By Sofia Menchu
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Guatemalan presidential candidate was arrested in Miami on Wednesday and charged with an elaborate plot to use drug cartel money to win the election and assassinate rivals, according to U.S. officials, two months before voters head to the polls.
Mario Estrada, candidate of the centre-right National Change Union, who is polling far behind other rivals, is accused along with another man, Juan Pablo Gonzalez, of seeking between $10 and $12 million from Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel to fund his campaign and transport cocaine into the United States.
"Estrada and Gonzalez conspired to solicit Sinaloa Cartel money to finance a corrupt scheme to elect Estrada president of Guatemala," Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.
According to the statement, the two men pledged that if Estrada won the June 16 election, he would help the cartel transport drugs from Guatemalan airports and ports with the aid of complicit security officials.
The two also conspired to kill unnamed rival candidates, the U.S. attorney's statement said.
The statement added that since January, several meetings with both men in Miami and Guatemala designed to advance the plot were held and recorded, in most cases with both video and audio.
Officials with Estrada's party did not immediately respond to requests for comment. It could not be immediately determined who was legally representing the two accused men.
U.S. officials said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency assisted with the investigation, as well as the Guatemalan government.
Estrada, a 58-year-old former congressman, has lagged far behind in presidential opinion polls, with less than 3 percent support in one recent survey.
Alfredo Brito, a spokesman for Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, told Reuters the government would provide Estrada with the support needed to ensure his rights were respected "just like any Guatemalan citizen."
Estrada "must clarify his legal situation given the accusations that have been made against him," said Brito, who did not respond when asked to specify how the Guatemalan government assisted in the case.
The National Change Union party, which Estrada founded, holds just six seats in the 158-member Congress, and has typically supported the policies of Morales' government.
Estrada and Gonzalez, also charged with a related weapons offence, could face life behind bars in the United States if convicted.
The presidential race has been led by Thelma Aldana, the country's former attorney general; Zury Rios, the daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt; and former first lady Sandra Torres.
(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Peter Cooney)