New Internationalist

Time’s up for Guatemala’s ex-president

Cash in hand by JMR Photography under a CC Licence

Photo by JMR Photography under a CC Licence

About 10 years ago, a man stole some money: US$70 million to be precise. In most countries he would have been quickly arrested and brought to trial, but Guatemala isn’t like most countries, and the man in question isn’t like most men.

Alfonso Portillo is Guatemala’s former president, but since courts in his homeland appear unable to make allegations stick on people with influence, he has so far avoided accusations of money-laundering. However, other countries are lining up with separate charges of corruption against him and it seems as though the ex-leader’s luck is running out.

Guatemala’s current president, Alvaro Colom, has agreed to extradite Portillo to the US where he stands accused of fraud and money-laundering through US banks – including one alleged instance where he deposited $1.5 million, donated by Taiwan to buy schoolbooks for Guatemalan children, in Miami and transferred it to a Paris account in the name of his then wife and daughter.

Colom revealed his decision last week, saying he had decided to allow the extradition because: ‘The president should not put his hands on the decisions of judges and magistrates.’

In a written statement, the US Embassy in Guatemala said it ‘welcomes the decision of President Alvaro Colom and the government of Guatemala to promote justice and security’.

‘The Guatemalan authorities have sent a clear message that nobody is above the law,’ the statement said.

In 2000 Portillo came to power promising a scrupulous government investigation into corruption, but many consider his four year administration to be the ‘most corrupt’ in Guatemala’s recent history and accuse him of stealing millions from Guatemala’s Defence Ministry.

Although Portillo has always denied the accusations, his behaviour suggests otherwise. When his political immunity was revoked at the end of his one-term policy, he fled to Mexico and, following a long legal battle, was extradited back to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges at home. He was later caught trying to flee the country by boat.

Many hailed his capture as a victory for justice, seeing it as an opportunity to test the effectiveness of recent reforms to the country’s judicial system. However, the Central American nation failed to deliver, and the former president was acquitted of corruption charges – amid what many have described as damning evidence of his guilt.

In one instance, a Costa Rican prosecutor, who found two ex-presidents in his own country guilty of corruption, said the evidence against Portillo was stronger than in either of those cases.

Although a date has not yet been given for when Portillo might be sent to the north, the decision to extradite the former president has had a varied response. Some Guatemalans are pleased Portillo will be tried in a New York court, believing that US courts are more committed to punishing criminals than are their courts at home. Others say it is unconstitutional to extradite him to the US and that they would prefer that he was found guilty in a Guatemalan court and punished in a Guatemalan prison. However, so far, the country’s fractured judicial system has prevented this from happening.

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  1. #1 Martin 10 Jan 12

    Corruption in the public sector is one of Central America's biggest barriers to development. I applaud Guatemala's efforts at bringing their criminal politicians to account and pray that other countries in this region will soon follow suit.

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About the author

Anna-Claire Bevan a New Internationalist contributor

Anna-Claire Bevan is a freelance journalist currently based in Guatemala City. She writes about political, environmental and social issues for magazines both in Guatemala and back home in the UK. Anna originally set up her first blog Vida Latina as a result of her travels in Latin America and frustrations at the lack of international media coverage that this area of the world receives.

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