Originally posted at

Suspected mastermind of Guatemala police massacre arrested in Mexico


By Richard Fausset
October 4, 2013, 5:54 p.m.
MEXICO CITY — An alleged drug cartel leader suspected of masterminding the June slayings of nine Guatemalan federal policemen was arrested Friday in the southern Mexico border state of Chiapas, officials said.

The suspect, Eduardo Francisco Villatoro Cano, became one of the most wanted men in Guatemala after more than a dozen armed men believed to be allied with his drug-running organization stormed a police substation June 13 in Salcaja, a municipality near Quetzaltenango, the country’s second-largest city.

The assailants fatally shot eight officers and abducted a police sub-inspector, whose partial remains were found later. The attack may have been in retribution for a cocaine seizure.

Friday’s arrest of Villatoro, who went by the nickname “Guayo,” comes amid increased cooperation between Guatemalan and Mexican security forces,  who are trying to combat the growing presence of drug trafficking cartels on both sides of their shared border.

The political importance of the matter was emphasized by the fact that Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called a news conference to personally announce the arrest. Perez Molina, a conservative and former Guatemalan army officer, was elected in November 2011 on a promise to get tough on crime.

But even before the massacre at Salcaja, Perez Molina’s popularity in Guatemala was slipping due to perceptions of continuing insecurity. (link in Spanish) Guatemala is experiencing one of the highest crime rates in Latin America, in part because of deadly squabbling among drug cartels for control of cocaine transshipment routes. Roughly 90% of South American cocaine headed north to the U.S. passes through the Central American country, according to a United Nations report released last year.

Perez Molina on Friday praised his country’s law enforcement officials for their role in the arrest, saying they “had excellent coordination with the Mexican authorities…. This concludes a successful operation that resulted in the capture of those responsible for the massacre.”

Villatoro’s base of operations was in the Guatemalan department (or state) of Huehuetenango, which shares a long, wild and uncontrollable stretch of border with Mexico’s Chiapas state. Though Villatoro is Guatemalan, Mexican prosecutors have linked him to the Gulf cartel based in Mexico, according to a Guatemalan news release.

After the shooting, the Guatemalan government launched an effort called “Operation Dignity” that targeted Villatoro’s operation and resulted in the arrest of 34 suspected members. In July, Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla told national news outlets that the group was responsible for more than 100 homicides. (link in Spanish)

A suspected deputy of Villatoro was also arrested Friday. Perez Molina said the men would be deported to Guatemala.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Above: The wanted poster for Guayo Cano, via




A stall in the open-air market in Guatemala, just across the border from Talisman, Mexico. [RF]




This row of pickup truck pieces, lined up in a Guatemalan salvage yard just across from Talisman, Chiapas, Mexico, reminded me of the abstract sculptures of the late John Chamberlain.

Photo: [RF]


Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo extradited to U.S.


Originally posted at


Former Guatemala President Alfonso Portillo extradited to U.S.

He’s accused of using U.S. banks to launder millions of dollars in public funds he allegedly embezzled while in office.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
May 24, 2013, 4:58 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo was extradited Friday from his home country to the United States, where he faces long-standing charges that he used U.S. banks to launder millions of dollars in public funds that he allegedly embezzled while in office, according to U.S. officials and court documents.

Portillo, 61, served as president from 2000 to 2004, when he is accused of embezzling tens of millions of dollars, essentially “converting the office … into his personal ATM,” according to Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney in New York. Bharara issued the statement in January 2010, when the indictment against Portillo was unsealed.

The extradition comes just days after Guatemala’s high court annulled the May 10 genocide conviction of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, Portillo’s onetime political ally, and ordered trial judges to rehear at least part of his case. The two-month, circus-like trial of Rios Montt — and his extreme reversal of fortune at the hands of the Guatemalan judiciary — has raised questions about the strength of a justice system long known for granting impunity to the powerful.

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in a statement hailed Portillo’s extradition as “an important affirmation of the rule of law and due process in Guatemala.”

Portillo won election despite revelations that he had killed two men in Mexico in the early 1980s, slayings he claims were in self-defense. As president, he promised to stand up for the poor. But the indictment alleges that, among other schemes, he diverted $1.5 million meant for a “libraries for peace” program to a Miami bank account.

After his term ended, he moved back to Mexico but was extradited to Guatemala in 2008 to face embezzlement charges. He beat those charges in May 2011. The country’s high court approved his extradition to the U.S. a short time later.

Guatemalan officials told news media there Friday that the ex-president, who had been fighting the extradition in court, had exhausted his legal options. Portillo’s attorneys argued that they still had challenges pending. In a radio interview Friday, Portillo called his extradition a “kidnapping.”

According to the Associated Press, Portillo had been recovering from surgery in a Guatemalan military hospital. The U.S. Embassy said he was flying to the United States accompanied by a doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist. He was expected to arrive Friday evening in New York.

He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo is escorted by police in Guatemala City before being flown to the U.S. He called his extradition a “kidnapping.” (Saul Martinez, European Pressphoto Agency /May 25, 2013, via Los Angeles Times)


Jose Efrain Rios Montt


Originally posted at

Guatemala full of questions after genocide conviction annulled

It’s unclear what kind of retrial former dictator Efrain Rios Montt will face, or whether the nation’s power brokers played any role in the high court ruling.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times
May 21, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

MEXICO CITY — The Guatemalan high court’s decision to annul the genocide conviction of former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt on Tuesday revived questions about his responsibility for the slaughter of some 1,700 ethnic Maya people.

The ruling late Monday, which voided Rios Montt’s May 10 conviction, also raises questions about the kind of retrial he might have and about a judicial system that has long been considered weak, corrupt, prone to impunity and susceptible to pressure from powerful outside forces.

Rios Montt was Guatemala’s ruler for 17 months in 1982 and 1983, one of the bloodiest periods of a multi-decade civil war that pitted Marxist guerrillas against conservative government forces. His dramatic two-month trial focused on the massacre and displacement of thousands of indigenous people in the mountainous Ixil region during that era at the hands of government troops and their supporters.

The three-judge panel that found Rios Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity also sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Its decision was cheered by liberals and a number of international human rights groups who described it as an example of a Guatemalan court system capable of doing the right thing.

“The conviction of Rios Montt sends a powerful message to Guatemala and the world that nobody, not even a former head of state, is above the law when it comes to committing genocide,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director atHuman Rights Watch, said in a statement shortly after the verdict. “Without the persistence and bravery of each participant in this effort — the victims, prosecutors, judges and civil society organizations — this landmark decision would have been inconceivable.”

But Monday’s 3-2 decision by the Constitutional Court calls on the trial court to rehear the case from the point at which it stood April 19. The three high court judges who voided the conviction essentially supported lower court rulings that Rios Montt was denied his due process rights when the judges who convicted him briefly ejected his attorney from the courtroom, leaving his defense to a co-defendant’s lawyer for several hours.

It’s also possible the trial will have to begin from scratch, Arturo Aguilar, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in an email Tuesday.

Aguilar said prosecutors planned to challenge the high court ruling. If they are unsuccessful, the original judges may have to recuse themselves from the case because they have already issued a ruling against Rios Montt, and that would mean a new trial, he said.

Many of the prosecution witnesses during the trial were Ixil Maya who traveled from the remote countryside to Guatemala City to tell horrific stories of torture and killing by government forces.

Aguilar said that requiring such witnesses to testify again would amount to “a re-victimization of the victims.”

“It’s a spectacular logistical challenge. And we will have to confront the challenge of determining which victims and witnesses want to come back to participate,” he said.

Some analysts wondered whether the wealthiest and most powerful forces in Guatemala were manipulating the system.

“The method of avoiding justice in Guatemala has never been exclusively by the use of illegal force,” said Douglass Cassel, a Notre Dame law professor and human rights law expert who has represented victims of Guatemalan violence in the Organization of American States’ inter-American human rights justice system. “The legal systems in many Latin American countries in general, and in Guatemala in particular, for decades have been skewed in favor of the powerful and against the weak.

“In this case, in a very general way, you had enough forces to get a case going and carry it through, but they were up against very well-resourced Guatemalan lawyers who know how to work the system in support of their client.”

Some of Guatemala’s most powerful public voices have criticized the case and the conviction, including the country’s national business council. President Otto Perez Molina, who commanded troops in the area where the massacres occurred, has said that genocide did not occur during the civil war.

Some of Rios Montt’s supporters have contended that the trial was an attempt by the Guatemalan left to seek vengeance against the country’s conservatives.

An editorial in the national newspaper Prensa Libre noted that the high court’s ruling should be viewed as neither a “victory nor a defeat,” but rather an example of the Guatemalan courts defending the rights of the accused.

“The legal battle will resume,” the editorial said, “and it is hoped that the participants … will act without being shown to be partial.”

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: The annulment of the genocide conviction of Guatemalan military dictator Efrain Rios Montt leaves in question the type of retrial he might face. (Johan Ordonez / AFP/Getty Images / May 10, 2013, via LA Times.)



Originally posted at

Former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt guilty of genocide

A panel of judges sentences him to 80 years for the systematic massacre of more than 1,700 Maya during the country’s civil war.

By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

8:03 PM PDT, May 10, 2013

MEXICO CITY — Efrain Rios Montt, the former Guatemalan military dictator who ruled his country during one of the bloodiest phases of its civil war, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity Friday for the systematic massacre of more than 1,700 Maya people. He was sentenced to 80 years in prison.

The landmark ruling by a panel of three Guatemalan judges came after a dramatic trial that featured testimony from dozens of ethnic Ixil Maya, who described atrocities committed by the army and security forces who sought to clean the countryside of Marxist guerrillas and their sympathizers during the 1982-83 period that Rios Montt, an army general and coup leader, served as the country’s de facto leader.

Human rights advocates for years had been hoping for such a ruling.

A report by the country’s truth and reconciliation commission listed widespread human rights abuses during the civil war, which lasted from 1961 to 1996 and claimed more than 200,000 lives. The commission found that 93% of the rights violations were committed by the government or its paramilitary allies. But few leaders from the time have been brought to justice.

On Friday evening, Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, called the decision a “historic verdict in a country where the rich and powerful have always been above the law, and impunity for atrocities has been the norm.”

But the nation’s highest-profile criminal trial in recent history was also derided from the start by Guatemalan conservatives, many of whom consider Rios Montt a heroic bulwark against communism.

Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, a Guatemalan businessman, is among those who have accused Guatemala’s top prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz, of harboring sympathy for the guerrillas. In an interview Friday, Mendez portrayed the entire case as an act of left-wing vengeance.

“The communists tried to take executive power by violence and they failed,” said Mendez, whose father served as interior minister under Rios Montt. “They tried to take legislative power by the ballot box and they failed. But they did take judicial power.”

During the trial, which began March 19, Guatemalan prosecutors accused Rios Montt of responsibility for the massacre of more than 1,700 Ixil Maya, as well as systematic rapes, torture and the burning of villages.

Rios Montt and his attorneys had argued that as the country’s political leader he should not be held responsible for military matters that occurred in a rural province a few hours northwest of the capital.

“I never authorized, I never signed, I never proposed, I never ordered that a race, ethnicity or religion be attacked,” the 86-year-old Rios Montt said in a statement to the court Thursday.

But the judges found that responsibility eventually rested with the dictator.

“Rios Montt was aware of everything that was happening and did not stop it, despite having the power to stop it,” Judge Yassmin Barrios said in the packed Guatemala City courtroom, which on numerous occasions erupted in applause.

The trial could have ramifications for the current president, Otto Perez Molina, a former army officer who commanded troops in the Ixil area during Rios Montt’s rule. Last month, a witness named Hugo Ramiro Leonardo Reyes, a former soldier, told the court that Perez had ordered the burning of villages and the execution of fleeing residents.

Perez denies the accusations and says he has never met his accuser. He enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution for the duration of his presidential term, which ends in 2016.

Rios Montt’s intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, also faced charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, but the judges acquitted him Friday.

Rios Montt was ordered to be sent directly to prison. In the chaotic scene after the verdict was read, he told reporters: “Don’t worry. I’m going to prison. I’m sorry for my family, but I’m not worried because I followed the law. Today there was a deficiency of justice.”

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Above: A time-capsule news report from Guatemala’s darkest hours, 1982.