Who is Manuel Baldizón, the drug money launderer who is at the center of a diplomatic conflict between Guatemala and Colombia
The former presidential candidate pleaded guilty to corruption and was jailed in the United States. Back in his country, he went on the offensive against the prosecutor of the International Commission Against Impunity who was targeting him as a key player in the Odebrecht scandal
Héctor Silva Ávalos
Manuel Baldizón, Former presidential candidate convicted in the United States for laundering drug money. He was released in that country and deported to Guatemala, where he has been favored by the courts. Photo: Juan Rosales/Prensa Comunitaria de Guatemala.
Manuel Baldizón was, in 2015, a popular man in Guatemala. By August of that year, this conservative politician who had made his career in the northern department of Petén, was comfortably positioned as a favorite for the presidential elections that would take place in November of that year. But Baldizón, in the end, was caught up with his past.
Today, in 2023, almost a decade after his failed presidential run, this man is at the center of a complicated political puzzle and judicial whose last episode has been a diplomatic crisis between the government of Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala and that of Gustavo Petro in Colombia. That diplomatic crisis began to take shape long before, hand in hand with a process of political takeover that keeps Guatemalan justice at the service of an elite dotted with multiple accusations of corruption, of which Baldizón he was part.
Since that August 2015, when a quarter of Guatemalan voters said they would choose him, Baldizón began to lose steam ahead of the elections. His closeness to the Patriot Party of Otto Pérez Molina , the then president surrounded by multiple allegations of corruption that would lead him to resign in September of that year, and the publication of information that began to link him to drug trafficking hit Baldizón, making him fall into the polls and ended up relegating him to third place in the generals in November.
After losing, Baldizón returned to his business in Petén and remained active in politics for a while. US agents had started tracking him, motivated in part by investigations by their Guatemalan counterparts that linked the former candidate to money laundering operations. Baldizón kept a low profile while buying properties and real estate in his country and in Miami and moving between the Dominican Republic and Florida.
It was at the Miami airport, in January 2018, that federal agents detained Baldizón. Little was known about the Guatemalan for months. One of his lawyers said, concisely, that he had requested asylum. But in November of that year, the Department of Justice, through a chief prosecutor in the Southern District of Florida, revealed that Baldizón had pleaded guilty to money laundering and that he had received money from the drug trafficking to finance his presidential campaigns in Guatemala.
On April 10, 2018, Florida prosecutors introduced into criminal file 18-CR-20758 a document with the terms of the agreement they had reached with Manuel Baldizón in exchange for the Guatemalan's guilty plea in the money laundering case. What Baldizón confessed to the US authorities is summarized in that document: “The defendant accepted having received money from drug trafficking; getting involved in financial transactions with money from drug trafficking; and promised and provided certain benefits in exchange for cash and other compensation,” the plea agreement says.
Manuel Baldizón was sentenced to 50 months in jail in November 2019 for money laundering. In October 2022, fourteen months before serving his sentence, the politician was deported to Guatemala, where he turned himself in to local authorities, who were looking for him for his participation in the corruption network set up by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in the Central American country.
In Guatemala, Baldizón would begin to receive good news from a judicial system that for months had been favoring those, like him, who had been involved in white-collar crimes and persecuting the prosecutors, judges, police officers and investigators who had prepared the cases to disrupt networks such as Odebrecht.
By January 11, 2023, Baldizón was already free. The Guatemalan Public Ministry (MP) left without appealing the resolution of a judge that granted Baldizón house arrest. The MP also admitted the former presidential candidate as part of a lawsuit against former prosecutors who had investigated him for his involvement with Odebrecht. And, while they were doing that, the prosecutors, under the orders of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, were building cases to persecute the former investigators.
So it was that, on January 16, the prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), announced that a judge had authorized arrest warrants against former Attorney General Thelma Aldana and former Colombian magistrate Iván Velásquez, current defense minister in the government of President Gustavo Petro and between 2012 and 2018 chief of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a kind of supranational prosecutor's office sponsored by the United Nations and installed in the Central American country in 2007 to support the MP in complex investigations of organized crime. Aldana and Velásquez were the most visible faces of an anti-corruption crusade that disrupted powerful networks populated by politicians like Baldizón.
Extract from the agreement between Baldizón and the United States Department of Justice in which it is shown that the Guatemalan confessed to having laundered drug money.
What changed in Guatemalan justice for a confessed money launderer to regain his freedom and become a plaintiff of his investigators? It happened that the Guatemalan prosecutors changed sides. A spokesperson for the UN Secretary General explained it this way upon learning of the Guatemalan intention to persecute Iván Velásquez: The General Secretary “expresses its concern at numerous reports that suggest that criminal prosecution is being carried out against those who seek to shed light on corruption cases.” and that they worked to strengthen the justice system in Guatemala,” according to a UN spokesperson.
Also the US Department of StateHe had explained it before, when he included Attorney General Porras and his subordinate Rafael Curruchiche, managers of Baldizón's release, on a list of corrupt and undemocratic Central American officials. Describing Porras, US diplomacy said this: “He has repeatedly obstructed and botched corruption investigations in Guatemala to protect his political allies…Porras's pattern of obstruction of justice includes ordering subordinates in the MP to ignore cases for political reasons. and fire prosecutors investigating corruption.”
That is exactly what happened in the case of Manuel Baldizón and the Odebrecht scandal.
A dead investigation and the metamorphosis of justice
The CICIG located Baldizón in a 2017 investigative report as a central figure in what is known in Guatemala as the “corrupt pact”, a network of politicians and businessmen peppered by corruption and drug trafficking scandals. CICIG and the Guatemalan MP were investigating Baldizón, among other things, for receiving bribes from the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht between 2012 and 2015.
One of those who implicated Baldizón in those bribes was Alejandro Sinibaldi, the former infrastructure minister during the government of President Otto Pérez Molina (2012-2015) who confessed to the Guatemalan authorities his participation in the Odebrecht network.
Sinibaldi turned himself in to the Guatemalan justice system in August 2020 and a few months later gave a statement in which he implicated dozens of politicians and businessmen in a corruption scheme that he himself described as a “purchase” of the State.
“Among the various events that were awarded during my tenure as minister… there were some that had greater significance due to the logistics involved and the level of coordination that we had to have with the different State institutions, and with which it is possible to demonstrate more clearly how the wills of a government can basically be bought. One of the most relevant cases was the one now known as the Odebrecht case, “said Sinibaldi in his statement, of which Infobae has a copy.
Sinibaldi confessed that he had received bribes from Brazilians to secure a contract worth some USD 380 million to repair a highway in the west of the country. CICIG and the MP had also determined that Sinibaldi was the leader of a group of officials who charged between 5% and 10% to companies that obtained public contracts.
In his confession, Sinibaldi He assured that Manuel Baldizón also received bribes from Odebrecht in 2014, something with which he did not agree. “I cannot deny that I had a good relationship with Baldizón… but I would never have agreed to give him USD 3.5 million… it must have been for support that Odebrecht gave Baldizón as electoral financing…” By then, Baldizón was already emerging as the next president of Guatemala.
As part of the investigation into the Odebrecht case in Guatemala, the MP interviewed Brazilians Marcos Cerqueira Lima Machado and Luiz Antonio Mameri, linked to Odebrecht. The Guatemalan justice system offered effective collaboration agreements to both, a legal figure contemplated in the Special Law against Organized Crime that consists of offering procedural benefits to members of a criminal organization who provide information on the leaders of the group that allows criminal operations to be stopped. It is something contemplated in the criminal laws of many countries in the world.
Excerpt from a CICIG investigative report showing testimony implicating Baldizón in Odebrecht bribery.
Guatemalan prosecutors, endorsed by the Supreme Court of Justice, traveled to Brazil to take a statement from Lima Machado and Mameri in 2017. The Brazilians said the same thing that Sinibaldi would later testify, that Manuel Baldizón was one of the that he had received bribes from the construction company Odebrecht.
Lima Machado even described a meeting held in 2013 at a Sinibaldi house on the outskirts of Guatemala City. “There is Minister Sinibaldi and Mr. Manuel Baldizón is also there and from there Alejandro tells me that he had arranged with Baldizón to pay him 3 million dollars from the start of the project until the 2015 elections and he asked me to confirm Manuel Baldizón (with) who Alejandro had the power to make that type of arrangement, since everything would go through him, I said yes,” said the Brazilian in his statement, of which Infobae has a copy.
CICIG and the MP determined that Sinibaldi had received, through front men in an account opened in Antigua, at least USD 4.9 million. In total, the Guatemalan investigation determined that Odebrecht paid USD17.8 million in bribes to the Sinibaldi and Baldizón network.
The investigation seemed solid and even shed evidence against various ruling party deputies also accused of receiving gifts to ensure that two international loans, one from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and the other from the Brazilian Social Development Bank, were conditioned, by decree, to Odebrecht was chosen for the million-dollar project to repair the CA2 Guatemalan highway. But something went wrong in Guatemalan justice.
In 2018, the then president of Guatemala, Jimmy MoralesHe declared the Colombian Iván Velásquez non grata and a year later expelled the CICIG from the country. Morales, whom the commission and the MP investigated for illegal electoral financing, appointed Consuelo Porras as attorney general. In November 2019 Alejandro Giammattei , a doctor who had been imprisoned in 2010 for tolerating extrajudicial executions when he was head of the country's prison system, won the presidential election.
Giammattei ratified Porras as head of the MP. In July 2021, Porras fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, until then head of the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (FECI), who had led the Odebrecht investigation between 2017 and 2020 and who, in 2021, opened an investigation into the new president for an alleged million-dollar bribe delivered by Russian miners to obtain licenses in the northeast of the country.
In Sandoval's place, Porras appointed Rafael Curruchiche, the prosecutor who announced criminal proceedings against the Colombian Velásquez and thereby caused a crisis between Bogotá and Guatemala that threatens to end diplomatic relations between the two countries.
< p class="paragraph">Before, the political system presided over by Giammattei had maneuvered to remove Judge Erika Aifán, who had accompanied the Odebrecht investigation, from her position and send her into exile. In his place, the Guatemalan judicial body appointed Luis Fernando Archila Lima, a judge who had been imprisoned in 2008 for drug possession when he was a civil aviation official in Puerto Barrios, one of the drug trafficking enclaves in the Guatemalan Caribbean. Archila Lima, at the request of the Porras and Curruchiche MP, annulled the testimonies of the Brazilians Mameri and Lima Machado, thus opening the door for the release of Baldizón and Sinibaldi.
The Guatemalan businessman and former Minister of Communications, Alejandro Sinibaldi. EFE/Esteban Biba/File
On January 11, Manuel Baldizón was released from Guatemala's maximum security prison under house arrest. With an exultant smile, the former presidential candidate thanked God, said that he was innocent of everything, and announced reprisals against the prosecutors who had persecuted him. Not even a week had passed when prosecutor Curruchiche announced precisely that, that the MP will prosecute former attorney general Aldana and former commissioner Iván Velásquez for authorizing the agreements that allowed the Brazilians from Odebrecht to tell what former minister Sinibaldi described as ” the purchase” from the Guatemalan government.
David Gaitán, a former CICIG investigator in charge of the entire Odebrecht file and against whom there is also an arrest warrant, published a statement following the announcements of persecution that Curruchiche carried out. There he explains quite clearly what is happening in Guatemala. “It is evident that what the Public Ministry intends is to privilege actors who received some 20 million dollars in bribes and stop the investigations already carried out against other responsible parties.”
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