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Guatemalan former President Alfonso Portillo acquitted on corruption charges.

Supporters of former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) cheered and applauded when Judge Patricia Deras read the "not-guilty" verdict on May 10. A divided court ruled that the evidence against the former president and two aides was "without value." Portillo, the first Guatemalan president to be tried for corruption, was accused of stealing around US$15 million in public money, which was allegedly deposited in accounts belonging to officials, their families, and friends at the Credito Hipotecario Nacional (CHN) mortgage bank.

However, the court rejected reports by government auditors and the testimony of former CHN chief Jose Armando Llort Quiteno, something that prosecutor Eunice Mendizabal referred to as "absurd."

Two of Portillo's aides, former defense minister Eduardo Arevalo Lacs and former finance minister Manuel Maza Castellanos, were also acquitted but have been barred from leaving the country until the appeals process has been exhausted.

Following this verdict it is unclear whether Portillo can still be extradited to the US to face money-laundering charges.

Some legal experts say the not-guilty verdict could seriously hinder the extradition process because before it can go ahead the Corte de Constitucionalidad (CC) must first reject the appeals that could be lodged by the defense team and, more significantly, because the legal resolution that approves the extradition request states that Portillo can only be handed over to US authorities once he has been tried and sentenced for the charges in Guatemala.

While the defense team has vowed to appeal against the extradition order, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and Francisco Dall'Anese, head of the UN-sponsored Comision Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), have pledged to use all available legal resources to appeal against Judge Deras' verdict.

Lawyer Fernando Linares Beltranena said these appeals could lead to a lengthy extradition process that could take up to a year.

A setback for CICIG

Portillo's acquittal is a huge setback for CICIG, which led the investigation against the former president. "Society must demand honest and transparent judges. Verdicts sometimes reflect impunity, and although we respect the court's verdict we do not agree with it," said CICIG spokesman Diego Alvarez.

Following Portillo's acquittal, CCTV footage was leaked to a cable TV channel showing Judge Deras' husband Ronald Valvert talking to Portillo's defense lawyer Telesforo Guerra in an elevator in the Ministerio Publico's main headquarters, which has led many to question the impartiality of Judge Deras' verdict.

"This is a verdict in favor of impunity that has more to do with political rather than legal arguments," adds Ramon Cadena, president of the Guatemalan chapter of the World Jurist Association (WJA). "CICIG is a serious institution and has carried out solid investigations, and the Ministerio Publico (MP) is doing a good job. I think the investigation was objective but the verdict was political."

Cadena argues that Portillo's acquittal will send a negative message to Guatemalan society. When Portillo was captured and put on trial more than a year ago, many believed that this could mark a turning point in fighting impunity, but his acquittal has proven, in the eyes of many Guatemalans, "that the legal system does not respond according to the law."

In Cadena's view, the surprising verdict shows that the existing mechanisms to investigate judges must be improved.

Will Portillo run for office?

Portillo is a controversial politician, loathed by many as a thief and a scoundrel, but with considerable support in his native department of Zacapa and much of eastern Guatemala. He is famous for his flamboyant, populist rhetoric and his tirades against "the oligarchy," and while he was still in prison members of his Union del Cambio Nacional (UCN) regularly held videoconferences in which he addressed the crowd from his cell.

Following Portillo's release, supporters in Zacapa set off fireworks, danced in the streets, and organized a march to demand that the extradition process be halted. "Everyone in Zacapa was following the trial and was aware of every move," said David Trujillo, who took part in the march.

Although Guerra says that there are legal reasons barring the former president from running for office, the UCN insists that he will seek a seat in Congress. But Guerra explains that, until it is clear whether Portillo will be extradited, he cannot take part in the election process.

However, Mario Estrada, the UCN's presidential candidate, insists that Portillo's candidacy will be confirmed when the party holds its general assembly on June 2.

Cesar Soto, a former UCN congressman and close friend of the former president, said Portillo's trial and acquittal portrayed him as a victim among his supporters. The UCN has been eager to exploit this, displaying giant photographs of him at public rallies.

Political scientist Renzo Rosal said that, regardless of whether Portillo manages to run for office, the UCN will continue to exploit his popularity. "It's clear that this can only be a temporary strategy but, given that it could take up to a year to resolve the extradition request, the case will be like a breath of fresh air for the party," he explains.

Although the UCN was trailing in seventh place in the latest polls and its chances of reaching the second round in the general elections are practically nonexistent, it hopes to hold on to a few seats in Congress, such as the eastern departments of Jalapa, Jutiapa, and Chiquimula, which could enable it to negotiate with other factions in the legislature.
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Author:Reynolds, Louisa
Publication:NotiCen: Central American & Caribbean Affairs
Date:Jun 2, 2011
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