A longtime influence peddler in Guatemala will spend just over four years in a US prison after pleading guilty to money laundering, but his tentacles of influence in the Central American nation’s political system have not yet been severed.
On November 12, US authorities unsealed the case against Manuel Baldizón, a former congressman and presidential frontrunner for the Renewed Democratic Liberty (Libertad Democrática Renovada – Líder) party, the US Justice Department announced in a press release.
Baldizón pleaded guilty last year to accepting about $1.6 million from narco-traffickers. His case, however, was not made public because of his role in a sting targeting the head of Guatemala's national bank, Alvaro Estuardo Cobar Bustamante, who was charged with money laundering on the day Baldizón's case was unsealed, the Miami Herald reported. Baldizón has already spent almost two years in jail after being arrested in January 2018.
Among those that contributed funds to Baldizón’s political campaigns were Guatemalan drug traffickers. At the crux of the case against him is a $800,000 payment that Baldizón received and then used to purchase a luxury condominium in Miami, Florida. Afterwards, he contributed that same amount of money into his political campaign, using the real estate purchase to conceal the fact that the contribution came from drug proceeds, according to prosecutors.
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Drug traffickers weren’t the only source of Baldizón’s dirty campaign cash. Alejandro Sinibaldi, Guatemala’s former Infrastructure, Housing and Communications Minister (Ministerio de Comunicaciones Infraestructura y Vivienda – MICIVI), allegedly gave Baldizón around $3 million for his campaign. That money came from a nearly $18 million bribe paid to the former minister by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in exchange for granting the company a multimillion-dollar highway construction contract, according to Guatemalan prosecutors.
Having already served almost half of his 50-month prison sentence, Baldizón will be released from jail in January of 2022 if he is not released earlier.
InSight Crime Analysis
Baldizón may be in a US prison, but his ability to reach into Guatemalan politics hasn’t stopped.
The former presidential candidate’s son, Jorge Eduardo Baldizón, has participated in meetings that the transition team of Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei held with officials in the Dominican Republic in early November. It’s unclear why the younger Baldizón was present in such meetings, or whether or not he will hold a position in the upcoming administration.
Baldizón’s son isn’t the only individual surrounding Giammattei that has aroused suspicions.
Giammattei has also allegedly consulted with Édgar Barquín, the former president of Guatemala’s Central Bank and a vice-presidential candidate alongside Manuel Baldizón in 2015, on “economic issues,” according to Publinews. In years past, Barquín admitted to having participated in a criminal structure headed by Francisco Edgar Morales Guerra, alias “Chico Dólar,” to launder some $30 million to illegally finance the 2011 presidential campaign of the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza) party, but managed to avoid jail time.
Another individual rubbing shoulders with Giammattei is former Zacapa mayor Arnoldo Vargas Estrada. The former mayor spent 25 years in a US jail for drug trafficking. He allegedly worked with the Lorenzana clan -- one of Guatemala’s most infamous “transportista” family clans -- to traffic cocaine into the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Some of Giammattei’s main political operatives, such as Luis Enrique Ortega Arana, also have ties to the shady so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad — CIACS) that emerged out of state intelligence and military services after the country’s civil war.
Political scientist Stephanie López told Publinews that the individuals Giammattei has surrounded himself with sends the message that the president-elect is “recycling highly-questionable leadership.”
Giammattei’s own checkered past as head of Guatemala’s penitentiary system has already cast doubt on the security policies he may enact, and the individuals he’s dealt with thus far prior to assuming the presidency have given way to further skepticism.