Guatemala ex-President Colom defends actions in graft case

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Former President Alvaro Colom on Wednesday defended his actions in a case of suspected corruption involving bus concessions, saying his order for a $35 million upgrade to the public transit system was legitimate.

Appearing before a judge, Colom argued that it was a necessary measure to prevent deadly attacks on drivers and passengers in the bus system, which is plagued by extortion demands from violent street gangs.

“The attacks on drivers were planned to destabilize my government,” Colom said, adding that the graft allegations have harmed his prestige and dignity.

The case centers on 25-year concessions for Guatemala City bus routes that were auctioned off during Colom’s 2008-2012 presidency. The private companies that won the contracts were later exempted from taxes.

Prosecutors say the process was deeply flawed, and it is suspected that the government was defrauded out of millions of dollars.

Judge Eduardo Cojulum is to decide whether the case proceeds against Colom and 12 former Cabinet ministers, including Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight, who was finance minister and is currently president of Oxfam International. They were arrested in mid-February.

Days before he was detained, Colom had been named a special envoy to Honduras for the Organization of American States.

He is one of several Guatemalan ex-presidents who have been implicated in corruption.

Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) was absolved of embezzlement charges in Guatemala in 2011 but later extradited to the United States where he pleaded guilty to money laundering and served two years in prison.

Otto Perez Molina (2012-2015), who resigned in disgrace amid a corruption scandal involving the customs agency, is awaiting trial.

And Alvaro Arzu (1996-2000) has been implicated in possible graft but is currently immune from prosecution because he holds elected office as mayor in Guatemala City.

Current President Jimmy Morales has been linked to possible campaign financing violations, but lawmakers have protected his immunity of office. Another petition to lift that protection is pending before the Constitutional Court.