A longtime powerbroker in Guatemala has withdrawn his plea for asylum in the United States and will instead be deported to face criminal charges related to the Odebrecht corruption case in the Central American nation, which could pave the way for damning revelations that may implicate other elites.
Manuel Baldizón, a former congressman and presidential frontrunner for the Renewed Democratic Liberty (Libertad Democrática Renovada – Líder) party, has announced he is willing to be deported to his native Guatemala to face criminal charges relating to allegations that he received illegal payments from the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, Baldizón announced in an August 27 post on his Facebook page.
Prosecutors argue that Baldizón received, through a lawyer who had set up bank accounts, more than $3 million from Alejandro Sinibaldi, former Infrastructure, Housing and Communications Minister (Ministerio de Comunicaciones Infraestructura y Vivienda – MICIVI). Sinibaldi had received the money as part of a $17.9 million bribe from Odebrecht officials in exchange for granting the company a $300 million contract for the construction of a highway along Guatemala’s southern coast towards Mexico.
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Baldizón was arrested by US authorities in Miami in January 2018. He requested political asylum in the United States shortly thereafter by claiming that he was the victim of “political persecution” in Guatemala.
The Odebrecht corruption scandal is the largest investigation into widespread graft in Latin America and has ensnared many of the region’s top-most elites. Of the at least $788 million that Odebrecht officials admitted to paying in bribes to government officials and political parties in Latin America, $18 million in bribes were paid to officials in Guatemala.
InSight Crime Analysis
Baldizón's decision to withdraw his plea for asylum in the United States and instead face criminal charges in Guatemala in relation to the region’s biggest corruption case could set the stage for other powerful elites to be implicated in the scandal.
In his statement, Baldizón said that upon returning to Guatemala to face these charges, he seeks to be an “example to all the people who, like me, have made mistakes, and to recognize them with humility.” This could foreshadow how the former Líder Party member potentially plans to work with authorities and their far-reaching investigation as a protected witness, which could shift the tide against the country's elites.
“Baldizón seems to have admitted enough wrongdoing publicly to lead one to believe that he might be open to cooperating with Guatemalan authorities about his case in return for a reduced sentence,” Mike Allison, the head of the political science department at the University of Scranton, told InSight Crime in an email.
If Baldizón has "political scores to settle," his testimony could implicate a number of other business and political elites given the broad scope of the Odebrecht investigation, according to Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College.
However, Allison warned that the “greater likelihood is that Baldizón and his lawyers will put up roadblock after roadblock” to prevent a legal case from proceeding against him given the current battle being waged between prosecutors and the country’s elite class, including President Jimmy Morales himself.