San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Guatemala's Alfonso Portillo gets six years in prison in US

NEW YORK – Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was sentenced Thursday in New York to five years and 10 months in prison for a $2.5 million bribery scandal.

Portillo, extradited to the United States from his home country a year ago, pleaded guilty in March to trying to launder through U.S. banks bribes Taiwan paid to Guatemala to get the Central American nation to offer diplomatic recognition to Taipei over Beijing.

The 62-year-old disgraced former leader, who was president between 2000 and 2004, has been detained since January 2010.

Counting time already served, he will only remain in prison another year and a half, according to the ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson. He must also pay a $2.5 million fine.

“It was a mistake. There were five errors over a long period of time,” the judge said.

Portillo received five checks for half a million dollars each from Taiwan between 1999 and 2002, and then conspired to launder the money.

Wearing a dark suit in the Manhattan courtroom, Portillo showed no reaction as the sentence was read. But during the four-hour hearing, he had given a political speech in his own defense.

“The four and a half years in jail have been a big learning experience for me but also great pain for my family,” the former president said in Spanish, emphasizing he did not seek “to justify” his crime but to get another “opportunity.”

By entering the guilty plea and agreeing to repay to the United States the bribes received from Taiwan, he avoided a maximum sentence of 20 years.

His lawyer asked for Portillo to only be sentenced to time already served, saying he had already sufficiently paid for his “serious mistake.”

But the prosecutor asked the judge to consider “the impact of this sentence” for the treatment of corrupt leaders around the world, asking him to impose the maximum sentence of five years, 11 months.

Still unresolved is whether Portillo will serve the remainder of his jail term in the U.S. or Guatemala, as requested by the defense.

Portillo was the first former Latin American leader extradited to the United States.

He had initially been charged with conspiring to launder $70 million in U.S. banks during his tenure, but under the terms of the plea deal, the charges were limited to laundering the Taiwan bribes.

Guatemala is one of 22 countries, mostly in Central America and the Caribbean, that recognize Taiwan diplomatically over mainland China.

China regards Taiwan as a rebel island awaiting unification, by force if necessary, even though ties have improved markedly since 2008.

Taiwan has donated millions of dollars to Guatemala for a variety of programs, including agricultural projects and to build schools and roads.

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