisons.  This cable reports that Lima and two other base commanders are under investigation for allegedly defrauding the army of 1.5 million Quetzales.  Although the declassified documents do not provide the results of the investigation, it is interesting to note that this report was sent only two weeks before Lima Estrada and other hard-line officers moved to oust President Cerezo.

 

Document 8: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "Army Rebellion Wrap-up," May 17, 1988.

During the term of President Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990), the conservative opposition spelled out its grievances against the government in a series of communiqués from the so-called "Officers of the Mountain" (Oficiales de la Montaña), a group of cashiered officers and conservative civilians determined to regain control of the army, intensify the war against the guerrillas, oust the "corrupt" Cerezo government, and reassert army as the country's dominant political force.6  Among this group was Colonel Lima Estrada, who was then the commander of army troops in Chiquimula, a significant demotion for an officer who had earlier served as director of intelligence.  On May 11, 1988, this group attempted a coup with the support of troops from at least three military bases. According to one account, Lima moved his forces toward the capital that morning, but his advance was stopped by soldiers from the elite Mariscal Zavala Brigade.  These and other loyal troops were able to quell the insurrection without a shot being fired.  Immediately following the coup, Defense Minister Héctor Gramajo intensified his efforts to remove potentially troublesome hard-liners from positions of influence, replacing them with loyal reformist officers more dedicated to the democratic transition. Colonel Lima was relieved of his command, and sent into "exile" as a military attaché in Perú.

 

Document 9: Defense Intelligence Agency Intelligence Information Report, "Short-sighted Criticisms of GT MINDEF Continue to Fuel Officer Corps Discontent and Coup Plotting," July 6, 1988.

Despite having been transferred to Perú as military attaché, Colonel Lima Estrada apparently did not halt his plotting to overthrow President Cerezo and particularly General Gramajo, the reformist defense minister.  As this document reports, many hard-line officers considered Gramajo politically suspect, and believed he was trying to impose "a socialist outlook upon the institution."  Some further accused the defense minister of corruption and complained that his political ambitions overshadowed his concern for the army's well-being.  The document identifies three factions of officers believed to be holding clandestine meetings in an attempt to organize another coup.  One of these groups is said to be led by Lima Estrada.

 

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