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?
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.’”
Guatemala has its own magical realism when it comes to law and justice. In the past two months the fight against impunity in the Guatemalan courts took three notable hits. This put into question the rule of law in a country a Prensa Libre editorial recently called: “the paradise of impunity and the hell of law enforcement, subject to unforeseen and inexplicable changes.”
On May 11, Alejandro Giammattei, accused of executing five convicts when security forces stormed El Pavón prison outside Guatemala City in 2006, was acquitted due to a lack of evidence. This was the first major case launched in August 2010 by the UN-appointed agency International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Giammattei was accused by CICIG, led at the time by its then newly appointed head Francisco Dall'Anese Ruiz, of forming part of a criminal organization based in the interior ministry and the civil police. This unit was called on as being responsible for the executions of people detained in prisons. Alleged crimes included murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and the theft of drugs.
Two days before Giammattei’s acquittal, the Eleventh Court of Criminal Sentencing in Guatemala acquitted former President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera of embezzlement. Portillo was accused of diverting Q120 million ($16.1 million) from the Ministry of Defense. Manuel Maza Castellanos and Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, former ministers of finance and defense, were also acquitted in a case that involved money laundering through accounts in Guatemala as well as U.S. and European banks.
The acquittal came because two of the three members of the Guatemalan court felt that the Attorney General and CICIG had no hard evidence to prove the charges and questioned the quality of the witnesses. Upon hearing the sentence, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz warned she would promptly be submitting an appeal with the belief that there was sufficient testimonial evidence to issue a guilty verdict. The attorney general said she would use all state resources to challenge the ruling.
For decades, impunity has reined in
Since the Peace Accords brought
Not only have Guatemalan voters lost faith in democratic government’s ability to bring economic development and alleviate massive poverty, but vast swaths of the citizenry have come to believe that the laws simply do not apply to the powerful. As the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) has shown, perceptions of corruption and insecurity negatively affect democratic values in Guatemala. Compared with other Latin American countries, it is unsurprising that
A tribunal in Guatemala yesterday ordered the arrest of former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) on charges of embezzlement. The decision came a day before a seven-year investigation led to the formal indictment today in the United States of Mr. Portillo by the U.S. District Court in New York on charges of money laundering.
Mr. Portillo has been accused of siphoning away millions of dollars in public funds and funneling much of the money through banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. During his presidential campaign, Mr. Portillo ran largely on an anti-corruption platform.
According to reports, the Guatemalan police have executed four search warrants in different locations but have not yet located the now-fugitive former president.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.