Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo could be set for a stunning return to the political arena in the country’s upcoming elections in September.
Portillo will be released from federal prison in the U.S. in February, having served less than 12 months of his six-year sentence for conspiracy to launder $2.5 million—money he received from the Taiwanese government.
With the elections seemingly a straight fight between Manuel Baldizón—who lost to President Otto Pérez Molina in a runoff in 2010—and Alejandro Sinibaldi, former minister of communications in Pérez Molina’s government, Portillo will add an intriguing element to the campaign if he runs. To win, he will have to break tradition; since 1996, every election has been won by the runner-up in the previous presidential run-off.
Portillo is a potential vice-presidential candidate, should Edmond Mulet—now the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations—find a party to run as its presidential nominee. In September 2014, Mulet and Edgar Gutiérrez, the former foreign minister and chief of civil intelligence during Portillo’s government, met with Portillo in prison in Colorado and discussed his possible return to politics.
Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty on Monday of murder, crimes against humanity, and attempted murder—and sentenced to 90 years in prison for his involvement in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire in Guatemala City.
On January 31, 1980, 37 people lost their lives during the fire, set by Guatemalan police after Indigenous campesinos took refuge in the embassy after traveling to Guatemala City to protest against state repression in Quiché during the country’s civil war. Arredondo was head of Commando VI, the now defunct Special Investigations Unit (Sección de Investigaciones Especiales) of the national police. After security forces cut power and communication to the embassy, they stormed the residence, ignoring pleas from the Spanish government, ambassador and protesters. Soon after, a fire started in the ambassador’s office. Red Cross nurse Odette de Arzú heard on the police radio, “Get them out by any means!” Other witnesses testified to hearing, “Let there be no one left alive!”
In the aftermath of the massacre, one of the two known survivors of the fire, Gregorio Yuja Xuna, was kidnapped from a private hospital room. He was tortured and killed; his body was dumped outside of the rectory at Universidad de San Carlos (University of San Carlos—USAC). A note was found in one of his pockets saying, “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Then, on February 2, during preparations for the mass funeral of the fire’s victims, two students were killed in a shootout at USAC’s auditorium with police.
On Monday, Arredondo was convicted of crimes for his involvement in all three incidents. In her summary, Judge Sara Yoc said, “The defendant executed orders from superiors—the order to kill everyone in the embassy. He was responsible ordering the burning of the embassy.”
The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”
This year has been important for Guatemala’s judicial system. A number of judicial posts are due to be filled in 2014, and so far this year, a new electoral tribunal and attorney general have already taken office.
In July, the selection process for Supreme Court and appeals court magistrates began. However, these two selection processes were rife with irregularities and controversy. On October 9, Guatemala’s Constitution Court (CC) issued a provisional ruling suspending the results of the two selection processes, thus taking an important step towards compliance with international standards and national law.
Although Congress generally appoints judges in Guatemala, the selection process for judges and magistrates involves special comisiones de postulación (selection commissions), which provide Congress with a shortlist of possible candidates. The commissions are made up of representatives from various areas of the legal community: law school deans, judges and lawyers.
This mechanism—which is unique to Guatemala—was designed to depoliticize the selection process. However, it is clear that the model is no longer working as intended. The commissions have been influenced by special interests—including deans from new, privately-owned universities —and there are currently no tools to adequately counteract them. Meanwhile, national and international organizations, such as DPLF, CEJIL and the Open Society Justice Initiative, have reported that Guatemala’s judicial selection process violates national and international norms.
Guatemala’s 2014 judicial selection processes demonstrate that a profound modification of the proceedings is overdue. The more robust selection criteria developed by the CC in judgment 2143-2014—which requires commissions to research the candidates’ qualifications, interview the candidates, and explain their votes—were largely ignored by the commission to select appeals court judges, and only marginally adhered to by the Supreme Court selection commission. The selection processes were also compromised by conflicts of interest, because some commission members were candidates in the other selection process.
Guatemala’s Director of Prisons, Edgar Camargo, was arrested on Wednesday, September 3, helping to bring down an alleged extortion group that raked in millions of dollars, property and luxury cars.
Also charged were the former deputy director of prisons, Edy Fischer, and Byron Lima Oliva, the purported mastermind of the operation, who was serving time at Pavoncito prison for his role in the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi.
More than 800 policemen descended on Pavoncito last Wednesday, in one of 15 coordinated nationwide prison raids. Lima Oliva was transferred to Brigada Militar Mariscal Zavala, a maximum security military prison. Camargo later joined him there, after receiving treatment for hypertension at a private hospital in Guatemala City.
Camargo was named director of prisons in February 2013, after the dismissal of José Luis González Pérez. González Pérez left office after Lima Oliva was found in a convoy of cars last year, celebrating with various jail officials and women after being allowed out for dental treatment.
Appearing in front of Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez, a judge in Guatemala’s Corte de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court), Camargo appeared unconcerned about the allegations. "He who owes nothing fears nothing," he said.
On September 3, 2014, Guatemala's director of the penitentiary system, Edgar Camargo, and its former deputy director, Edy Fisher, were arrested—as were several others—for their participation in a crime ring run by a convicted felon from inside a Guatemalan prison.
These arrests were produced following an investigation done by the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG), which is tasked with the investigation and disbanding of illicit and clandestine security structures in the country. The investigation (which is still ongoing) revealed that a convicted felon, Byron Lima Oliva, was the real authority in the Guatemalan prison system.
CICIG reported that Lima Oliva had unheard-of privileges, such as access to phones and the Internet, frequently received guests, and left prison when he wished—and documented all this on his Facebook page. Lima's power apparently extended to running a textile factory in Pavoncito prison with the labor of other prisoners, and arranging for benefits—such as cell phones, food, conjugal visits, and the transfers of detainees from one prison to another.
Those transfers provide a good example of how the crime ring operated: Lima would receive a detainee's request. A sum of money would then be paid to Lima's romantic partner, Alejandra Reyes (now also detained) in the spa she operated in Guatemala City. A small part of that money would be paid to Camargo, who then authorized the transfer. During his imprisonment, Lima thus acquired a large amount of luxury properties, vehicles and horses.
General Rudy Israel Ortiz Ruiz was one of five military officials involved in a helicopter crash Wednesday morning. After the Fuerza Aérea Guatemalteca (Guatemalan Air Force—FAG) helicopter Bell 206 took off from Huehuetenango for a routine fly-over inspection of units along the Mexican border, the pilot rerouted from landing in Ixquisis to Las Palmas due to inclement weather before crashing into a mountainous forest area 1.2 miles from the El Aguacate village.
In the helicopter with Ortiz were Brigadier General Braulio Rene Mayen Garcia, Colonel Rony Adolfo Anleu Del Aguila, Major Selvin Ricardo Raymundo, and the pilot, Colonel Juan de Dios Lopez Gomez. According to Defense Minister Manuel Lopez, there were no survivors. Due to the terrain of the crash location, it took over four hours for soldiers and civilians to recover the bodies. Several helicopters were sent by the FAG and the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC), but the bodies had to be transported by foot to an air base in Huehuetenango before they could be air-lifted to the capital.
Huehuetenango is known for being a drug trafficking route plagued by Mexican and Guatemalan drug cartels. However, the helicopter was reportedly in good condition and there is no reason to suspect foul play, although there is an investigation underway.
Ortiz, 51, had served in the armed forces for over 32 years and had been chief of the Estado Mayor de la Defensa Nacional (General Staff—EMDN) since July 2013. Many speculated that Ortiz was in line to become the next minister of defense. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina gave his condolences to the families of Ortiz and the other officers, praising them for their service to the nation, and declared three days of mourning for the death of the five officials.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on Wednesday detailing the increase in drug-related violence on the Guatemala-Honduras border and calling for immediate action on the part of both national governments to combat the situation.
The large network of narco-trafficking gangs in the region have been competing over increasingly disputed drug routes that move substances through Central America, up to Mexico and eventually to the United States. According to the ICG report, since the 2009 coup d’état that unseated former President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras has become a primary entrance point for such drugs trafficked through Guatemala by smaller outfits with ties to Mexican cartels like the Zetas.
The report outlines eight recommendations of steps the Guatemalan and Honduran governments can take to improve the current situation, including implementing a long-term violence prevention strategy and working with countries that have pursued similar strategies like Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. The report also advises both governments to send health workers, educators, community organizers and other members of civil society to develop the border area and provide opportunities for the local population that has been impacted by violence.
“Tackling criminal violence requires sustained, concerted efforts to promote local development and guarantee rule of law,” said Mary Speck, project director for the ICG’s Mexico and Central American project.
Guatemala’s Comisión de Postulación, a national selection committee, announced the six nominees for country’s next attorney general last week, with the name of current attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz conspicuously absent from the list. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina will make his choice after interviewing the remaining candidates, and must announce a new attorney general by May 17.
Paz y Paz’s exclusion has generated outrage in Guatemala and abroad from human rights groups who say the snub was politically motivated. “We knew that the prosecutor [Paz y Paz] had many enemies, but we hoped the Commission would be independent,” said Helen Myrna Mack, of the Myrna Mack Foundation. “I think everybody was surprised and disappointed. It shows the system lacks credibility, it means that there’s no autonomy.”
Diego Álvarez, the spokesman for the Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (Commission against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG) said, “We are surprised that Paz y Paz is not on the list of six candidates, despite her excellent performance during her term, along with her classification in the process.”
After an intensive interview before the Comisión de Postulación, Paz y Paz’s score (69 out of 100, later amended to 73) placed her first among the 26 competing candidates. The Commission reviewed each candidate’s work experience and credentials and asked the candidates generic questions, followed by a round of more personal, specific questioning. The candidates also completed a written law exam.
However, Paz y Paz’s true test was whether the 14 members of the Comisión de Postulación would cast their vote for her. Milton Argueta, the dean of the faculty of law at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, reported that he had received death threats prior to making his vote, and two text messages to his cell phone suggested that his wife would be murdered if he remained on the Commission, but he remained.
On Tuesday former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo plead guilty to a money-laundering case in New York City federal court and will be sentenced to four to six years in federal prison on June 23.
In exchange, prosecutor Preet Bharara has agreed to drop additional charges against Portillo that could result in a life-long sentence behind bars in the United States.
Portillo was extradited in a surprise morning operation in May 2013, one that he was unaware of until an hour before he was flown out of the country. Since then, he has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.
U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson will officially announce the sentence later this year, but Portillo’s lawyers are hopeful that his sentence will account for time served, given that he has spent the last 50 months in jail. However, as the majority of his jail time was spent in the Guatemalan system, the final outcome rests in the hands of Judge Patterson.
A far cry from the initial charges of misappropriating an excess of $70 million dollars, current charges indict Portillo for receiving five checks from the Taiwanese Embassy in Guatemala, totaling $2.5 million dollars.
“I am guilty. I knew at the time that what I was doing was wrong, and I apologize for my crimes, take responsibility for them, and accept the consequences of my actions,” Portillo told the court through an interpreter.
"I understood that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence to have Guatemala continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically," the former president said.
Speaking in defense of his client, David Rosenfield told the court, “He is a good and decent person, with an abiding love for the people and country of Guatemala. [This is] an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life.”
However, Rosenfield’s statement will be highly suspect to biographers of Portillo’s life, given that he remains the lead suspect of a double murder case in Mexico that took place in 1982. During the fiesta de la Reina de Independencia, a homecoming party in Zumpango del Rio, Portillo was involved in a disagreement during a late night trip to buy alcohol. The confrontation left two students dead, another injured and the future Guatemalan president on the lam, back to his native country. A Mexican judge declared the case “inactive” in 1995 but Portillo’s claims of innocence by virtue of self-defense are difficult to uphold given that the case never went to trial.
Astonishingly, Portillo went on to make political capital out of the situation in his 1999 presidential campaign, claiming that strong, no-nonsense leaders are able to make tough decisions, such as fleeing from country to country to avoid capture.
A month after Portillo’s presidency finished in January 2004, he made his second escape from prosecution. With the Ministerio Publico (MP) looking to pick him up on corruption charges, he fled to Mexico with four passports in his possession.
He was eventually captured in Puerto Barrios in 2010, hiding in a boat about to set sail for Belize. Since then he has been in military prison, from where he successfully beat the 2011 case of embezzlement of the Ministry of Defense brought against him.
The scandal has placed Guatemala’s relationship with Taiwan in question. Foreign minister Fernando Carrera has admitted that there is a $1 million annual rolling fund from the Taiwanese financing the redecoration of the ministry and the purchase of new vehicles. However, there have been calls to ditch ties with Taiwan and attempt to open diplomacy with mainland China, a relationship that currently does not exist.
Journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín revealed that Portillo had been receiving gifts from the Taiwanese since the 1970s, including luxuries such as all-expenses-paid trips to five star hotels in Taiwan. “Almost all (Guatemalan) ambassadors told me to accept the offers. I never accepted these invitations because I always thought it was stupid for our country to allow itself to be used as a pawn in Taiwan’s political struggles with China,” said Marroquín.
Although Portillo was the one eventually caught, the question of the day is: how many other Guatemalan presidents have taken similar bribes over the past 40 years?