Ex-Guatemalan leader: I'm not guilty of turning office into personal ATM

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo waves upon arrival in court in Guatemala City on January 31.

Story highlights

  • "This is a case of clear overreaching," a defense attorney says
  • Former president Alfonso Portillo says his enemies orchestrated the charges against him
  • Prosecutors say he used his authority to launder and misappropriate millions of dollars
  • Portillo led Guatemala from 2000 to 2004

Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo appeared in a New York court Tuesday and pleaded not guilty to charges that he laundered $70 million through U.S. banks while in power.

Portillo, who was extradited to the United States last week, has always denied the charges against him and says the accusations are based on the lies of political enemies.

"This is a case of clear overreaching by the Department of Justice and the United States government against former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo, who is innocent of all the charges against him," defense attorney David M. Rosenfield told reporters on Tuesday.

"Former President Portillo was tried on many of these same charges in a politically motivated criminal case in Guatemala in early 2011, and was acquitted on all charges. The acquittal was upheld on appeal," he said.

"Former President Portillo intends to vigorously defend himself against the current charges against him and fully expects to be acquitted here just as he was acquitted in Guatemala."

U.S. prosecutors have said Portillo, who led the Central American country from 2000 to 2004, used his authority to launder and misappropriate millions of dollars.

"Portillo is charged with converting the office of the Guatemalan presidency into his personal ATM," Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, said in a 2010 statement. "Through various alleged embezzlement schemes, including one which involved $1.5 million intended for Guatemalan school children, Portillo abused the trust of his nation's people."

    An indictment unsealed in New York federal court accuses Portillo of embezzling tens of millions of dollars worth of public funds, "a substantial portion of which he laundered through American and European bank accounts."

    After the United States made an extradition request, Guatemalan authorities arrested him on a farm on the country's coast in 2010.

    Guatemalan courts and the country's president authorized his extradition to the United States in 2011, but the transfer did not happen until Friday.

    In court Tuesday, Portillo wore a gray suit and a maroon tie. He had a pair of headphones for translation.

    His attorneys have asked for a bail hearing within two weeks.

    Portillo has said that he never laundered money in U.S. banks.

    "In the United States, it is a revenge of the richest group of the American right," he said in an interview with CNN en Español in January. "They are charging me for being the only president who did not support, with his signature nor with his permission, the invasion in Iraq."

    "If deposits were made," he said, "they are deposits that first of all come from institutions that are not illicit. In order for there to be laundering, the first requirement is that the money is from an illegal origin or comes from an illegal activity."

    Portillo responded directly to the charge concerning the $1.5 million that the United States says was intended for schoolchildren. That money, Portillo said, was something he had requested and received before he became president. From the beginning, that money was raised to create a trust fund to support his daughter's studies, and that's what it was used for, Portillo said.

    Despite his claims that his rights have been violated during the extradition process, Portillo said he believes he will get a fair trial in the United States.

    "I have confidence that at least I will have a transparent, impartial, objective trial that is based on reliable evidence and not just testimonies that are based on falsehoods," he said. A fair trial would not be possible in Guatemala, he added.

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