Portillo has been described as a charismatic and populist leader. While he may be considered a member of the political elite, Portillo gained support from the country's lower classes by constantly attacking and criticizing the elitism of the PAN. In heavy-handed speeches, he said the PAN was corrupt and exclusionary. He built most of his support with promises to end the crime wave that started during the Arzú administration. Having killed two men to defend himself in Mexico, Portillo came to be seen as a tough and fearless leader. Since his inauguration, he has sought to distance himself from Montt, who was expected to heavily influence the presidency. Montt is president of Congress and leader of the FRG, which controls Congress with 63 of 113 seats. Portillo has claimed that Montt's influence is simply a myth, but it is clear he will need him and his votes in Congress to run the government. Most FRG congressmen are considered loyal to Montt. Portillo is expected to deal with him carefully, especially after Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu filed a human rights case against the former general in a Spanish court in March 2000. After taking office on 14 January 2000, Portillo appointed his closest colleagues to about half of the cabinet posts. The rest, including the vice presidency and the ministry of economy and trade, went to allies of Montt.
Portillo surprised some critics by naming two prominent human rights activists to his cabinet. Otilia Lux de Cotí, a former member of the Historical Clarification Commission, was named minister of culture. Edgar Gutierrez, a journalist and coordinator for the Catholic Church's "Recovery of Historic Memory," a report on the civil war, was named secretary in charge of the president's office for strategic affairs. To assuage fears that he is not a puppet of the army, Portillo promised to clarify the unsolved 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, who was killed two days after he published a 1,400-page report that blamed the army and its allies for 90% of the civil war's crimes. The Arzú government had been criticized for protecting the killers. With Portillo in office, the government reported the arrest of three military officers charged in the killing and in November 2000 issued a formal report on Gerardi's assassination.
However, charges of corruption and violent criminal activity, including kidnapping and assassination of opposition officials, persisted and Portillo's presidency continued to be riddled with scandal. In late 2001, allegations were made that Portillo's interior minister, Byron Barrientos, had embezzled public funds totaling US $11 million. Portillo fired Barrientos in November 2001 and announced an anti-corruption plan in February 2002. In the following month, however, Portillo, his vice president Reyes Lopez, and four associates were accused of violating ethics laws by making multimillion dollar deposits in offshore banks. Opposition leaders and civic organizations demanded the officials face charges in court. Portillo's defense minister, General Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, was set in early 2002 to become the new interior minister, upsetting civil rights groups who claim the move would violate the government's commitment to keeping the military and police separate.