‘Chepe Diablo’ Case (Upside Down): El Salvador Accuses, US Exonerates

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In a reversal befitting of his criminal career, “Chepe Diablo” has been taken off the US Treasury Department’s “Kingpin List,” even as he faces stiff money laundering charges in home country, El Salvador.

It seems that fortune never completely abandons José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” the businessman whom authorities in El Salvador captured on April 4 and whom the prosecutor’s office accuses of using dozens of companies to launder about $215 million. Just when the judicial process finally started against this man who has received protection from politicians and the former Salvadoran attorney general, the United States announced that it removed him from the so-called Kingpin List, where he’d been since May 2014. 

The decision of the US Treasury Department, whose Office of Financial Asset Control (OFAC) is responsible for the Kingpin List, at the very least speaks of a lack of coordination among agencies that collaborate from Washington with foreign authorities in the search and criminal prosecution of individuals accused of participating, in one form or another, in regional networks of drug trafficking and money laundering. 

Chepe Diablo has been singled out by the Salvadoran police as the leader of the Texis Cartel, one of the country’s most important drug trafficking and money laundering organizations. Most recently, it was linked to a 160 kilogram cocaine seizure outside of San Salvador. 

SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel News and Profile 

After years of the Salvadoran justice system avoiding taking action against Salazar Umaña, on April 4, the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC) executed four of six arrest warrants against Chepe Diablo, several family members and two of his former partners, Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán, and Wilfredo Guerra, Samayoa’s political protege and president of the company Gumarsal, one of about 50 companies and properties used for money laundering in this case, according to the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República – FGR). 

Three days later, on April 7, Salazar Umaña was brought before the courts. He wore the typical prison garb worn by prisoners in El Salvador: a white short-sleeved shirt and shorts of the same color. And just as prosecutors presented the case to the court in San Salvador, the US Embassy in El Salvador issued a press release announcing Chepe Diablo’s release from the Kingpin List. 

“The timing is undoubtedly awkward, terrible,” a US federal agent, who knows the case closely and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak in public, told InSight Crime. 

After announcing the Trump administration’s decision to remove Chepe Diablo from the list in the first sentence of the three-paragraph press release, the embassy in San Salvador spends the rest of the text to explain and insist that OFAC’s decision does not have to be read as a setback to the Salvadoran investigation.

“It simply means that the current information that the Treasury Department has is insufficient to support the rationale that he [Chepe Diablo] continues to play a significant role in international narcotics trafficking,” the release says. 

In the end, the embassy clarifies that his removal from the list does not imply that Salazar Umaña cannot be the subject of other legal actions by the United States government. The embassy also accompanied the statement with five tweets from its official account, insisting that the decision in Washington “has no relation” to the case presented by the Attorney General’s Office in San Salvador. 

On the whole, the reaction of US representatives in El Salvador could very well be read as a kind of apology for OFAC’s decision. And not for nothing: members of the US Congress have been pressing the Salvadoran attorney general to take action on Chepe Diablo. 

For a long time, according to two officials in Washington and others in San Salvador, US Justice Department personnel have provided technical assistance to the Attorney General’s Office in the investigation following its traces of $215 million to Salazar Umaña and his associates in Salvadoran banks. 

At the end of 2016, a colleague of Attorney General Douglas Meléndez’s office said that the Chepe Diablo case was one of the priorities of the newly formed Special Group Against Impunity (Grupo Especial contra la Impunidad – GECI), a kind of elite, anti-corruption and anti-organized crime unit funded and advised by US agents. 

On April 7, the day OFAC’s decision came out, Meléndez’s office reacted by saying that it was something the Attorney General’s Office knew was coming, and that it had already been informed of the move. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office also stressed that the case in El Salvador is for money laundering, not for drug trafficking, which is the crime the Kingpin List refers to in its announcement

“The prosecutor was careful to clarify that, although there are indications that some of the money may have come from drug trafficking, the case is purely money laundering,” said a colleague of Meléndez, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

The indictment filed by the Attorney General’s Office is based on the financial analysis of dozens of bank accounts opened by Salazar Umaña, his partners and the companies associated with these accounts. It is from these analyses that the Attorney General’s Office draws its main conclusions that there are at least $215 million that moved through the network whose legal origin the defendants cannot explain. 

As early as 2015, a Justice Department official told InSight Crime in Washington that there was “a lot of money” that Salazar Umaña could not justify. 

InSight Crime Analysis

How is it that while some US agencies make Salazar Umaña and his Texis Cartel a priority target of their collaboration with the Salvadoran authorities, another, OFAC, minimizes the role of Chepe Diablo on the region’s criminal map? 

One of the US officials consulted by InSight Crime in Washington said that although his removal from the Kingpin List “sends a bad message at this moment,” it is the result of an administrative process, which Salazar Umaña and his lawyers started shortly after being included in it. 

In its press release, the embassy in San Salvador clarifies that point.

“After being included in the list, Salazar Umaña asked OFAC to review his holdings,” it reads.

To get off the list, Chepe Diablo hired a law firm in Washington. InSight Crime confirmed in 2015 that Umaña Samayoa and Wilfredo Guerra did something similar in the name of Gumarsal to distance the company from Salazar Umaña, even though he was a founding partner.

One of the sources consulted in Washington who has worked on the case said that part of the administrative process followed by Salazar Umaña to get off the list included presenting certifications provided by the Attorney General’s Office — while former Attorney General Luis Martínez was heading it up — to show that there were no active investigations into Chepe Diablo and his group. InSight Crime tried to get OFAC’s motives for making the decision, but it did not respond to requests for comment. 

SEE ALSO: The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice 

As reported by InSight Crime in December, the relationship between Martínez, Chepe Diablo and the Texis Cartel led the former prosecutor in 2014 to order his subordinates to bury a money laundering investigation initiated by the Financial Investigation Unit (Unidad de Investigación Financiera – UIF) that year after audits carried out by the Salvadoran Treasury Department (Ministerio de Hacienda). The Salvadoran Treasury Department was investigating a tax evasion case that included profits gleaned at Gumarsal and Hotesa (another company related to the group). Salazar Umaña, Mayor Samayoa, and Guerra were released after paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. 

The Salvadoran Treasury Department had found out as early as 2014 that the group was laundering money, but Martínez decided not to continue the investigations and sent his prosecutors to ask a judge to return much of the evidence to those implicated. Attorney General Douglas Meléndez later said that the current case of money laundering had to be built from scratch because of the actions taken by his predecessor. Martínez is in jail, facing charges on an unrelated corruption case. 

For a long time, thanks in part to the protection received from Martínez, Chepe Diablo was virtually untouchable. He also had high-level contacts in the political elites: the attorney general included Desarrollos Montecristo, a company that Salazar Umaña formed in 2000 with current Vice President Óscar Ortíz, as one of the companies in the money laundering network that Chepe Diablo managed.

With that as the backdrop, it is clear that the technical cooperation and political support that Meléndez received from Washington in this case was a critical part of bringing Chepe Diablo before a judge. According to Salvadoran law, the suspect will be in jail for the next few months while the judicial process plays out. While his removal from the Kingpin List was read as a kind of setback, the Attorney General’s Office says that OFAC’s decision will not impact the case.

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