Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo is escorted by police in… (Saul Martinez, European…)
MEXICO CITY — Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was extradited Friday from his home country to the United States, where he faces long-standing charges that he used U.S. banks to launder millions of dollars in public funds that he allegedly embezzled while in office, according to U.S. officials and court documents.
Portillo, 61, served as president from 2000 to 2004, when he is accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars, essentially "converting the office ... into his personal ATM," according to Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney in New York. Bharara issued the statement in January 2010, when the indictment against Portillo was unsealed.
The extradition comes just days after Guatemala's high court annulled the May 10 genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, Portillo's onetime political ally, and ordered trial judges to rehear at least part of his case. The two-month, circus-like trial of Rios Montt — and his extreme reversal of fortune at the hands of the Guatemalan judiciary — has raised questions about the strength of a justice system long known for granting impunity to the powerful.
On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in a statement hailed Portillo's extradition as "an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala."
Portillo won election despite revelations that he had killed two men in Mexico in the early 1980s, slayings he claims were in self-defense. As president, he promised to stand up for the poor. But the indictment alleges that, among other schemes, he diverted $1.5 million meant for a "libraries for peace" program to a Miami bank account.
After his term ended, he moved back to Mexico but was extradited to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges. He beat those charges in May 2011. The country's high court approved his extradition to the U.S. a short time later.
Guatemalan officials told news media there Friday that the ex-president, who had been fighting the extradition in court, had exhausted his legal options. Portillo's attorneys argued that they still had challenges pending. In a radio interview Friday, Portillo called his extradition a "kidnapping."
According to the Associated Press, Portillo had been recovering from surgery in a Guatemalan military hospital. The U.S. Embassy said he was flying to the United States accompanied by a doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist. He was expected to arrive Friday evening in New York.
He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.