NEW YORK (AP) – 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 a single count of money laundering conspiracy and agreed not to appeal any sentence between four and six years in length. Sentencing was scheduled for June 23.
"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 in Manhattan.
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 from December 1999, shortly before he became president, until August 2002. He said he received the money at various locations in Guatemala.
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"I understood that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence to have Guatemala continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically," Portillo said.
He said he agreed with certain Guatemalan bankers and others to move the $2.5 million through U.S. banks, with some of the proceeds eventually moving to accounts in Miami and Washington, D.C., "knowing that these transactions were designed, in part, to conceal and disguise the source and ownership of the money."
Portillo said he knew that some of the proceeds from Taiwan were transferred to an account in Europe and that those funds were further disbursed to different accounts and financial institutions in Europe until 2005.
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.
Portillo said he knew that all of the money from Taiwan came from an account at the International Bank of China in New York City.
The judge noted that the role of the New York bank gave the court jurisdiction over the case.
Portillo was extradited to the United States in May and remains in custody.
His lawyer, David M. Rosenfield, told the judge Portillo has been in custody for more than four years, most of it in Guatemala. It is not clear whether some or all of his time in custody will be credited toward any prison sentence.
The judge warned Portillo that it was almost certain he would be deported once he serves his sentence.
In a statement, Rosenfield called his client "a good and decent person, with an abiding love for the people and country of Guatemala." He said Portillo made a mistake, "an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life."
Rosenfield added that Portillo was "truly apologetic and remorseful" and looked forward to getting on with his life and "redeeming himself in every way possible."
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.
He was exonerated on the Guatemalan charge in 2011.