San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala extradites ex-President Portillo to the U.S. on money laundering charges

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo, 61, (2000-2004) on Friday was extradited to the United States to face money laundering charges, the local daily Siglo 21 reported.

Wearing a black sweater jacket and holding two books, Portillo looked visibly sick and upset when he was taken from a military hospital to a Guatemalan Air Force base, following an order by the Interior Ministry.

“So long Guatemala. I want to directly blame the government because this is a kidnapping, they violated the law in this process. I still have pending appeals,” Portillo told local Radio Sonora minutes before being taken inside an eight-seat jet by four U.S. Secret Service agents.

“With the help of God I’ll be coming back. … We will dispel all these allegations in the New York court,” he added.

Siglo 21 noted that U.S. agents “arbitrarily prevented the work of medical staff from Guatemala’s Human Rights office, who where trying to attend to the visibly ill ex-president.”

“I have liquid in one lung and blood pressure problems,” Portillo said explaining why he was being treated at the military hospital. 

The U.S. government has accused Portillo, president from 2000 to 2004, of embezzling some $70 million, which he allegedly laundered through bank accounts in the U.S. and Europe.

Portillo is the first former Latin American leader to be extradited to the United States. Panama’s former dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted by U.S. troops in 1989 and jailed in Miami for 20 years on drug charges.

The United States welcomed the extradition as “an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala.”

“We commend the commitment of Guatemalan authorities to strengthen the rule of law and combat organized crime and corruption,” William Ostick, a U.S. State Department spokesman, told AFP.

Portillo had been fighting extradition since it was approved by then president Alvaro Colóm in 2011.

“I will be back,” he said as dozens of supporters protested outside the air base. “The evidence they have is not enough to convict me, and I thank the Guatemalan people for its support.”

Following a request from a New York court, he was arrested in January 2010 as he was trying to flee to Belize. Portillo has described the case against him as a “political persecution.”

Portillo was indicted by a U.S. grand jury on charges of embezzling tens of millions of dollars of public funds and laundering the money through U.S. and European banks, including $1.5 million intended for Guatemalan school children.

His attorney, Mauricio Berriondo, said the extradition was “outside any legal framework” and was conducted “by force.”

In 2011, a Guatemalan court acquitted Portillo and two of his former ministers of conspiring to embezzle $15 million from the Defense Ministry in 2001. His acquittal was confirmed by an appeals court in April.

Portillo was a member of the Guatemalan Republican Front, a party founded by former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who faces a new trial after the nation’s top court threw out his genocide conviction this week.

“What they did was inhuman because the former president’s life was put at risk,” Mario Estrada, a losing candidate in the 2011 presidential election, said as he stood with other supporters outside the air base. “They kidnapped him from the hospital to take him away.”

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