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opinion | Louisa Reynolds

Portillo will be the dark horse of Guatemala’s elections

Alfonso Portillo, former president of Guatemala, gestured after a press conference at La Aurora airport after returning to Guatemala City in February. He had just completed a sentence for attempting to launder $2.5 million in US banks.
Alfonso Portillo, former president of Guatemala, gestured after a press conference at La Aurora airport after returning to Guatemala City in February. He had just completed a sentence for attempting to launder $2.5 million in US banks.AFP/Getty Images

On a recent night there was a festive atmosphere at La Aurora airport, in Guatemala City. Sympathizers gathered outside waving placards and mariachis played live music. Street peddlers wove in and out of the crowd selling hats, scarves and posters with his photo.

The man who was welcomed as a hero was neither a pop star nor a famous footballer. He was Alfonso Portillo, a disgraced former president who had just completed a sentence for attempting to launder $2.5 million in US banks.

The decade-long Portillo saga began in 2004 when his four-year administration came to an end. After his political immunity was revoked, he fled to Mexico.

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After a lengthy process, he was extradited to Guatemala to face embezzlement charges, but in 2008 a Guatemalan judge released him on bail.

Two years later, following reports that the US was planning to request his extradition to face money laundering charges, he went on the run but was arrested by the Guatemalan authorities near the Belizean border.

He was tried for embezzlement but walked free in May 2011 after a Guatemalan court determined there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Three months later, the Constitutional Court agreed to his extradition to the US. His lawyers launched a barrage of appeals, and it wasn’t until May 2013 that he was finally placed on a plane bound for New York.

Portillo claimed he was seriously ill and that the US authorities were kidnapping him. His supporters gathered outside the airport and tearfully waved him goodbye.

In May 2014 he was convicted of accepting $2.5 million from the Taiwanese government in exchange for Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island in its longstanding dispute with China. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison but had already been incarcerated for a substantial amount of time and was released from the Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood, on Feb. 25.

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He made a triumphant arrival at the same airport where two years earlier he had been forced to board a plane, wearing handcuffs. He gave a press conference, and the entire country was hanging on his every word.

Tugging at the country’s Christian heartstrings, he said that Jesus had sought the sinners like him and not the saints. Supporters cheered.

During his administration (2000-2004), Portillo imposed price controls on basic foodstuffs, subsidized electricity tariffs for the poor, and increased the minimum wage. He became a demigod. The monopoly-busting David who took on the oligarchical Goliath.

Echoing his old populist rhetoric, he touched on one of the most sensitive issues for rural indigenous communities by calling for mining royalties to be increased from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Portillo mixes charisma and pistol-wielding cowboy swagger.

In the 1980s, when he lectured at a Mexican university, he shot and killed two students during a bar brawl. During the 2000 election campaign, he turned the ignominious episode into a show of bravado. “I’m proud of having defended my life just as I’ll defend yours,” he said. The crowd roared.

Will he run for office? A poll conducted in August 2014 revealed that of all of the country’s former presidents since the peace agreements were signed, two out of three voters would choose Portillo. But there’s a problem: the constitution forbids reelection, although he could run for a seat in Congress.

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During the conference, he hinted that Guatemala needs a constitutional reform but was deliberately vague about his intentions.

According to media reports, Portillo intends to support UN diplomat Edmond Mulet and Edgar Gutiérrez, who served as foreign minister under his administration as presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Mulet did visit Portillo in prison but now denies the alleged political ties.

Adding to the drama, Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú arrived from a trip to Bolivia hours before Portillo’s plane landed. Many were stunned when she said he’d paid his dues and that “he was tried for political reasons.” A Menchú-Portillo alliance seems bizarre but in Central American politics everything is possible.

In 2011, when UCN candidate Mario Estrada ran for president with Portillo’s blessing. In his homeland in eastern Guatemala, UCN supporters waved Portillo’s photo rather than Estrada’s. Days before the elections, Portillo addressed voters in a radio ad recorded from his prison cell. After he urged them to vote for Estrada, an obscure candidate became the dark horse of the race and obtained a fair amount of seats in Congress.

The episode shows that in the end it might not matter whether or not he will push for a constitutional reform that would allow his reelection or endorse another candidate. It might not even matter which candidate he chooses to support. His charisma is such that if he told the nation to vote for his horse, it would probably become the next president.

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Louisa Reynolds, a freelance journalist based in Guatemala, is the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2014-2015 Elizabeth Neuffer Journalism Fellow.

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