Author: Ryan Lincoln
The last week of January marked a significant achievement for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Guatemala and the rule of law. On 26 January 2010, the Guatemalan national police and military arrested former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, on charges of embezzlement and money laundering.
After the completion of his presidential term in 2004, the Guatemalan government sought to prosecute Portillo for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of a $15 million transfer to the defense ministry during his presidency. Lacking his presidential immunity, he fled to Mexico. Four years later, Mexico approved Guatemala’s extradition request and sent Portillo back to face charges. However, he was later freed on bail.
CICIG took up the case in 2009, under its mandate to investigate high-level corruption. Working closely with the US government, CICIG and the New York District Attorney amassed two cases against Portillo: a $15 million embezzlement charge in Guatemala and conspiracy to launder $70 million in the US.
Triggered by the US indictment by a New York grand jury, national police and military searched Portillo’s homes in the capital, Guatemala City, and his birthplace, Zacapa (red dots on map). The four-day intensive manhunt ended with his arrest in a ranch near Puerto Barrios (green dot on map) on the Atlantic coast, where he was about to board a boat.
Portillo continues to proclaim his innocence, arguing that his arrest is nothing more than petty politics. His lawyer has already contested his arrest, stating that it falls outside the Mexican extradition order. The Mexican Foreign Ministry insisted there was no wrong-doing by Guatemalan officials, yet they had not received any extradition request from the US government.
At a press conference after Portillo’s arrest, Carlos Castresana, Director of CICIG, emphasized the importance of the arrest for Guatemala, demonstrating that nobody is above the law. He hinted at future arrests, suggesting Guatemalans will become accustomed to arrests of persons previously out of the reach of the justice system (video in spanish).
With two cases pending and three governments involved, no doubt Portillo’s fate will not be decided for quite some time. Even so the arrest sends a strong message in Guatemala and marks a significant step forward for the government. Guatemala and CICIG have demonstrated their ability to investigate and capture even political elites, members of society who traditionally have been outside the Guatemalan judicial system.
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