BY JODY GARCIA AND JAY WEAVER
A former high-ranking government official in Guatemala has pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to conspiring to commit money laundering while paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Guatemalan politicians through the U.S. banking system. Acisclo Valladares Urruela, the former economics minister in Guatemala, admitted that he transferred $350,000 in bribery payments to the unidentified Guatemalan politicians through two companies with bank accounts in Miami, according to a factual statement filed with his plea agreement. Valladares also acknowledged that he received $140,000 for moving the dirty money into those accounts, the statement says. Valladares paid the illegal bribes on behalf of a telecommunications company known as Tigo, for which he worked as a corporate officer. As a result of the payoffs, Guatemalan politicians passed a law that paved the way for the telecommunications company to obtain a series of lucrative government contracts in Guatemala, according to court records. The corrupt dealings allowed Valladares to benefit personally and politically, U.S. authorities said.
Valladares, who was also an attorney in Guatemala, did not act alone, according to the factual statement filed with his plea agreement. Starting in 2014, before Valladares became Guatemala’s economics minister, “senior executives” at the telecommunications company “directed” him “to obtain cash to be used for the benefit of” his employer, which the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald have learned is Tigo. “To carry out the executives’ instructions, [Valladares] agreed with others to engage in a series of transactions that benefited [Tigo] and that involved both Guatemalan and U.S. financial institutions,” the statement says.
Although he is not mentioned by name in any court records, Tigo’s president is Mario Lopez Estrada, a civil engineer who is known as Guatemala’s first billionaire. The reason federal prosecutors were able to make the criminal case against Valladares is that some of the tainted money from the corruption activity was wired in late 2017 through the two Miami companies’ accounts and then back to Guatemalan politicians, according to court records. Prosecutors and the FBI were able to make the money-laundering case against the former government minister because they obtained critical assistance from co-conspirators in the investigation, which was called “Operation Black Mass.” Valladares, 46, who was taken into custody and then granted bail in 2020, faces 4-5 years in prison at his sentencing, according to his plea agreement. He also must pay a penalty of $140,000 to the U.S. government and could be fined up to $500,000.
According to his plea deal, Valladares has agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and prosecutors and might qualify for a visa to stay in the United States after he completes his prison term. He would have to show that his life would be in danger if he were deported to Guatemala. “The defendant agrees that he shall cooperate fully with” the U.S. Attorney’s Office, including providing evidence and testifying before a grand jury or at trial. “In addition, the defendant agrees that he will not protect any person or entity through false information or omission, that he will not falsely implicate any person or entity, and that he he will not commit any further crimes,” according to Valladares’ plea agreement, which was signed by him, defense attorney Dan Gelber and federal prosecutor Walter Norkin.
“When he learned of the charges Acisclo immediately traveled to the United States to voluntarily submit to the jurisdiction of our courts,” Gelber told the Miami Herald on Friday. “He is contrite and only interested in doing the right thing.” The factual statement, which was filed with Valladares’ plea agreement, lacks details about where he obtained the money to pay the bribes to the Guatemalan politicians. A previous FBI criminal complaint accused Valladares, who served as Guatemala’s economics minister between 2016-20 in the administration of President Jimmy Morales, of using cocaine profits to make the bribery payments.
But Valladares did not plead guilty to that allegation at his plea hearing before Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Becerra on Tuesday. The original criminal complaint, filed by the FBI in August 2020, was intended only for the arrest of Valladares, who would later agree not to be charged by a federal grand-jury indictment. Instead, he was charged by an information, which is customary in many plea deals with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida. Valladares was initially accused of diverting $10 million in cocaine profits for traffickers in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico while using some of that money that passed through the U.S. bank accounts of the Miami companies to pay bribes to the Guatemalan politicians, according to an FBI affidavit filed with the criminal complaint. For helping clean the money through those accounts, Valladares received a sizable fee.
Valladares was accused of collaborating with a major drug trafficker, a corrupt politician and a crooked banker in Guatemala in creating a trail of “untraceable cash,” according to the affidavit. Both the drug trafficker, who is in prison in the United States, and the bank employee, who already pleaded guilty, cooperated with U.S. authorities in the case against Valladares, the complaint said. The bank employee acted as a “conduit” between the drug trafficker and the corrupt politician, who supplied the cash to Valladares, according to the FBI affidavit filed by a veteran federal prosecutor who specializes in drug-trafficking cases. Their alleged scheme entailed “unlawful money exchanges” between parties in different countries through “mirror transactions” that left no paper trails, the affidavit said. Initially, the complaint said that four wire transfers totaling $500,000 were made through the U.S. banks of the two unidentified Miami companies, but the factual statement filed with his plea agreement does not jibe with that original allegation. In 2020, then-U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said in a statement that the case illustrated the “unfortunate links” sometimes forged among drug traffickers, business people and corrupt politicians — links extending to Miami, the gateway to Latin America. “Although Miami serves as a bridge between the United States and our neighbors to the south, drug traffickers, corrupt officials and their dirty money are not welcome in our district,” she said at the time.. Meanwhile, Valladares is wanted by authorities in Guatemala for his role in alleged government corruption stemming from bribes paid by him and Tigo. In Guatemala, both United Nations and Guatemalan government investigators are running parallel probes of allegations of corruption and bribery involving Tigo, Valladares, other company executives and Guatemalan politicians. According to news reports, some bodyguards for Guatemalan politicians testified that they had carried cash from sources at Tigo to Guatemalan politicians to gain support for the company’s government contracts — including the Central American nation’s former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who is in prison after being convicted in an unrelated corruption case.