Friday, August 26, 2016

El Salvador's New Attorney General crusading against powerful, corrupt pols and gangs

Guatemala has the CICIG and Honduras now has MACCIH, but El Salvador has no international commission to assist its institutions in the fight against corruption and high-profile criminal cases.  Despite overwhelming popular opinion in favor of a such an entity (nearly 97 percent, according to one recent UCA poll), the Salvadoran government has steadfastly refused to consider such a body.  In fact, the FMLN secretary general, Medardo Gonzalez, told a crowd of supporters on May 1 that anyone who asks for such an entity should be considered "golpistas" who are only interested in destabilizing the government, according to a report in El Faro

The government’s proposition is that El Salvador has a strong enough judicial system to take care of its own problems, and it is beginning to look like they might be right. In the past few weeks, the new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez – elected by the Assembly as a compromise candidate earlier this year, and probably not expected to ruffle many feathers – has begun to prosecute an unprecedented number of high-profile cases, including:  
  • OperaciĆ³n Jaque – the arrest of dozens of individuals involved in the financial network of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang (See post for Aug. 12)
  • The Court of Accounts, El Salvador’s primary auditing body that has long been held by individuals close to the conservative PCN party, was investigated by the Attorney General, bringing to light 48 case files that were never acted upon and that would have resulted in $2.2 million in fines that could have benefited the state’s coffers, according to El Faro. 
But the news does not stop there.

On Monday night, Melendez’s immediate predecessor  as Attorney General – Luis Martinez – presented himself to the Attorney General’s office, only to be taken into police custody and charged with procedural fraud and "omission" in various cases related to Enrique Rais, a wealthy businessman who has deep connections to one of the strongmen of the ruling FMLN party, Jose Luis Merino (who is also the highest ranking FMLN representative in the Venezuelan-funded Alba Petroleos.)   Rais, his nephew, his lawyer and a former prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office were also taken into custody, while another 10 persons were the subject of arrest warrants.

Stories in  El Faro and Revista Factum provide extensive details and background, and both have long covered these cases.  For example, both have documented numerous trips whereby Martinez traveled abroad on Rais’ personal planes, which have been under investigation in the US by the DEA for involvement in drug trafficking.   In July, the usually quiet Government Ethics Tribunal fined Martinez $9000, noting that Martinez had buried cases brought against Rais, but prosecuted others wherein he was the victim, and encouraged the Fiscalia to investigate.  The crime of “failure to investigate” carries a potential jail term of five years.  Hector Silva Avalos, from Factum,  is currently being sued by Rais for defamation for reporting on Rais’ links to drug trafficking.

An even bigger case is in the making, however, as the Attorney General began to execute search warrants at numerous properties linked to former President Mauricio Funes, as well as his close colleagues Miguel Menendez (known as “Mecafe”) and Fune’s former Agriculture Minister, Pablo Ochoa.  Funes was already the subject of a civil suit for “illicit enrichment”, but these moves indicate the AG is building a criminal case as well. El Farohas all the details. 

Attorney General Melendez justified these moves based on indications that Funes was preparing to apply for political asylum in Nicaragua.  (Tweeting from Nicaragua, Funes says that is not the case, but has given contradictory information about his reason for being there – tourism or business? – according to a report in Confidencial, which also noted that a Guatemalan congressman under investigation for corruption in his country is also currently in Nicaragua.)  Menendez and Ochoa were originally part of the “friends of Mauricio” who supported his candidacy in 2009, and Menendez in particular benefited from numerous, uncompetitive contracts for private security services with the Funes administration, and was named head of the government-run International Convention Center (CIFCO).

Taken together, these cases alone demonstrate a more functional prosecutorial power than El Salvador has seen for many years.  Of course, the real test will depend on whether those prosecutions will ultimately be successful. And we can expect pushback from very powerful political and economic elites should these kind of cases continue to move forward. 

Additionally, the Attorney General would do well to be more aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuses (including extrajudicial executions) as well as support transitional justice cases moving forward (such as the Mozote massacre), given the recent overturning of the amnesty law.  

In the meantime, it certainly raises the bar of expectations for future prosecutions.