Guatemala’s ex-president pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge Tuesday, saying he accepted $2.5 million in bribes to continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically when he took his government’s top position more than a decade ago.
Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s president from 2000 to 2004, entered the plea in federal court in New York City. In a deal with U.S. prosecutors, the 62-year-old ex-president pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy and agreed he won’t appeal any prison term between four and six years at a June 23 sentencing.
“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 told U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson.
Brian Su, deputy director general of Taipei’s economic and cultural office, said, “The Taiwanese government has correctly managed all of its foreign aid programs and has consistently attached the utmost importance to the proper handling of aid on the recipients’ end.” He said Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president since 2008, “rejects checkbook diplomacy.”
Aided by a Spanish interpreter, Portillo read from a statement as he described his crime, saying he accepted the money at various locations in Guatemala from December 1999, shortly before he became president, until August 2002. The money came from an account at the International Bank of China in New York City, giving Manhattan prosecutors jurisdiction.
At one point, Patterson asked Portillo how the payments he accepted were illegal.
“From the moral point of view, I believe it’s immoral for the president of a country to accept money to continue recognizing another country,” he said.
“But immoral is not illegal,” the judge said.
Portillo then said that accepting money to recognize a country violates Guatemalan criminal law.
Prosecutors said in a release that the $2.5 million was paid out in five checks from the government of Taiwan’s Embassy in Guatemala, including three checks in 2000 that were endorsed personally to Portillo, who caused them to be deposited at a Miami bank.
After leaving office in 2004, Portillo fled to Mexico where he received a work visa and was a financial adviser for a construction materials company. He was extradited from Mexico to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges at home and remained free until he was arrested on Jan. 26, 2010, on the U.S. extradition request. He was captured at a beach preparing to flee Guatemala by boat.