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Guatemala’s Extradition of Former President Portillo

Alfonso Portillo, the former Guatemalan president, was extradited to New York last Friday to stand trial on charges of laundering at least $70 million through U.S. banks.

A U.S. grand jury indicted Portillo on money laundering charges in 2010, and by 2011 he had run out of appeals. The Constitutional Court ruled that the former president should be extradited to the U.S. in August 2011.

As rumors swirled about the potential extradition on Friday morning, Portillo was asked by a national newspaper if he had heard anything. He replied, “I’m watching TV, so it is not true.”  An hour later, Portillo was being taken to La Aurora International Airport, where an eight-seat private jet was waiting to take him to the United States with an escort of four members of the U.S. Secret Service.

This is an abuse, this is a kidnapping, they have broken the law in the process.  I have appeals pending,” fumed Portillo in an interview with Radio Sonora.

Mauricio Berreondo, Portillo’s attorney, told reporters his version of events.  "[Guatemalan officials] showed up at the hospital, said, 'get dressed, put on this shirt and we are taking you to the Air Force base.’”

Portillo had been in the Central Military Hospital, the same hospital that is housing General Efraín Ríos Montt as he awaits the restart of his genocide trial.  The 61-year-old Portillo was being treated for pneumonia, cardiac arrhythmia and water in his lung.  The doctor treating Portillo, Aníbal Rodas, said that the extradition was irresponsible and could prove to be fatal. 

Both former presidents belonged to the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (Guatemalan Republican Front—FRG), a right-wing political party that ran Guatemala at the beginning of the twenty-first century.  Portillo was president from 2000-2004 and Ríos Montt was the congressional leader during this time.

"The evidence they have against me is not enough to convict. I'm sick. I blame the current government for what might happen to me," said Portillo.

Portillo’s ex-wife, Evelyn Morataya, took to Twitter to voice her displeasure.  “President Otto Pérez Molina and Ríos Montt were protected. Why not respect the due process of Alfonso Portillo?”

Portillo has had a number of brushes with the law.  In 1982, he is alleged to have killed two Mexican students in Guerrero, Mexico, during a dispute at a liquor store.  He fled back to Guatemala, and in 1995, the case was declared inactive by a judge in the Federal District of Mexico.  During the election campaign in 1999, Portillo used this incident to his advantage, claiming that it took the action of a strong leader to flee justice.

After his presidential immunity from prosecution ended in 2004, Portillo left Guatemala to avoid embezzlement charges and settled in Mexico, where he had once studied and taught at universities.  He was extradited back to Guatemala in 2008 and was eventually cleared of the embezzlement charges in May 2011 due to a lack of sufficient evidence. The U.S. filed its own separate money laundering charges against Portillo in 2010.

Friday’s events create another first for the Guatemalan judiciary, as it becomes the first Latin American country to send an ex-president to the U.S. to stand trial.

In a written statement, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala praised the extradition: "This decision is an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala.  We commend the efforts of the Guatemalan authorities in strengthening the rule of law and the fight against organized crime and corruption."

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo

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