Case Against El Salvador Elites Gets Off to Rocky Start

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A judge has ordered El Salvador’s former attorney general to remain behind bars despite his having posted bail in a separate investigation involving collusion with a wealthy businessman, an uneven beginning to a case that is sure test the authorities’ capacity to prosecute high-level corruption.

Former Attorney General Luis Antonio Martínez will be held in prison for six months after the Attorney General’s Office presented evidence that he unlawfully disseminated the wiretapped phone conversations of a priest, reported La Prensa Gráfica.

The charges stem from an investigation into Antonio Rodríguez, better known as Father Toño, who in September 2014 plead guilty to bringing prohibited items into prisons and influence trafficking. Prosecutors say Martínez, who was Attorney General at the time, copied the private conversations of Father Toño and shared them with leaders of the Catholic Church in El Salvador. Salvadoran law stipulates that illegally divulging information obtained from wiretaps carries a prison sentence of between four and eight years, according to El Mundo

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

Martínez was initially arrested on August 22 for obstruction of justice in cases related to prominent businessman Enrique Rais. Rais and nine other suspects were also detained. But on August 28, a judge from the Seventh Court of Peace ordered that Rais and the other suspects be placed under house arrest. They left prison the following day after posting bail, but the authorities kept Martínez in prison because of the pending charges related to the Father Toño case.

On August 29, the Attorney General’s Office announced it will appeal the court’s decision to release the suspects on house arrest. The prosecutor’s office also said that it was considering investigating the judge who made the ruling. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The investigation into Rais and Martínez has gotten off to a rocky start. The judge’s order granting Martínez and Rais house arrest may have been the product of foul play, as the Attorney General’s Office appears to suspect, but it’s also possible that prosecutors didn’t present a strong enough case. Either way, the controversial ruling illustrates the challenges that surely lie ahead for an Attorney General’s Office that does not have a lot of experiencing prosecuting such high-profile corruption cases.

Given that they are the country’s former top prosecutor and a businessman with high-level political connections, the investigation into Martínez and Rais represents a major test for the Salvadoran justice system. Last week’s arrests were likely an attempt to limit Martínez’s and Rais’ influence over the criminal proceedings as the Attorney General’s Office builds a stronger case against them. Rais’ release may have foiled that strategy, although prosecutors were able to keep Martínez in detention. As a result, Rais may well have greater leverage than the former attorney general as the case works its way through the courts.

The investigation nonetheless remains on solid footing. Attorney General Douglas Meléndez, who replaced Martínez, has already shown signs that he is more willing to take on corruption than his predecessor. Earlier this month, the Attorney General’s Office raided the properties of a close associate to former President Mauricio Funes in search of evidence linking him to corruption.

But Meléndez recognizes that prosecuting corrupt elites will likely be met with resistance from influential people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of impunity. In a March 2016 letter to a US congressman, the attorney general expressed concern about “the intention of groups outside the institution to interfere in cases involving corruption and probity, in ongoing investigations or future investigations.”

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime 

Furthermore, unlike in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras, there is no international anti-impunity commission set up in El Salvador to help investigate politically-sensitive cases like corruption. Some 97 percent of Salvadorans are in favor of the creation of such an institution, a clear signal that the population has little faith in the government’s ability or willingness to prosecute corrupt elites.

The Attorney General’s Office has an opportunity to start to change that perception by carrying out a solid investigation against Rais and Martínez that ends in convictions. But if the last few weeks are any indication, completing that task will be anything but easy.

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