A former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, has pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder $2.5 million in public funds through a bank account in Florida. In pleading guilty, Portillo has agreed repay the funds to the United States, which he received from Taiwan in exchange for Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island nation near China. While he has yet to receive a sentence, his counsel is hoping that he can avoid a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment. Portillo (62) is expected to spend as little as 46 to 71 months in prison. He will pay fines ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 and face likely extradition from the U.S.
Portillo told the court in New York that he conspired with Guatemalan bankers and others to transfer the money to bank accounts in Europe, as well as Miami and Washington DC. Federal Judge Robert P. Patterson presided over the trial in Manhattan.
The ailing and disgraced former leader was originally accused of fraudulently misdirecting funds of $70 million in government funds, some of which was meant for impoverished children. However, the March 18 guilty plea relates solely to the $2.5 million in bribes. He admitted to laundering the $70 million, even while extradited in 2013 to face charges, he initially pleaded innocence.
Portillo was president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004 and is the first Latin American president to be extradited to the U.S. He is not, however, the first Latin American to face U.S. criminal charges: that distinction was held by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega who was taken to the U.S., as a result of a U.S. invasion, and convicted on drug charges. Arrested in 2010 while fleeing to neighboring Belize, Portillo fought extradition with the claim that he was being subjected to “political persecution.” In 2011, a Guatemalan court acquitted him conspiring to embezzle $15 million from the Defense Ministry in 2001.
In a plea agreement with the court in New York, Portillo agreed not to appeal a sentence of four to six years in a Federal prison. Sentencing is expected on June 23. His lawyers negotiated for a reduced sentence, pointing out his good conduct and the three years he has already served in prison.
In a Twitter message, Portillo’s ex-wife – Evelyn Morataya – wrote “Everything is now in the hands of a judge to declare a sentence within a short time.” Guatemala’s foreign minister told the press that he was unaware of the particulars of the bargain reached by Portillo’s attorneys with the court.
In a statement to the court, Portillo said “I knew then that what I was doing was wrong, and I ask forgiveness for my crimes, and take responsibility for them and accept the consequences of my actions.”
With the aid of an interpreter, Portillo told the court that he had accepted the money in December 1999 – not long before his inauguration – and in August 2002. “I knew that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence so that Guatemala would continue its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.”
As for Taiwan, Brian Su – who heads Taiwan's agency for economic and cultural affairs – told the media, “The government of Taiwan has managed all of its foreign aid programs correctly and has always given the maximum importance to the correct management of foreign aid to beneficiaries.” Su added that President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, who has been in office since 2008, “rejects check-book diplomacy.”
Federal Judge Patterson scolded Portillo, saying “I think it is immoral for the president of a country to accept money in order to continue recognizing another country.” He added, “but immoral is not the same as illegal.” Portillo said he realized that accepting the money was in violation of Guatemalan law. He said that all of the money given to him by Taiwan came from an account at a Taiwanese bank in New York. It was thus that the U.S. had jurisdiction in the case.