An Ambassador less ordinary

Few ambassadors at the Court of St James’s can claim to have done time in prison and run for president twice – but then again Guatemala’s new Ambassador to London, Acisclo Valladares, is by no means an ordinary ambassador.

A fearless campaigner for justice and the rule of law in his country, the Ambassador has risked his life – and liberty – as Guatemala’s tough attorney general.

Like his father, a former Chief Justice, the Law runs through the Ambassador’s veins. The Ambassador’s lifelong belief in the rule of law inspired President Serrano to appoint Valladares as attorney general in 1991. At the time, Guatemala was still mired in an ugly civil war, fuelled by drug barons, paramilitaries and corrupt politicians with vested interests.

Undeterred, Valladares decided to take them all on at once. “The law applies to everybody equally. I wanted to eradicate this culture of violence and impunity,” he says.

But along the way he made powerful enemies who conspired to eject him from office on trumped up charges. Realising that Guatemala’s justice system was on trial, Valladares asked Congress to waive his immunity and handed himself over to the courts. It turned out to be a show trial after which some of the family property was seized and he was jailed.

“But it was the best time of my life! I was just relieved to be alive,” laughs Valladares, who had a string of high-profile visitors while he was in prison, from the Mayor of Guatemala City (and future president) Oscar Berger to the Archbishop of Guatemala.

After his release, Valladares decided to run for president in 1995 and 1999. “I was unsuccessful on both occasions, but all my rivals – Portillo, Berger and Colom – have had a chance in the top job…”

Asked if he was tempted to follow their example and make it “third time lucky” the Ambassador says he prefers the quieter life of a diplomat and occasional newspaper columnist. Valladares was appointed Guatemala’s Ambassador to the Holy See twice, following in his father’s footsteps, who was Ambassador at the Vatican for 20 years, 14 of which he served as Dean.

On his table is a touching memento of his father meeting Queen Elizabeth during her visit to the Vatican in 1980. “When I presented my credentials to Her Majesty I told her she was as beautiful and as charming as on the day that my father had met her!”

He and The Queen also discussed his main priorities while in London. For the Ambassador, top priority will be to persuade Britain to get much tougher on the drug dealers in the UK, whose profits sustain a drug industry that has wreaked havoc on Guatemalan society. “You can throw resources and money at the problem, but if there is a demand for drugs, the traffickers will find a way to supply it,” he says.

An expert in constitutional and international law, Valladares also takes a keen interest in Guatemala’s territorial dispute with Britain’s former colony, Belize – Guatemala claims territories in southern Belize, which were once under Spanish rule. Relations between the two countries have improved to such an extent that both have agreed to take the matter to the International Court of Justice, pending approval in a simultaneous referendum.

“This shows great vision on the part of Belize’s leaders to want to resolve the issue even though there is a risk involved for them,” says the Ambassador. “For our part, we realise that while Britain had no legal claim to those parts of Belize, a new nation has been born with a right to self determination. But we need to ensure that this does not come at a cost to Guatemala.”

The Ambassador is also thinking ahead to 2021, when Guatemala celebrates its 200th anniversary of independence. “This commemoration should be something to work towards: Guatemala has to move from a government for the few to a government for the many.”

Social development is the cornerstone of President Colom’s presidency, supported by the First Lady, Sandra Colom, whose anti-poverty projects focus on helping young children. “Some people say we should concentrate on strong government, policing and security, but my view is these social programmes now will bring the security in the future. If I were president I would have done the same.”

Drumming up interest from British investors in Guatemala’s green energy sector is also a priority – whether it is bioethanol from Guatemala’s abundant sugar plantations, hydroelectricity or geothermal energy. “Despite the financial crisis, the City is still the City!” he says.

He also wants to persuade more Britons to visit Guatemala’s amazing sites, from Mayan ruins, to jungles, active volcanoes and beaches.

“I visited Tikal when I was 14. I remember being amazed by this ancient pyramid right in the middle of the jungle. I realised then how small I was in the universe.” Small, perhaps, but by no means insignificant.