GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala extradited former President Alfonso Portillo to the United States on Friday to face charges of laundering $70 million of swindled government funds through U.S. banks.
Portillo, president from 2000 to 2004, thus becomes the first former Latin American leader ever to be extradited to the United States.
“Hasta luego (see you later), people of Guatemala,” Portillo said as he boarded a small plane escorted by U.S. agents at the main air force base south of the capital.
Wearing a black jacket and holding two books, Portillo claimed his extradition was a “kidnapping” and accused the Guatemalan government of breaking the law because he still has cases pending in his country.
“They have acted illegally against me from the beginning. They have violated all my rights,” he declared, adding that the government is “responsible for anything that may happen to my health.”
The ex-president, 61, was picked up unannounced from a military hospital in Guatemala City, where he had been convalescing in recent weeks, and rushed to the air force base under heavy protection.
Portillo was flown “in a hospital airplane equipped with cardiac and respiratory equipment,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement, adding that the plane crew included a doctor, a nurse and a respiratory therapist.
Washington welcomed the extradition as “an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala.”
“We commend the commitment of Guatemalan authorities to strengthen the rule of law and combat organized crime and corruption,” said State Department spokesman William Ostick.
Portillo had been fighting extradition since it was approved by then-President Alvaro Colom in 2011. Following a request from a New York court, he was arrested in January 2010 during an attempt to flee to Belize. Portillo has described the case against him as a “political persecution.”
Portillo was indicted by a U.S. grand jury on charges of embezzling tens of millions of dollars of public funds and laundering the money through U.S. and European banks, including $1.5 million intended for schoolchildren.
His attorney, Mauricio Berriondo, said the extradition was “outside any legal framework” and was conducted “by force.”
In 2011, a Guatemalan court acquitted Portillo and two of his former ministers of conspiring to embezzle $15 million from the Defense Ministry in 2001. His acquittal was confirmed by an appeals court in April.
Portillo was a member of the Guatemalan Republican Front, a party founded by former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was convicted on May 10 of genocide and war crimes and sentenced to 80 years in prison. A Guatemalan court, however, overturned that verdict and sent the case back to trial, raising questions about the country’s judicial system.
Mario Estrada, a losing candidate in the 2011 presidential election, stood with other Portillo supporters outside the air base to protest the extradition. “What they did was inhuman because the former president’s life was put at risk,” Estrada said. “They kidnapped him from the hospital to take him away.”
Portillo is not the first Latin American ex-leader to wind up in the U.S. facing criminal charges. Former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega was ousted by U.S. troops in 1989, convicted on charges of drug trafficking and imprisoned in Florida for 20 years.