Portillo’s Trial a Test for Guatemala’s Weak Justice System

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In what is undoubtedly the biggest test in the history of the traditionally rickety Guatemalan justice system, the trial of Guatemalan President, Alfonso Portillo, began this week.

The challenges are many and only begin with the charges: theft of $15 million from the Defense Ministry’s pension fund. If convicted and sentenced, Portillo may also have to face down extradition to the United States, where he is wanted on charges of money laundering and embezzlement of charity donations.

But what’s at stake is more than Portillo’s innocence or guilt, it’s the idea of justice in Guatemala. Less than four percent of all cases are prosecuted, and, like so many presidents and politicians before him, Portillo seemed to believe he was untouchable and that the extra cash was simply his reward for reaching the pinnacle.

His conviction would be the first step toward breaking that pattern, which has long contributed to Guatemala’s instability, corruption, poverty and one of the highest murder rates in the world. 

It took more than five years and the assistance of a United Nations’ prosecutorial body for Guatemalan authorities to finally bring the former president to trial. In 2004, Portillo fled to Mexico seeking a safe haven after losing his diplomatic immunity as a member of the Central American Parliament. There he managed to dodge several attempts to deport him to Guatemala. He was finally extradited in 2008, but freed on bail shortly thereafter.

Portillo’s case might have been forgotten were it not for the United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). CICIG – which began work in 2006, assisting and training Guatemalan prosecutors and police – centered its efforts on breaking what it termed the “clandestine” networks that were part of Guatemala’s political and security sectors. Portillo fit squarely into this category.

As president, Portillo had hired several cabinet members who were former security and intelligence officials, including retired General Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, who became his defense minister. Arevalo Lacs had been linked to the Cofradia, a secretive group of former military officers who worked closely with organized crime.

CICIG’s investigation claims that Portillo worked closely with his defense minister to steal at least US$15 million. The two men were eventually arrested but Arevalo Lacs was freed in January 2011, after the case against him fell apart.

Now it’s Portillo’s turn, and the test for Guatemala is huge, as is the case, totalling more than 700 documents.

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