Rodrigo Abd/AP
Former Guatemalan President Alfonso
Portillo Cabrera

Ex-Guatemalan President Remains Defiant as Mexico Sends Him Home for Trial

October 09, 2008 09:58 AM
by Christopher Coats
Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala’s first post-civil war president, has returned to the country after two years of failed appeals. He has been charged with embezzlement.

The Return of Portillo

Claiming he has been the victim of a political witch-hunt, Portillo voluntarily turned himself in this week after the Mexican government denied his final appeals, Reuters reported.

Calling the charges against him without merit, Portillo addressed reporters upon his return to Guatemala, framing his arrival as an attempt to fight a “savage and indiscriminate” campaign against him.

“I’m here because it means I’m going to confront the law. I decided to give myself up. I’ve suffered four and a half years’ persecution from the last government,” Portillo told Agence France-Presse.

Fleeing the country in 2004 after his party failed to elect his hand-picked successor, thereby removing the ex-president’s immunity that came with holding office, Portillo was charged with the illegal transfer of more than $15 million to the defense department, a third of which has never been found.

Portillo was Guatemala’s first freely elected president after nearly three decades of civil war came to an official end in 1996.

Rising to power in 2000, the former university professor with a legendarily violent past won the presidency on a promise to seek out and try those responsible for the massacres that marred the country for generations.

Human Rights Watch reported in 2001 that Portillo’s presidency began with promises to prosecute those responsible for violence during the country’s long civil war. However, Portillo was roundly criticized by human rights activists for his alleged failure to pursue war criminals, especially in light of his political party affiliation.

Historical Context: A legacy of civil conflict

Beginning with a national day of remembrance, Portillo’s first year in office saw the ratification of the “Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances, and, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), (Portillo) admitted state responsibility for past violations, including the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack and the December 1982 Dos Erres massacre of at least 162 people,” said Human Rights Watch.

Several factors, such as an insufficient campaign to prosecute war criminals and a wave of intimidation against human rights activists and investigators, created a feeling of doubt and unease about Portillo’s intentions. His close relationship with one of the nation’s most controversial military figures, Efrain Rios Montt, was a major concern for some.

In 2000, Portillo won the presidency on behalf of the Guatemalan Republican Front, led by Gen. Rios Montt, who had seized power in a coup in 1982 and had been in office for some of the deadliest years of the country’s civil war.

Background: Portillo and the Guatemalan Civil War

Although the Guatemalan Civil War officially wore on from 1960 until peace accords were signed in 1994, the conflict took an especially violent turn in 1982 with the ascension of Rios Montt.

Claiming his coup victory as the will of God, Rios Montt created civilian patrols, which joined the military in armed conflict against leftist and indigenous groups.

During his short tenure, more than 200,000 Guatemalans lost their lives, with most of the fatalities coming from the country’s indigenous population.

While his actions earned him a ban from holding the presidency, he was free to win two congressional seats in 1996 and 2000. However, when Portillo appealed to the Supreme Court to reverse the ban and allow him to run, Rios Montt returned to the campaign trail as the outgoing president’s handpicked successor.

With a subsequent loss, both men were cast out of the government, losing the immunity that came with holding elected office which would have protected them from prosecution.

With their immunity gone, authorities began rounding up members of Portillo’s administration, while the former president fled north, setting up residence in a suburb of Mexico City.

With Portillo gone, Rios Montt was placed under house arrest and is currently being sought by domestic courts as well as prosecutors in Spain for war crimes.

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