New York judge Robert Patterson has sentenced former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) to five years in prison on charges of accepting bribes while he was in office. This landmark ruling is the first time a former Latin American head of state has been sentenced to jail in the U.S. judiciary system.
This important verdict also raises several questions, such as whetherPortillowill spend time in a U.S. prison or if he will be sent back to Guatemala. Moreover, it’s unclear whether the former head of state will actually serve all five years of his sentence. It seems likely that some sort of settlement will be reached.
In any case, the ruling constitutes a significant milestone for the issue of presidential impunity, a cancer that has long plagued Latin American governments. Ideally, the New York ruling would motivate Guatemala to reach a final verdict forGeneral Rios Montt, another former president on trial in the Central American state. However, we should not hold our breaths as the verdict regarding Portillo is not solely good news.
The Portillo verdict
Aside from spending five years and ten months in prison, Portillo will also have to pay a fine of $2.5 million.The BBC explainsthat a New York judge was able to rule on the case, which would seemingly fall under Guatemalan jurisdiction, because “the bribes came from an accountant in New York City.”
The disgraced president was accused of taking bribes from the government of Taiwan, so that Taipei would not lose Guatemala’s recognition.Several Central American and Caribbeanstates recognize Taiwan instead of China, so it is in Taiwan’s national interest not to lose its remaining allies.
The last few years have brought a blur of trials for Portillo. He was first arrested in his homeland in 2010 and later faced trial in May 2011 for embezzling funds that belonged to the Ministry of Defense, though he was declared innocent. He was eventually extradited to the United States in May 2013, where he was indicted for a variety of crimes, including embezzling money from Taiwan and “misappropriating funds from the publicly financed reserves of Credito Hipotecario Nacional,” among others.
At the time of his extradition, many analysts speculated that Portillo could face upto 20 years in prisonand fines totaling $500,000. The final sentence is significantly less harsh since he pleaded guilty.
Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how much time Portillo will actually spend in jail. Some observers expect that, since he has already served time, his five-year sentence could be reduced to 18 months or even just 11 months.
Reasons for Optimism?
Understandably, the Guatemalan media has covered this issue extensively, and it shares the belief that Portillo will only spend 18 months in prison, which means that he will be free by November 2015. Still, he will probably be released sooner due to “good behavior.”
The Central American state is particularly interested in how Portillo’s sentence and eventual return will affect the country’s political system. An article in the Guatemalan daily “El Periodico” explains that Portillo’s return will change Guatemala’s “electoral forces” in the country’s upcoming September 2015 elections.
As for the Guatemalan government, President Otto Perez Molina has declared that he respects the New York judge’s decision. Nevertheless, Portillo is not without allies, as members of the Union del Cambio Nacional (UCN) political party in his homeland have declared that they continue to support the former head of state. It is too early to say whether Portillo could run for office, but stranger things tend to occur in Latin American politics.
Hopefully the Guatemalan judiciary will follow Judge Patterson’s precedent to pursue and sentence former heads of state and other high-level individuals that have carried out crimes while in office, particularly General Rios Montt, who ruled the Central American country during its bloody civil war. Guatemalan courts finally tried and sentenced the retired general in 2013, but the verdict was essentially canceled due to an obscure legal technicality. Many fear that Rios Montt may eventually go free when his trial resumes in 2015.
As for Portillo,his defense lawyerswill try to have him sent back to Guatemala, arguing that he can serve the remaining time there. A worst case scenario would be that, if Portillo returns to Guatemala, his lawyers could find a way to keep him out of prison altogether.
Portillo’s sentence sends an important message to corrupt officials that their crimes will not go unpunished. Unfortunately, there is a high likelihood that Portillo will soon go free and continue to influence his home country. Unfortunately for Guatemala, politics will likely remain business as usual.