International News

Guatemala's Ex-President Pleads Guilty to Miami Money Laundering

What started in Guatemala and took a financial detour to Miami has now ended in New York. Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo pleaded guilty in a New York courtroom today to a charge of money laundering designed to hide bribes he had taken from Taiwan.

Portillo was voted into office in 2000 as a member of the country's right-wing Republican Front party and promised to reduce corruption in the country. Instead, he got caught up in a heap of corruption of his own, and at the end of his term in 2004, he fled to Mexico. He was ultimately extradited to Guatemala in 2008, but charges were dropped. However, in an unprecedented move, a court ruled he would be extradited to America in 2011 to face charges here.

Today, he pleaded guilty to accepting $2.5 million from the Taiwanese government in exchange for continuing to recognize the Asian country diplomatically. That's a particularly tricky proposition in Latin America, where many countries have strong ties to mainland China.

Portillo accepted five checks totaling $2.5 million. The first three ended up being deposited in a Miami bank and were personally endorsed by Portillo. Two other checks were made out to Oxxy Financial Corp. and deposited into the International Bank of Miami. Much of the money was then transferred to a Paris bank account under the name of Portillo's then-wife and continued along a string of transfers across the world.

Today in a Manhattan federal court, Portillo pleaded guilty to the single charge of money laundering. It is the first time he has been convicted anywhere related to his corruption in office.

"Former president Alfonso Portillo may have thought his position of power prevented him from having to answer for accepting multimillion-dollar bribes to shape his country's foreign policy, for embezzling money intended to benefit the Guatemalan people, and for using U.S. banks to launder the ill-gotten funds. But he was wrong" U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. "With his guilty plea today, Portillo now stands convicted in an American court for his criminal conduct. This office will aggressively pursue and prosecute individuals, irrespective of their position or title, if they engage in violations of U.S. laws."

Portillo will be sentenced in June and faces up to 20 years in prison.

Send your story tips to the author, Kyle Munzenrieder.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.