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GUATEMALA: Ok for Ex-President’s Extradition to US Just One Step

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Mar 18 2010 (IPS) - Civil society groups in Guatemala say a court decision authorising former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo’s extradition to the United States is just a first step in a lengthy process.

Portillo (2000-2004) lost the first round in the legal battle he is facing in connection with the laundering of tens of millions of dollars when a court accepted the U.S. request for his extradition, after a nearly 12-hour hearing Wednesday.

“We are at the start of a landmark trial in which a prominent man who wielded enormous clout and who represents interest groups who for decades have exercised unlimited power in organised crime activities has been subjected to legal action,” Carmen Aída Ibarra, with the Movimiento Pro Justicia (Pro Justice Movement), told IPS.

But she said the court’s decision to authorise the former president’s extradition could not be considered a success in terms of fighting impunity because it is just a first phase in what could be a long drawn-out process, and due to the risks involved given the former president’s links with organised crime.

While on the one hand, Portillo’s trial may reveal information that could help dismantle criminal groups, it also poses a risk of attacks on judicial officials by groups with which he has ties, the activist said.

The judges who issued the ruling have received threats against their families.

Moreover, Portillo, who governed at the head of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), must first be tried in Guatemala on related laundering and embezzlement charges, before he is extradited.

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, a social democrat, had already stated that he would agree to Portillo’s extradition if the court approved the U.S. request.

In January, Portillo was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of embezzling tens of millions of dollars in public funds, some of which he then laundered in banks in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, according to the U.S. District Court that indicted him.

The Guatemalan press reported that the amount involved is 70 million dollars.

“It’s sad that Portillo has to be tried in another country for crimes committed in Guatemala because our justice system is so weak,” lawyer José Luis González told IPS. “The funds merely passed through the United States, but they were taken in Guatemala. For that reason, Portillo should be tried in this country, to set an example.”

Portillo is accused of embezzling 14 million dollars in Defence Ministry funds during his presidency, 1.5 million dollars in donations to a literacy project from the government of Taiwan, and other funds.

Under Guatemalan law, he faces between three and 10 years in prison if found guilty here of these charges.

Even though the former president first has to be tried in Guatemala, González complained that the prosecution abroad is receiving much wider coverage: “We Guatemalans should be happy that he is being tried in Guatemala, and we should worry less about the crimes he committed in other countries.”

The 58-year-old former president was captured on Jan. 26 by dozens of Guatemalan police and agents of the United Nations-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in a raid on a beach house in the northeastern province of Izabal as he was preparing to flee the country by boat into neighbouring Belize.

Portillo was a fugitive from justice for six years. In January 2004, after a warrant was issued for his arrest, he fled to Mexico, which extradited him in October 2008. Back in Guatemala, he was released on 120,000 dollar bail, and although the trial against him went forward, he moved about freely and was planning to take part in the 2012 elections.

Corruption is so severe in Guatemala that CICIG, which began to operate in January 2008, was set up to strengthen and purge the country’s justice system and security forces. One of the key steps is to identify the infiltration of the corruption-riddled police and justice system by organised crime and illegal, clandestine armed security groups.

According to CICIG, 98 percent of all crimes in Guatemala go unsolved and unpunished.

Guatemalans hearing the news in their offices or homes had their own opinions.

“If they’re going to accuse him (Portillo) then they should accuse all of the thieves. Why just him? Because Berger stole, Vinicio stole,” said María Antonia de Castillo, a homemaker in the Guatemalan capital, referring to the governments of Oscar Berger (2004-2008) of the conservative Great National Alliance, and Vinicio Cerezo (1986-1990), a Christian Democrat.

“Portillo did things for the poor; he never raised the prices of basic items, like everyone else did,” she said.

A lawmaker for the governing centre-left National Union of Hope (UNE), Mario Taracena, told IPS that the prosecution of Portillo “is a message to all of the world’s leaders and all politicians in this country that corruption will not be tolerated, no matter where it happens.

“It’s a shock for everyone, but the law is the law, and the rule of law has to be respected,” he said. “Now the judges will have the last word.”

Portillo’s defence attorney Telésforo Guerra said Thursday that the decision would be appealed, on the argument that extradition to the United States would violate the constitution.

“This isn’t over,” Portillo said Wednesday on his way out of the courtroom.

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