c.2013 New York Times News Service
MEXICO CITY — Guatemalan officials rousted an imprisoned former president Friday and put him on a plane to the U.S. to face long-pending corruption charges.
The extradition of the former president, Alfonso Portillo, who had fought being sent to the U.S. for two years, caught much of Guatemala by surprise and came amid complaints about the country’s willingness to attack impunity among elites.
The extradition followed a high court decision this week to annul a genocide verdict against a former dictator, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who had been convicted of trying to annihilate an indigenous group during Guatemala’s nearly four-decade civil war, which ended in 1996. On Monday the court found procedural problems in the trial and ruled that part of it must be repeated.
Portillo, who was president from 2000 to 2004, faces charges in U.S. court in New York of conspiring to launder about $70 million of his country’s funds through U.S. banks.
As police officers put him on a plane, swarmed by reporters, Portillo said he was being “kidnapped” and predicted that he would be back when the case fell apart.
After leaving office, he worked in Mexico as a financial adviser until he was extradited to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges. In 2010, the U.S. filed its own charges against him for what a prosecutor called “converting the office of the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM.”
The following year, he was acquitted in the Guatemala case, but the U.S. continued to push for his prosecution. He has been held in prison and in a military hospital, where he was treated for liver and heart ailments. He was flown to the U.S. in an air ambulance.
On Friday morning the interior minister authorized his transfer, a decision that the U.S. Embassy called “an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process.”
The timing stirred skepticism among analysts, coming as international criticism of the justice system had grown after the erratic course of the Ríos Montt case. Protesters took to the streets of Guatemala City on Friday to denounce the court’s decision to nullify the verdict.
Anita J. Isaacs, a professor at Haverford College who studies Guatemala, said the decision to extradite Portillo had to be seen as an attempt to divert attention from the overturning of the Ríos Montt verdict.