El Salvador’s Ruling Party Lobbies Washington over Corruption Allegations

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A deputy with El Salvador’s ruling FMLN party traveled to Washington, DC last month to intervene in the offices of Congress on behalf of José Luis Merino — the party leader linked to a businessman facing corruption charges. US organizations with ties to the FMLN have also attacked Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez. Meanwhile, the US government has decided to support Meléndez without objections: they have helped him present money laundering cases and they have offered to fund a special anti-impunity unit.

Congressman Blandino Nerio was chosen by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) to fly to Washington, DC during the week of September 12 to meet with congressional offices regarding corruption cases opened by Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez. The investigation of arms trafficking allegations against former Defense Minister Atilio Benítez was one of these cases. But it was not the most important one.

The central purpose of the visit was to defend José Luis Merino, or commander “Ramiro Vásquez,” who is one of the most influential leaders in the ruling party. US Senator Marco Rubio has accused Merino of drug trafficking and money laundering.

This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

While Nerio was in Washington, a US organization affiliated with the FMLN questioned the “partiality” with which Attorney General Meléndez is pursuing corruption cases. Both Nerio and the organization also accused US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes of interference because she allegedly pressured Salvadoran members of congress to lift the immunity of Benítez, who has been serving as the Salvadoran Ambassador to Germany.

Half a dozen people present at the meetings or knowledgeable about them have confirmed to Factum that the accusations and concerns raised were all part of the FMLN plan for Nerio’s visit. In an interview with Factum, Nerio confirmed that the FMLN sent him to discuss the actions of Manes and her alleged diplomatic interference in the Merino case.

“We did not go to make complaints,” Nerio told Factum. “We went to say, ‘Look, this is happening. This is poor conduct and we are asking you to take note of it.’ We’re not going to go around complaining or whining. We simply came to say, ‘This is not right,’ and we are hoping that they do what is right to them. We cannot tell them what to do either.”

The Agenda of Blandino Nerio, FMLN Envoy

On September 12, Nerio, Salvadoran academic Héctor Perla and former Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) deputy and activist Leonel Búcaro had a full day at the US Congress. The FMLN entourage visited the offices of Senators Robert Corker (R-Tennessee), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Dick Durban (D-Illinois) and Eleanor Holmes Burton (D-District of Columbia). They also met with legislative aides attached to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The FMLN agenda included a complaint regarding Ambassador Manes and her handling of the Merino case. FMLN concern for Merino and the potential investigation in the United States was made public by an August 21 article published in El Nuevo Herald. The article compiled statements made by Senator Rubio that berated Merino and accused him of money laundering and maintaining relationships with transnational drug trafficking.

Just under a month before the publication of that article, on August 2, Senator Rubio’s office wrote a letter to US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to request an investigation of Merino’s finances. As confirmed by a source in Washington who read it, the letter to Secretary Lew references Salvadoran business magnate Enrique Rais as Merino’s main partner. On August 23, Attorney General Meléndez authorized the arrest of Rais and former Attorney General Luis Martínez on charges of corruption and manipulation of justice. Both are currently awaiting trial but remain free.

After the meetings in Washington, Nerio sent a comforting message to San Salvador. Through an online messaging service, one of the assistants who had attended the meetings said that the FMLN entourage had been told that the US Congress had not opened any investigations against Merino and that it was not within the legislative body’s mandate to do so. Factum confirmed these facts with legislative sources that were aware of what was discussed in the meetings. Nerio, however, denies having asked Congress about any open investigations of Merino.

Factum asked a number of US law enforcement agencies if there were any open investigations of Merino or Rais. As of this writing, all that was confirmed was the petition made by Senator Rubio to the Treasury Department and an open file on Rais by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

In Washington, Nerio also raised concern about Attorney General Douglas Meléndez’s impartiality. Two US sources privy to the meetings who asked to remain anonymous confirmed that Nerio accused Meléndez of violating legal impartiality and pursuing cases only against members of the previous government, like former President Mauricio Funes.

Nerio’s trip occurred shortly after he accused Ambassador Manes of attempting to influence a legislative commission overseeing a preliminary hearing against Atilio Benítez, the former defense minister and current ambassador to Germany accused of arms trafficking.

“The problems of our country belong to Salvadorans, she should stick to her own things,” Nerio said in reference to Manes.

When asked later about the matter, the US diplomat answered with a rhetorical question: “For any society, the fight against corruption is essential and important because it’s the money of the people…Why would anyone not want to fight corruption?” Manes said to journalists on September 2, three days after Nerio’s remarks.

Factum spoke with Nerio on October 6 about his trip to Washington and his meeting with US senators. His trip, he confirmed, was for FMLN business.

Factum has information regarding your recent trip to Washington to meet with some senators to talk about local issues. Would you be able to confirm this for us?

Look, unfortunately we arrived a week before the congressional recess. That, combined with the election situation, made a very complex agenda for the Congress, and so we met with chief cabinet members. We met with the chief of staff of the chairperson of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, the deputy chief of staff, the chief of staff for [a congressperson from] Washington state, and members of congress from California and Maryland.

What issues did you talk about?

The issues of interest that we focused on were regarding the defamation campaigns in which Senator Rubio is involved, raising the issue of the supposed ties to trafficking and money laundering of our colleague Ramiro Vásquez [sic]; and using as evidence the famous computers of Commander Raúl Reyes of the FARC, which were seized over a decade ago during an attack on the Colombia-Ecuador border and which have been disqualified by Colombian courts on suspicion of contamination — which were examined and did not attest to anything. With this defamatory argument, he has gone around saying whatever nonsense to the media.

Did you go to ask if there was an investigation against Ramiro Vásquez?

No. We went to tell them, “Look, this guy is doing this and we want you to take note.” The response of each one of them was that it was impossible for any of them to control the crazy talk the senator says publicly because it’s outside of Congress’ agenda, that those ideas have no backing. 

Who was on this mission beside yourself?

Only the deputy of the PARLACEN, Leonel Búcaro, and his assistant.

Ok. Factum also has some information that your party went to speak about the US Ambassador to El Salvador and her actions, which you categorized as “interference.”

Of course! We pointed out that certain public statements by the ambassador were unacceptable and we asked that they take note of the situation. For us, the US government is not an enemy or anything like that. As an ally, we hope for the respectful tone that merits such friendly relations between countries.

Is this about the comment the ambassador made about General Benítez’s case?

It’s about any case in which an opinion is expressed about internal issues with the intention of swaying public opinion. That is unacceptable.

Basically your party went to complain about the US Ambassador…

We did not go to make complaints. We came to say, “Look, this is happening. This is poor conduct and we are asking you to take note of it.” We’re not going to go around complaining or whining. We simply went to say, “This is not right,” and we are hoping that they do what is right to them. We cannot tell them what to do either.

Another source has indicated to Factum that you went to ask if there is an open case against Ramiro Vásquez.

No, we did not ask that. We went to report that there were no such things.

Did you also speak about Attorney General Douglas Melédez?

No. We spoke about these specific topics. We were interested in raising concern about the conduct of Rubio and raising awareness of what had happened with the ambassador. As conversations unfolded one of them wanted to hear our perspective on the Attorney General of the Republic and we gave our responses.

And what were those responses?

That he is a new man in charge and we are prudently watching his performance as the head of one of the most important institutions of the country and we hope he does well. Basically.

Did you mention anything about partial investigations?

We never said that. We firmly expect the prosecutor to confront national problems of corruption and delinquency, etc., without favoring either side. That was our focus.

To close, was this a party mission?

It was a party mission.

The mission was not financed with Assembly or PARLACEN funds?

No, it was not financed by the Assembly, nor did it take advantage of any of the privileges of the deputy.

Was the mission ordered by Ramiro?

No, it was ordered by the party. Ramiro does not order missions.

*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length and published with the permission of Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.

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