Ex-Guatemalan presidential candidate sentenced in U.S. drug scheme

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A U.S. court sentenced a former Guatemalan presidential candidate to 15 years in prison on Tuesday, after he was convicted of taking part in a plot to import and distribute tons of cocaine in the United States.

Mario Estrada, candidate of the center-right National Change Union (UCN), pleaded guilty to charges leveled against him by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. He was implicated along with another man, Juan Pablo Gonzalez, of seeking at least $10 million from Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel to fund his campaign.

Prosecutors said the two men met in 2018 and 2019 with confidential sources of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) who were posing as drug cartel members, and “agreed to provide the Sinaloa Cartel with unfettered access to Guatemalan airports and maritime shipping locations so that the cartel could transport ton quantities of cocaine through Guatemala and ultimately into the United States.”

Prosecutors said the two also conspired “to hire hitmen to assassinate political rivals and their associates to ensure that Estrada was elected president of Guatemala. In particular, Estrada and Gonzalez identified specific targets by name and agreed to provide the hitmen with firearms, including AK-47s, to carry out the murder.”

President Alejandro Giammattei, a conservative former doctor, ultimately won the election in a second-round runoff, and when asked by reporters about Estrada’s sentence later on Tuesday, said he had no comment.

“Mario Estrada conspired to solicit Sinaloa Cartel money to finance a corrupt scheme to get him elected president of Guatemala,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement.

“Thanks to the (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency), rather than a shot at the presidency in Guatemala, Estrada is headed to prison in the United States,” said Berman.

Estrada, a 59-year-old former congressman, launched his campaign for president in 2018 but did not make it past the first round of voting.

U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff imposed the sentence in New York.

Napoleon Rojas, the deputy leader of the UCN in Guatemala’s Congress, appeared to distance himself from Estrada when asked for comment.

“We have a lot of respect for legal decisions, (but) we don’t have anything to do with these issues,” he said.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by David Gregorio