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 money laundering conspiracy and agreed he won't appeal any prison term between four and six years at a June 23 sentencing.
"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.
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 at various locations in Guatemala from December 1999, shortly before he became president, until August 2002. The money came from an account at the International Bank of China in New York City, giving Manhattan prosecutors jurisdiction.
"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 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."
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.
Prosecutors said in a release that the $2.5 million was paid out in five checks from the government of Taiwan's Embassy in Guatemala, including three checks in 2000 that were endorsed personally to Portillo, who caused them to be deposited at a Miami bank.
They said two additional checks totaling $1 million were deposited in a Miami bank. Later, prosecutors said, more than $1.5 million of the payments was deposited in Paris in accounts in the name of Portillo's former wife and daughter. Some of that money was later moved to accounts in Luxembourg and Switzerland, the government said.
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 is "truly apologetic and remorseful" and looks 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.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera said Tuesday that Guatemalan consular officials were expected to meet with Portillo.
"We are going to help, and provide the necessary consular assistance," he said.
In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Portillo was wrong if he "thought his position of power prevented him from having to answer for accepting multimillion dollar bribes to shape his country's foreign policy."
Associated Press writer Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala City contributed to this report.