GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Former President Alfonso Portillo flew home Wednesday after being released from a six-year prison term in the U.S. for accepting $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan.
Portillo, who had been held at a minimum-security facility since last year, was let go after being credited with time served in Guatemala, where he faces no further charges.
Accompanied by the Guatemalan consul in Denver, Portillo took commercial flights to Houston and on to Guatemala City after walking out of the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.
A crowd of several hundred supporters gave him a warm welcome at the airport, and he expressed an interest in helping Guatemala build.
“I am willing to give what little I have in this country that needs to change,” Portillo said a news conference. “The country is not going well and we are all responsible for this course and these conditions.”
He added that no one had “encouraged me to seek any elected office.” But several political parties back home had already expressed interest in working with Portillo despite his imprisonment.
“Our party’s ranks are open to (his) participation,” Mario Estrada, secretary-general of the Union of National Change, said after Portillo’s release was announced. “What party would not want him, with the level of leadership and experience he has?”
Portillo was sentenced in federal court in New York in 2014 after he pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy for accepting $2.5 million from Taiwan to continue Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island government. U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson also ordered Portillo to forfeit $2.5 million.
Federal prosecutors said the bribes threatened the integrity of U.S. banks because Portillo laundered the money through U.S. financial institutions, making them “a vehicle for moving bad money.”
Taiwan said at the time that it rejected “checkbook diplomacy,” a term often used to describe its competition with China to win formal recognition from nations around the world.
Portillo, 63, was Guatemala’s president from 2000 to 2004. After leaving office he moved to Mexico and worked as a financial adviser for a construction materials company.
He was extradited to Guatemala in 2008 to face charges that he embezzled $15 million from the country’s military. He remained free until he was arrested in 2010 on a U.S. extradition request, and was acquitted of the embezzlement charge in 2011. He was sent to the U.S. in 2013.
Portillo acknowledged accepting the money from Taiwan between December 1999, shortly before he became president, and August 2002.
“He was a great president for us poor people,” said Teresa Fernandez, a homemaker who joined the supporters at the airport. “Perhaps with the experience he brings, things will work better.”
But Archbishop Oscar Vian lamented in a Sunday homily that the country too “easily forgets” past misdeeds.
“It’s not a secret, (Portillo’s) life, what he did,” Vian said. “He admitted stealing, and so the people have to see all that.”
Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda in Denver contributed to this report.
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