Courting El Salvador’s Puppet Master

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Revista Factum has obtained access to emails written by the businessman Jose Aquiles Enrique Rais Lopez. He is the owner of El Salvador’s waste management company MIDES, and of a number of planes on which powerful public officials have flown, including El Salvador’s prosecutor general and the former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo. The correspondence reveals that Rais tends to brag about his friendship with Jose Luis Merino, one of the most influential directors of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), and that money from his companies has been used to buy “politicians and planes,” and even a luxury apartment in Switzerland. The payments were made through transfers to bank accounts in El Salvador. 

Factum confirmed the authenticity of these emails with former partners and employees of Enrique Rais, and with official Salvadoran and US investigators who have followed the case. The businessman used the email address erais52@hotmail.com for the majority of correspondence with his partners, employees, consultants and family members, as well as with government officials of the administration of former President Mauricio Funes. To these individuals, he offered to sell the landfill sites at Nejapa and Sonsonate. Revista Factum tried to contact the businessman before publishing the following article, but received no reply.

This story was originally published by Revista Factum and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

The year 2010 was a complicated one for Enrique Rais and his family. Bittersweet. On the one hand, disagreements were intensifying with his two partners in the waste collection business in El Salvador, the Canadians Matteo Pasquale and Franco Pacetti. But ahead of him were also the possibilities of new business deals and of expanding his political horizons. One of the most promising business opportunities, judging from an email sent on July 7 of this year, was the acquisition with companies from Kosovo of “product [to sell] to Alba Petroleos,” the hydrocarbon import company linked to directors of the ruling party FMLN.

That year, the business consortium directed by Enrique Rais included, in addition to MIDES, Hydroil — a business “duly authorised by the Finance Ministry to sell petroleum-derived products” — and the Rais Group International, a consortium registered in North Carolina, United States, with companies in Barbados.

By January 2011, Hydroil was offering diesel oil to Alba Petroleos, according to a letter signed November 11 by Rais as the legal representative of the business and addressed to the engineer Miguel Hernandez, general manager of Alba. Hydroil was offering 8.4 million gallons at $2.58 per gallon. The delivery time for the product: immediate. The condition set by the company: “Alba Petroleos will have to open an irrevocable credit card […] transferable against shipping documents in favor of Hydroil, S.A., of C.V.” In total, a deal worth $21.6 million.

Rais’ business deals appeared to be going well, judging by certain purchases initiated by the businessman and his wife: at the end of 2010, the couple decided to buy a luxury apartment in the “Swiss Diamond Hotel” complex in Lugano, Switzerland. To pay for it, the Rais couple used, in part, funds from MIDES.

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The bidding for the apartment had begun during the end of 2010, when Rais and his assistants exchanged at least three emails with executives of the Mabetex Group, a construction and real estate corporation based in Switzerland and founded in 1991 by Kosovo capitalists.

The initial sale offer was for $175,000 in four installments. Compared to similar offers found on web pages offering real estate in Lugano, this is a low price for an apartment of this type in a luxury hotel complex.

Curiously, in one of these emails, the Mabetex executives refer to each payment by naming places or people. The first two payments were made in Tuvalu and Kiribati (two island countries in Oceania), the third was under the name of the Kosovo citizen Mentor Nazarko and the fourth in the Dominican Republic.

A former associate of Rais, who spoke under condition of anonymity for personal security reasons, assured that he knew of the Swiss apartment and explained that the names of the locations were a way of concealing the destination of the transactions. However, it was Rais himself who broke this discretion.

In an email from November 30, 2010, entitled “Mission to Tuvalu,” Rais says: “Installment transfers have already been received for the Lugano apartment. Take note. Thank you. Enrique.”

The Kosovo Connection

At the end of 2011, Enrique Rais arrived with an official of the Republic of Kosovo, which had recently become independent, in a private hall in the Hotel Sheraton in San Salvador. There, they were met by officials of the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Rais and his companion were arriving to lobby for El Salvador to join the countries of the United Nations that had recognized Kosovo as a country.

The first reaction, according to an anonymous former Chancellor’s Office employee who knew of the meeting, was prudent: San Salvador would only study the petitions.

One of the owners of Mabetex is Behgjet Pacolli, an engineer who was president of Kosovo for little more than two months, between February and April 2011, and later vice prime minister, from April 2011 to December of last year. The relationship between Pacolli and Rais, judging from emails between the two and business offers from the Kosovar to the Salvadoran, was close.

On February 23, 2011, Rais sent an email to one of his associates: “My friend and associate Bedjet (sic) Pacolli was sworn in yesterday as president of Kosovo. It’s what I’ve been waiting for and we already started our landfill company in Tripoli and Libya (sic).”

By 2013, the lobbying carried out by Rais and his Kosovo friends in San Salvador, in which the former ambassador of the United States in El Salvador William Walker had also partly participated, was showing results. In October of this year, the Salvadoran Chancellor’s Office delivered a diplomatic message to the Kosovo consulate in New York to inform them that the Central American country formally recognized the independence of Kosovo.

“El Chino” Martinez and the War with the Canadians

On October 25, 2012, a month and a week before El Salvador’s Assembly elected him prosecutor general, Luis Martinez turned to a friend in order to strengthen key political support for his election. This friend is Hugo Blanco Rais, nephew of Enrique.

Martinez, according to correspondence between Rais family members, offered, should he take office as prosecutor general, to make certain moves demanded by Enrique.

“… He reiterated that he would appoint Mario (Calderon) if you help him with Merino, appoint Lisset in the department that you said and that he’ll remove the people we talked about. Regards, Hugo.”

Luis Martinez had his reasons to attend to Enirique Rais: he knew that the businessman and Jose Luis Merino, the leader of the FMLN, had a good relationship.

In the first few months of 2010, according to email correspondence from erais52@hotmail.com, Enrique Rais was communicating with high officials of the Funes administration to explore the possibility of selling the landfills of Nejapa and Sonsonate to the government. On March 30 the businessman wrote a message to the email address carlos.caceres@mh.gob.sv, of the current Finance Minister Carlos Caceres, to request a meeting to discuss the topic.

Caceres replied almost a month later, on April 21, copying in Franzi Hato Hasbun, the secretary of strategic affairs for the presidency. Caceres suggests an independent audit of both properties to guarantee transparency in a possible deal.

SEE ALSO:  El Salvador News and Profiles

That same day, Rais told his associates in the waste disposal business, the Canadians Pasquale and Pacetti, that he had received a “green light” by Funes to negotiate with Hasbun. Months later, however, Rais told his associates, to whom he had said that he would request $60 million for the landfill sites, that he had only received an offer for half that amount.

The last three emails are exchanges between Rais and his Canadian associates. At this time, the foreigners were beginning to complain to the Salvadoran that he was not making the payments that had been agreed upon when they set up the arrangement a decade ago. 

According to the Canadians’ version of events, recorded in legal documents, Enrique Rais refused to pay the agreed dividends, so Pacetti began demanding the restitution of the money owed.

During 2012, Rais made various payments of dividends that he believed sufficient to cover the entire debt. Pacetti and Pasquale claim that the quantities received were not sufficient to cover the debt, so they carried out a legal transfer in Barbados, where the company was established, to take possession of shares of MIDES that belonged to Rais.

The Lawyers That Ended Up Threatened, In Prison or In Court

In June 2013, Rais sued Pasquale and Pacetti in three different Salvadoran courts for extortion, wrongful withholding (for the shares in Barbados), and for defamation. The final result favoured the Salvadoran: two judges ordered arrest warrants with an Interpol red alert for both Canadians.

The foreigners took action themselves on December 30, 2013: they countersued Rais for fraud. The duration of this process was much shorter: it did not leave the peace court, at first because the Prosecutor General’s Office, under the orders of Luis Martinez, asked for a definitive exoneration, and later because the peace judge acquitted Rais of all charges.

The prestigious Salvadoran law firm Romero-Pineda was one of those chosen by the Canadians to represent them. On June 2, 2014, however, the lawyers sent a letter to Pasquale and Pacetti announcing that they would not represent them. The main reason: fear.

Mario Calderon was, in 2012, one of Enrique Rais’ main advisers. However, Calderon stepped down. Calderon ended up working with Matteo Pasquale and Franco Pacetti, Rais’ rivals. After the change in clients, the lawyer faced three legal proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor General’s Office. Today, Calderon is imprisoned in Metapan for one of these cases. His wife, Claudia Herrera, is also in prison.

In November 2014 Revista Factum published a report revealing that Luis Martinez used Rais’ airplanes for various trips — official and private — and that at least one of these flights was regarding procedures related to the dispute between the businessman and the Canadians, who the prosecutor general had already accused of extortion.

Today, according to a loan request made to the Espirito Santo de Brazil Bank three years ago, Enrique Rais’ group owns 17 businesses.

*This story was originally published by Revista Factum and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.

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