Guatemala to Extradite Portillo, but Real Problem Remains

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The Guatemala government’s decision to extradite ex-President Alfonso Portillo to the U.S. is a noble one. But even if Portillo goes, a bigger problem remains: the inept and corrupt Guatemalan court system that found him innocent despite damning evidence.

Outgoing President Alvaro Colom announced last week he would honor an indictment from the Southern District of New York charging Portillo with money laundering, fraud and embezzlement of public funds totalling $70 million, much of which was channeled through U.S. and European banks. The extradition process is expected to take months.

The U.S. indictment (download indictment in pdf here) says these schemes included running money through fictitious foundations such as one called “Bibliotecas para la Paz” (Libraries for Peace). The body received $1.5 in checks from the Taiwanese government, which Portillo himself endorsed and later deposited into a Miami bank.

These checks, and numerous others, made their way into the European banking system into accounts under the name of Portillo’s daughter and then-wife, the indictment adds.

The indictment also says that Portillo stole millions directly from Guatemala’s Defense Ministry. And it says that he and several co-conspirators used government reserves to finance spending sprees that included expensive watches and cars for himself and his associates.

And while he never admitted guilt, Portillo has certainly acted guilty since the accusations emerged. He fled to Mexico just before charges were filed against him in Guatemala. Mexico later extradited him to Guatemala, but he was released while evidence was collected.

With the help of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) — a United Nations’ judicial body working with the Guatemalan government — the Attorney General’s office took Portillo into custody again in January 2010, as he attempted to board a boat and flee the country for a second time.

The evidence appeared to be indisputable. Portillo’s and his minions’ signatures were on the checks. The money was diverted through accounts in his family’s name. In all, the Guatemala case involved $15 million in misappropriated funds.

But in May, a three-judge panel disallowed some of the evidence and argued that some witnesses’ testimonies were unreliable, before acquitting the former president. (See video of the lead judge reading the decision below.)

The ruling stunned the government and the CICIG. The CICIG’s president, Costa Rican prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese — who successfully prosecuted two ex-presidents in his own country for corruption — said the evidence was stronger against Portillo than in those cases.

“He didn’t even hide his name,” Dall’Anese said during a public event in the Peten state. “Everything is documented … Yet they absolved him without question.”

During the same conference, Guatemala’s Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz also spoke out.

“The sentence absolving Portillo is a terrible message of injustice,” she said. “It’s a wake up call about the power structures.”

The decision by Colom opens the door to a new trial in the United States, but the real problem remains in Guatemala, with the courts.

The high and low courts are littered with corrupt magistrates, some of whom were placed in their positions through an anarchic system of patronage and deep-seated corruption.

Criminal groups have penetrated the judicial selection committee for the high courts, which is made up of the bar association, law school deans, and university rectors. In 2009, for instance, during the selection for appellate judges, the CICIG identified eight candidates it deemed “unfit” for the high courts. Three were elected by Congress anyway.

The courts’ actions, or rather inactions, are often at the heart of impunity in a country that sees only around four percent of its murders solved.

The incoming government of Otto Perez Molina may have a difficult time purging the system. Following the Portillo decision, the courts faced heavy criticism, and analysts told InSight Crime that the judges were starting to close ranks.

“If we can’t reform the courts, we need to start talking about a failed state,” said one analyst, who works with the government on this issue and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing that work.

It’s not clear where Perez’s own allegiances lie in this fight either. Perez is a former general, and the “power structures” that Paz y Paz was referring to include ex-military officials, some of whom worked closely with Portillo to pillage the Defense Ministry’s pension system.

Perez has publicly distanced himself from the alleged ring-leader of the Portillo debacle, retired General Francisco Ortega Maldonado. But Ortega Maldonado and other so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS) are still prevalent in the country, ready to take advantage of the weak state and its fractured judicial system.

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