Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo on Tuesday admitted to taking US$2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan in exchange for continuing to recognize the country diplomatically.
Portillo, 62, pleaded guilty in a federal court in New York to a charge of money-laundering conspiracy, nearly a year after he was extradited from his home country to face a US indictment unveiled in 2010.
“I knew at the time that what I was doing was wrong, and I apologize for my crimes, take responsibility for them and accept the consequences of my actions,” Portillo said.
Portillo, who served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, was extradited to the US in May last year after a years-long fight in Guatemala’s courts, which had cleared the former president of embezzlement charges.
US prosecutors had accused Portillo of laundering tens of millions of US dollars that they said he had embezzled from the Guatemalan government, including US$2.5 million from Taiwan’s embassy in Guatemala intended to buy books for school libraries.
However, at Tuesday’s court hearing, Portillo said the US$2.5 million was not intended for libraries at all, saying instead they were “illegal payments from Taiwan.”
US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara said if Portillo thought his position would prevent him from having to answer for accepting bribes to shape his country’s foreign policy and for embezzling funds, “he was wrong.”
“This office will aggressively pursue and prosecute individuals, irrespective of their position or title, if they engage in violations of US laws,” Bharara said.
Taipei Economic and Cultural Office Deputy Director-General Su Ruey-ren (蘇瑞仁) said the Taiwanese government carefully manages all of its foreign aid programs “and has consistently attached the utmost importance to the proper handling of aid on the recipients’ end.”
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), elected in 2008, “rejects checkbook diplomacy,” Su added.
Portillo, wearing a dark suit and speaking in a raspy voice through a translator, said he received five checks for US$500,000 from the Taiwanese government from December 1999, just before he became president, to 2002 in exchange for diplomatic recognition.
Knowing the funds were illegal, Portillo said he agreed with others, including Guatemalan bankers, to carry the money to the US and deposit it into bank accounts in Miami and Washington to conceal the source.
Some of the money from Taiwan was then transferred to an account in Europe, he said, where it was disbursed into accounts with different financial institutions in 2005.
David Rosenfield, a lawyer for Portillo, in a statement called his client a “good and decent person” who “made a mistake — an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life.”
US District Judge Robert Patterson, who accepted Portillo’s plea, set sentencing for June 23.
Under a plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to stipulate that Portillo would face 46 to 71 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Portillo has already served 50 months in prison, Rosenfield said in court, adding that he expected the time served to be applied to any sentence imposed.