Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Portillo: from Prisoner to Political Return?

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Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo could be set for a stunning return to the political arena in the country’s upcoming elections in September.

Portillo will be released from federal prison in the U.S. in February, having served less than 12 months of his six-year sentence for conspiracy to launder $2.5 million—money he received from the Taiwanese government. 

With the elections seemingly a straight fight between Manuel Baldizón—who lost to President Otto Pérez Molina in a runoff in 2010—and Alejandro Sinibaldi, former minister of communications in Pérez Molina’s government, Portillo will add an intriguing element to the campaign if he runs.  To win, he will have to break tradition; since 1996, every election has been won by the runner-up in the previous presidential run-off.

Portillo is a potential vice-presidential candidate, should Edmond Mulet—now the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations—find a party to run as its presidential nominee.  In September 2014, Mulet and Edgar Gutiérrez, the former foreign minister and chief of civil intelligence during Portillo’s government, met with Portillo in prison in Colorado and discussed his possible return to politics.

“Basically, what we discussed was the diagnosis of the country and we agreed that Guatemala is in a terminal crisis, but that crisis, in turn, provides an opportunity,” Gutiérrez told Guatemalan news site Nómada.  “I have seen people who have had a second chance at life and used it very well.  I do not know how he will use [it].”

Mulet is seen as a genuine alternative to the two front runners in this year’s polls—and his urban background could complement Portillo’s appeal in rural Guatemala. As a congressman and leader of Congress in the 1990s, Mulet has influence both in Guatemala and abroad. He was the Guatemalan ambassador to the United States from 1993-1996 and went on to represent his country at the European Union.

There is some controversy surrounding Mulet, who was arrested in 1981 for violating Guatemalan adoption laws, and according to reports from the Archivo Histórico de la Policía Nacional (Historic National Police Archive), was only released due to “political pressure.”

However, it is Portillo’s potential return to Guatemala that ignites political passion. On the one hand, there are his supporters, with thousands reportedly ready to welcome him home after he leaves prison in Colorado.  Once Portillo returns, he is expected to embark on a tour of all 22 Guatemalan departments, starting in his home state, Zacapa.  Although the organizers of this tour, former Vice President Juan Francisco Reyes López and Portillo’s ex-private secretary, Julio Girón, claim it has “no political overtones,” such a tour would be politically advantageous, should he choose to run.

Portillo comes from a political family—his father played a part in the October Revolution of 1944 and was a member of the Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán government that was overthrown by a CIA plot in 1954.  His mother was a union leader and member of the Partido Revolucionario (Revolutionary Party).

Detractors of Portillo will point to his conviction in the U.S. and the fact that he is the only suspect in a double murder in Mexico in 1982. A Mexican judge in 1995 declared the case “inactive”, but the case has never been in front of a jury.  During his 1999 election campaign, Portillo turned his decision to evade Mexican justice on the murder charges into political capital, claiming that he had acted in self-defense in Mexico, and thus, would be equally willing to defend the lives of Guatemalan citizens. He was also accused—but found not guilty—of authorizing $15 million worth of transfers from the Guatemalan Defense Department in 2011.  Presiding judge Morelia Ríos had argued that there was enough evidence to convict, but failed to convince either of her colleagues, Coralia Contreras or Patricia Deras.

What Portillo brings to the table is charisma and the ability to energize a crowd. And perhaps more significant is the fact that Portillo brings the support of Guatemala’s eastern “corredor seco” or dry corridor—so named because of the amount of droughts in the area—which includes the departments of Jutiapa, Jalapa, Chiquimula, El Progreso and Zacapa.  Coupled with a metropolitan presidential candidate like Mulet, Portillo could deliver more rural areas, a mix that has eluded previous parties. At the very least, it would cut into Baldizón’s popularity outside the capital of Guatemala City.

Portillo is, at the very least, a polemic figure in Guatemalan politics. In a survey of former presidents by national magazine Contrapoder, Portillo’s government (2000-2004) was named the best by 45.5 percent of those asked.  The most recent poll, from July 2014 by Borge y Asociados, saw 52 percent of participants claim that Portillo was the best president of the democratic period, and 51 percent said they would vote for him again.  However, the results were markedly different in 2002—during Portillo’s government—when the same company found that 57 percent of respondents said that Portillo’s time in power was the most corrupt in Guatemalan history.

“Why do people support Portillo? On economic policy, and I do not mean radical or socialist policies, but simply with the rules, market liberalization, competition, no tax privileges,” Gutiérrez told Nómada last week. “That caused a huge relief that allowed people access to cheaper products.  He [Portillo] represents the myth of Robin Hood, the hero who took from the rich to give to the poor.”

Whether Portillo is a changed man looking for redemption or is merely seizing the opportunity to return to office is immaterial. His very presence changes the political climate and will force opponents and voters to make tough decisions in September’s election.


Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Tags: Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala
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