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Portillo Admits Guilt, Awaits Sentence

March 21, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

On Tuesday former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo plead guilty to a money-laundering case in New York City federal court and will be sentenced to four to six years in federal prison on June 23.

In exchange, prosecutor Preet Bharara has agreed to drop additional charges against Portillo that could result in a life-long sentence behind bars in the United States. 

Portillo was extradited in a surprise morning operation in May 2013, one that he was unaware of until an hour before he was flown out of the country.  Since then, he has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.

U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson will officially announce the sentence later this year, but Portillo’s lawyers are hopeful that his sentence will account for time served, given that he has spent the last 50 months in jail. However, as the majority of his jail time was spent in the Guatemalan system, the final outcome rests in the hands of Judge Patterson.

A far cry from the initial charges of misappropriating an excess of $70 million dollars, current charges indict Portillo for receiving five checks from the Taiwanese Embassy in Guatemala, totaling $2.5 million dollars.

“I am guilty. I knew at the time that what I was doing was wrong, and I apologize for my crimes, take responsibility for them, and accept the consequences of my actions,” Portillo told the court through an interpreter.

"I understood that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence to have Guatemala continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically," the former president said.

Speaking in defense of his client, David Rosenfield told the court, “He is a good and decent person, with an abiding love for the people and country of Guatemala.  [This is] an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life.” 

However, Rosenfield’s statement will be highly suspect to biographers of Portillo’s life, given that he remains the lead suspect of a double murder case in Mexico that took place in 1982. During the fiesta de la Reina de Independencia, a homecoming party in Zumpango del Rio, Portillo was involved in a disagreement during a late night trip to buy alcohol. The confrontation left two students dead, another injured and the future Guatemalan president on the lam, back to his native country.  A Mexican judge declared the case “inactive” in 1995 but Portillo’s claims of innocence by virtue of self-defense are difficult to uphold given that the case never went to trial.

Astonishingly, Portillo went on to make political capital out of the situation in his 1999 presidential campaign, claiming that strong, no-nonsense leaders are able to make tough decisions, such as fleeing from country to country to avoid capture.

A month after Portillo’s presidency finished in January 2004, he made his second escape from prosecution.  With the Ministerio Publico (MP) looking to pick him up on corruption charges, he fled to Mexico with four passports in his possession.

He was eventually captured in Puerto Barrios in 2010, hiding in a boat about to set sail for Belize. Since then he has been in military prison, from where he successfully beat the 2011 case of embezzlement of the Ministry of Defense brought against him.

The scandal has placed Guatemala’s relationship with Taiwan in question.  Foreign minister Fernando Carrera has admitted that there is a $1 million annual rolling fund from the Taiwanese financing the redecoration of the ministry and the purchase of new vehicles. However, there have been calls to ditch ties with Taiwan and attempt to open diplomacy with mainland China, a relationship that currently does not exist.

Journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín revealed that Portillo had been receiving gifts from the Taiwanese since the 1970s, including luxuries such as all-expenses-paid trips to five star hotels in Taiwan. “Almost all (Guatemalan) ambassadors told me to accept the offers.  I never accepted these invitations because I always thought it was stupid for our country to allow itself to be used as a pawn in Taiwan’s political struggles with China,” said Marroquín.

Although Portillo was the one eventually caught, the question of the day is: how many other Guatemalan presidents have taken similar bribes over the past 40 years?

Tags: Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, money-laundering

Guatemala’s Attorney General Faces Legal Fight to Stay in Office

February 12, 2014

by Nic Wirtz

Last week’s decision by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) to reduce Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term in office has been met by a wave of criticism and legal challenges.

The internationally-recognized Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is credited with improving the investigative work of the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) and reducing the rate of impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2013 (measured by the amount of cases that end in a prosecution, not necessarily a conviction).  Paz y Paz also created Guatemala’s Cortes de Alta Riesgo (High Risk Courts), permitting vetted judges with international training to receive certain protections and resources so they can preside over difficult cases.

On February 5, however, the CC ruled that Paz y Paz must step down by May 2014, though her term would not have ended until this December. The court justified the decision by claiming that Paz y Paz’s term officially began in May 2010, when former Attorney General Arnulfo Conrado Reyes Sagastume was removed from office due to irregularities in his selection process. Paz y Paz took his place in December 2010.

Supporters of Paz y Paz claim that the CC’s decision—initiated by the prominent lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume Morales , who is a member of the right-wing Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN)—is in itself illegal, based on transitional guidelines handed down in 1993. Article 251 of Guatemala’s Constitution clearly states that the attorney general’s term will last four years and that the attorney general can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”

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Tags: Guatemala, Claudia Paz y Paz

Monday Memo: Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute -- CELAC Summit -- Argentina's Economy -- São Paulo Protests -- Belize-Guatemala Agreement

January 27, 2014

by AQ Online

Likely top stories this week: the International Court of Justice will rule on the Chile-Peru Maritime border; the CELAC Summit begins on Tuesday in Havana, Cuba; Argentina begins easing restrictions on purchasing US dollars; protesters of the World Cup clash with police in Sao Paulo; Belize and Guatemala sign an agreement at the OAS.

International Court to Rule on Chile-Peru Maritime Dispute: The United Nations’ International Court of Justice in The Hague is due to make a decision today on Peru and Chile’s disputed maritime border. The ruling will decide which country owns 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 square miles) of ocean, which includes one of the world’s richest fishing grounds with an annual catch of $200 million. If Peru wins the dispute, some 2,000 Chilean fishermen fear they could lose their jobs. Presidents of both countries have each said they will adhere to whatever decision the court makes.

CELAC Summit Begins in Havana: World leaders from around the hemisphere are traveling to Havana, Cuba this week for the two-day Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit, which begins tomorrow. Thirty-two heads of state will be attending the summit, including presidents Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Raul Castro of Cuba, among others. Dozens of dissidents have been detained in a new “wave of political repression” ahead of the summit. Activist Guillermo Farinas has been kept under house arrest for three days, and as many as 100 members of the Ladies in White have been arrested to prevent them from attending a forum on human rights on Tuesday.

Argentina Lifts Restrictions on Purchasing U.S. Dollars: Argentina’s Economy Minister Alex Kicollof announced on Friday that it was relaxing restrictions on the purchase of U.S. dollars starting Monday. The decision came amid a 28 percent inflation rate and the sharpest slide in the value of the Argentina peso since the 2002 economic collapse. However, in an interview published by Pagina 12 on Sunday, Kicillof said that the lowering of the tax rate on credit card purchases made in U.S. dollars from 35 percent to 20 percent would not happen on Monday, with no indication of when the change will happen. It’s not clear whether the easing of restrictions will be enough to stabilize the country, given the already high inflation rate and the general lack of confidence in the government—from chronic blackouts, recent looting in the provinces, and President Kirchner’s recent absence—that has grown.

World Cup Protests in São Paulo Turn Violent: Protesters clashed with police this weekend in São Paulo, where thousands had taken to the street to protest the cost of the 2014 World Cup. More than 130 protesters were arrested, and one man is in critical condition after being shot by police for allegedly carrying an explosive in his backpack. The Anonymous Rio protest group organized the demonstrations using social media and called it “Operation Stop the World Cup”. Following the massive protests last year, Brazil has seen “rolezinhos—flash mobs by young people from the favelas targeting affluent shopping malls —crop up across the country.

Belize and Guatemala Sign Bilateral Agreement: The foreign ministers of Belize and Guatemala met with Organization of American States (OAS) Secretary General José Miguel Insulza over the weekend, and signed on to a “Road Map and Plan of Action” to deepen transnational cooperation. According to Insulza, the agreement will allow the two countries to “develop significant projects in the areas of the environment, security, labor, immigration, health or education, (which) helps people to get to know and value each other.” Through the agreement, both nations also pledged that they will adhere to the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the pending territorial dispute.

Tags: Chile-Peru relations, CELAC, Brazil protests, Belize, Guatemala

Ríos Montt Trial Resumption Delayed Until 2015

November 13, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

Last week, Guatemala’s Court of High Risk “B” (Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “B”) announced that the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, General Efraín Ríos Montt,  will not resume until January 2015. The trial was pushed back from an earlier date of April 2014, and by the time proceedings continue, Ríos Montt will be 88 years old. 

Ríos Montt had been tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil people during one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On May 10, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but served just two days before being transferred to a military hospital. 

A day later, one of the defense team’s 100-plus amparos—measures designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—was upheld by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC). The result of the successful amparo was to move the trial back to its middle, where there was a judicial battle over who was to hear the case—Judge Yasmin Barrios or Judge Carol Patricia Flores.

The ruling backtracked on previous declarations that the trial would not return to a previous date.  It also contradicted Guatemalan law, which states once a verdict is delivered, the defendant must continue their legal fight in the Appeals Court.

Since then, the original trial judges have recused themselves on the grounds that they have already issued a judgment.  Dozens of judges have avoided hearing the case for fear of repercussions, and in October, the CC reopened the possibility that Ríos Montt may be granted amnesty, based on a 1986 presidential decree by former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores that barred prosecutions for political crimes committed during Mejía and Ríos Montt’s administrations.

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Tags: Guatemala, Efraín Ríos Montt, genocide

Arrests Made in San José Nacahuil Massacre, But Doubts Remain

October 31, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

When masked men burst into the tiny hamlet of San José Nacahuil on a peaceful Sunday evening last month, what followed was all too familiar to Guatemalans.

Eleven people were killed and numerous injured as armed assailants moved from house to house.  Children safe in their beds were awoken by shots fired into their bedrooms. They tumbled out of bed terrified and in pain, checking to see if their relatives were alive or dead, then, confused and crying, waited for help.

Over 50 firefighters and 20 ambulances arrived at the scene according to Sergio Vásquez, the Bomberos Voluntarios (Volunteer Firefighters) spokesman. “We got a call and a calm voice said several people had been injured.  We found victims in hiding places, in the bathrooms of bars and in the streets surrounding the scene,” Vásquez said.

A burnt-out car stolen from the streets of San José Nacahuil was all that remained of the attackers, who fled quickly into the dusk, leaving behind another broken neighborhood.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla arrived quickly on the scene, and presented three possible theories to the press corps: the attackers were either extortionists, one of three maras clicas (organized crime groups) in the area, or bandits that had been refused liquor and returned to seek revenge.

Quietly, locals pointed to a fourth theory—that members of the government’s Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) had perpetrated the crime.  It turns out that San José Nacahuil has had a difficult relationship with the police.  In 2005, residents burned down the PNC substation and two motorbikes to protest alleged corruption, lack of public services and rising inter-city bus charges.  There had been no police presence in the area since then.

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Tags: Guatemala, San José Nacahuil

Suspects in Police Massacre Tied to Guatemala’s Villatoro Cano Cartel

August 6, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

Sixteen suspects were captured in recent weeks for their role in the June 13 massacre of an entire police station in Salcajá, Guatemala, a case that has shocked a country with a high threshold for violent acts. Still, many unanswered questions remain.

Gunmen killed all eight officers on duty in the assault on the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) station in Quetzaltenango department and kidnapped police sub-inspector Julio César García Cortez.  Mexican drug cartels were initially suspected of carrying out the raid, but Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla revealed that the Villatoro Cano cartel, a homegrown group of Guatemalan criminals led by Eduardo Villatoro Cano and linked to Mexico’s Gulf cartel, is responsible. Several of the 14 suspects are police officers linked to Villatoro Cano.

“They are Guatemalan and have made the stupid decision to attack Guatemalan police,” said Bonilla. “These people felt immune, untouchable and thought they owned the entire area.  Now we have linked them to many other crimes."

The Guatemalan government’s “Operation Dignity,” an investigation into the attacks, has put over 1,000 agents on the case and initiated 128 raids in Huehuetenango since July 14, but three suspects remain at large.  Authorities have tied over 100 murders to the Villatoro Cano cartel so far, including high-profile cases such as the murder of a prosecutor and four investigators for the  División Especializada en Investigación Criminal (Specialized Criminal Investigation Division—DEIC).

Guatemalan authorities believe that sub-inspector García Cortez was the principal target of the attacks, and the other policemen were killed to avoid leaving any witnesses. Since García Cortez had previously worked in Cobán in the north-central department of Alta Verapaz, it was assumed that Mexico’s Zetas cartel had carried out the raid in possible retaliation for his investigative work and successes against them. 

Three of the sub-inspector’s fingers and pieces of his uniform were the only remains found—a grisly reminder of the modus operandi of the cartels.  Media reports theorize that the inspector had either stolen money, drugs or both from the local gang and that the raid was a response carried out by at least 15 men armed with automatic weapons.

Besides the nine deaths, 19 children lost their fathers during the attack. The widow of Héctor Bocel Tun, one of the murdered officers, asked police officer and suspect Milson Fredy García Chávez, “How can it be possible for someone who shakes your hand to stab you in the back?  My husband was our provider, now I have to ensure my child gets what he needs.”

In 2010, authorities estimated that 40 percent of the country was controlled by cartels. Perhaps most concerning for Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the security forces is how the brutal tactics employed in Mexico are being exported to Guatemala and used by local criminals.

With the capture of Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (also known as “Z-40”) last month, it remains to be seen how the Zetas will continue to operate in Guatemala.  Treviño Morales was instrumental in moving the cartel to its new base of operations in Guatemala and setting up lucrative transportation routes.  This tactic proved so successful that it was copied quickly by other Mexican cartels—and now many border routes, towns and infrastructure are under their control.

Pérez Molina, who has called for talks on the decriminalization of drugs, has seen his popularity slump in the first 18 months of his presidency.  In a recent survey, 66 percent of those polled said that the former general, who rode to victory on the back of a “mano dura” (“iron fist”) campaign slogan, has made things worse.

Even if cartel influence weakens in Guatemala, cartel tactics have been eagerly seized on by local organized criminal elements and street gangs.  Director of Police Telémaco Pérez García and Defense Minister Manuel López Ambrosio, both installed in July, do not have much time to learn their new roles. 

However, Guatemalan authorities recently got a break in the Salcajá police massacre case after Villatoro Cano’s companion, María Isabel Sales López, told judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez that Cano had asked her “to gather all the weapons into a bag and throw them in the Valparaíso river in Huehuetenango.”

However, threats against Pérez Molina, Bonilla, members of Bonilla’s family and the PNC through anonymous calls to the national police number mean this is far from over. 

Until cartel leader Villatoro Cano is caught, the threats will remain—and like a hydra, even if the authorities do triumph, another head will rise up in its place.

Tags: Guatemala, cartels, Salcajá, Villatoro Cano

Asamblea General de la OEA y reformas a la CIDH: de la reflexión a la implementación

June 14, 2013

by Mari Hayman

El mensaje enviado por los Estados miembros de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) durante su 43ª Asamblea General, realizada la semana pasada en la ciudad de Antigua, Guatemala, fue claro: después de dos años de reflexión y reformas a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH), es necesario pasar a la implementación de las mismas.

Efectivamente, este año la reunión anual de cancilleres de todos los países del continente—menos Cuba—era de especial relevancia en materia de derechos humanos porque “tomaría el pulso” de los Estados en torno a la reforma del Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos (SIDH), después de dos intensos años de discusión, debates, propuestas, reformas y una Asamblea General Extraordinaria realizada en marzo pasado con la que formalmente concluyó el proceso de reflexión sobre la CIDH.

Durante esta Asamblea General realizada en Guatemala, se esperaba la discusión y posible aprobación de una resolución que abordaría el tema—aunque no se conocía el contenido de la misma—y, quizás lo más importante, se elegirían tres nuevos miembros de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.

Los países que presentaron candidatos a la CIDH fueron Colombia y México (para la reelección), Brasil, Ecuador, Estados Unidos y Perú, quienes fueron muy activos en la promoción de los mismos. Llamó la atención la gestión particularmente proactiva del canciller ecuatoriano, quien—de acuerdo con  información recogida en la página web de la Cancillería ecuatoriana—durante los últimos meses visitó buena parte de los países de la región para promover la continuación del diálogo sobre la CIDH y la aprobación de (más) reformas a este órgano, y—suponemos—para promover también su candidato a la Comisión.      

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Tags: IACHR, OAS General Assembly, Guatemala

The Drug Debate at the OAS General Assembly

June 4, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

The 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States opened on Tuesday in Antigua, Guatemala, with the aim of producing “a comprehensive policy against the world drug problem in the Americas."

Guatemala has been at the vanguard of new thinking on the drug trade partly because it has few alternatives. The country is blighted by drug violence and losing control of its territory to organized criminal gangs that control drug shipping to North America and Europe. At the same time, its dangerously weak judicial infrastructure is powerless to stop them.

"We are opening the discussion (on drugs),” said Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. “This had not been done before. We expect to get the positions of all the American countries."

When Pérez Molina called for the decriminalization of drugs and drug transport in February 2012, he sparked debate on the subject.  

But Guatemala is not alone. Uruguay has gone a step further: last year, President José Mujica  called for state control of the production and sale of cannabis.  A draft bill on this proposal has divided politicians in Uruguay, but is currently working its way through Congress; although the vote was postponed when opinion polls revealed that the majority of Uruguayans were against the proposal.

There is growing support across the hemisphere for a more lax approach to the “War on Drugs,” started by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 in an attempt to combat growing consumption in North America.  Pérez Molina was backed by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in asking for more debates.  Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos said he would favor decriminalization if other countries went first, and legislators in both Brazil and Argentina have debated decriminalizing the personal use of drugs.

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Tags: Guatemala, OAS General Assembly, drug legalization

Three-Day OAS General Assembly Begins in Guatemala

June 4, 2013

by AQ Online

Heads of state and foreign ministers from across the Western Hemisphere arrive in Antigua, Guatemala, today for the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). The three-day meeting will begin with an inaugural session at 6:00 pm (local time) this evening. The primary focus of the Assembly, as noted in the draft declaration, is to discuss effective solutions to the world drug problem and ways to devise a comprehensive and integrated approach to tackle this issue in the Americas.

According to Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Fernando Carrera, consensus already exists among member states that the final declaration should include changes to the current anti-drug policy in the hemisphere.  "We already have some ideas on how to change drug-fighting policies,” he said. On Monday, dozens of human rights organizations signed a letter asking leaders “to discuss and rethink the existing initiatives with a view to place human rights at the center of the debate."

The Assembly takes place two weeks after the OAS released a report that urges "assessing existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana.” Some member states have argued that the report fails to make specific proposals and reveals that there is no consensus among OAS member states to legalize cocaine, the illegal drug with the greatest impact on the region. According to OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, the Assembly will not approve the report, but will serve as “a platform for discussion and for reaching an agreement to see which agency will monitor the study."

On Thursday afternoon, during the meeting’s fourth plenary session, the Assembly will elect three new members to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).  The six candidates to the Commission are José de Jesús Orozco (Mexico), Rodrigo Escobar Gil (Colombia), Javier de Belaúnde López de Romaña (Peru), Paulo Vannuchi (Brazil), Erick Roberts Garcés (Ecuador) and James Cavallaro (United States). The Assembly is also expected to discuss some of the controversial reforms to the IACHR being put forward by a group of member states led by Ecuador.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the U.S. delegation. During his visit, Kerry will meet with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and hold bilateral talks with his regional counterparts. The U.S. delegation will also include R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson; Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William R. Brownfield; and U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS Carmen Lomellin.

Follow our coverage of the OAS General Assembly and click here to read AQ’s exclusive interview with the U.S. candidate to the IACHR, James Cavallaro.

Tags: OAS General Assembly, IACHR, Guatemala

Guatemala’s Extradition of Former President Portillo

May 28, 2013

by Nic Wirtz

Alfonso Portillo, the former Guatemalan president, was extradited to New York last Friday to stand trial on charges of laundering at least $70 million through U.S. banks.

A U.S. grand jury indicted Portillo on money laundering charges in 2010, and by 2011 he had run out of appeals. The Constitutional Court ruled that the former president should be extradited to the U.S. in August 2011.

As rumors swirled about the potential extradition on Friday morning, Portillo was asked by a national newspaper if he had heard anything. He replied, “I’m watching TV, so it is not true.”  An hour later, Portillo was being taken to La Aurora International Airport, where an eight-seat private jet was waiting to take him to the United States with an escort of four members of the U.S. Secret Service.

This is an abuse, this is a kidnapping, they have broken the law in the process.  I have appeals pending,” fumed Portillo in an interview with Radio Sonora.

Mauricio Berreondo, Portillo’s attorney, told reporters his version of events.  "[Guatemalan officials] showed up at the hospital, said, 'get dressed, put on this shirt and we are taking you to the Air Force base.’”

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Tags: Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo

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