El Salvador Attorney General Taking Heat for Corruption Cases

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El Salvador Attorney General Douglas Meléndez is still catching heat from well-connected pressure groups upset with the Public Ministry’s pursuit of corruption cases, a letter he wrote to members of the US Congress indicates.

InSight Crime obtained a copy of a March 18, 2016, letter from Meléndez to six US lawmakers. The letter came in response to a February 4 note from the legislators offering the newly installed attorney general their support.

“I should mention another concern of mine, which is the intention of groups outside the institution to interfere in cases involving corruption and probity, in ongoing investigations or future investigations,” Meléndez wrote.

The attorney general made similar statements to Salvadoran journalists on February 19, shortly after becoming El Salvador’s attorney general. Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has taken up three civil suits for illegal enrichment involving former high-level public officials. In his letter, Meléndez told the US lawmakers that combatting corruption and impunity were near the top of his agenda.

One of the cases is against former President Mauricio Funes and his ex-wife Vanda Pignato, who currently serves in the Salvadoran cabinet as secretary of Social Inclusion. Another high-profile case involves Leonel Flores, a personal friend of Funes and former director of the Salvadoran Social Security Institute – ISSS). The probity section of El Salvador’s high court found inconsistencies within the former officials’ mandatory financial disclosures, including personal funds that they have not been able to justify.

The third big case is against Reynaldo Cardoza, a deputy of the right-wing National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliación Nacional – PCN), who police have linked to drug trafficking and contraband groups. Cardoza faced charges related to human trafficking in the 1990s, but was absolved.

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The Supreme Court has also found indications of illegal enrichment in the financial disclosures of former President Antonio Saca, Funes’ predecessor. The court has said Saca failed to disclose bank accounts to tax authorities, but the attorney general has not yet opened a civil suit against him.

Meléndez has not named names or referred to specific cases in either of his statements alleging outside interference. However, two sources close to Meléndez’s office told InSight Crime that the pressure has been applied in cases eminating from the high court’s Probity section, and in other corruption cases that got bogged down during the tenure of his successor, Luís Martínez.

“What the attorney general is trying to say to the congresspeople is that he has a clear commitment to fighting corruption, and he will continue along those lines,” a source close to the Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime. “But he is also saying that there are mafias embedded in the State apparatus that are doing everything they can to impede his efforts.”

The source, who requested anonymity so that he could speak frankly, said the problematic cases referred to in Meléndez’s letter where those involving former presidents.

InSight Crime Analysis

Attorney General Meléndez assumed that position at a very complicated time in El Salvador.

On one hand, he was sworn in as head of the Public Ministry at the beginning of 2016; with the previous year having closed with 6,657 homicides, for a rate of 103 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That is a record for El Salvador and the highest rate in the world for a country not at war. The level of impunity in Salvadoran homicide cases is among the highest in Central America, with only one in 10 cases reaching the courts last year.

Amid this scenerio of extreme violence caused by conflict between rival gangs MS13 and Barrio 18, and between each gang and the state, Meléndez took over the Attorney General’s office at a time when the office plagued by a serious loss of prestige, caused in large part by accusations of corruption leveled against his predecessor, Luís Martínez.

In El Salvador, organized crime and political mafias feel sufficiently empowered to affect the course of criminal investigations and inhibit the proper functioning of the Attorney General’s Office.

When Martínez left the office, journalists were hounding him over his personal relationship with Enrique Rais, a businessman accused of fraud in whose planes Martínez had traveled. The media accounts alleged that Rais received beneficial treatment from the Public Ministry.

Martínez also faced accusations of favoring José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias Chepe Diablo, leader of the Cartel de Texis and the only Salvadoran designated by the White House as an international drug kingpin. In 2014, Martínez ordered prosecutors to shelve a money laundering investigation they had opened against Salazar Umaña in spite of the Finance Ministry finding strong indications of the crime.

Meléndez himself confirmed that the case against Chepe Diablo was abruptly closed on Martínez’s watch. “I also want to tell you,” Meléndez told journalists, “in this case … of Adán Salazar, while it is true there was an initial investigation, … we have found that the investigation was abruptly closed.” Meléndez made the declaration recently, after news of the supposed Cartel de Texis leader’s business dealings with Vice President Óscar Ortiz came to light.

When, at the end of 2015, the Legislative Assembly debated who would become the next attorney general, opposition lawmakers accused Martínez of using criminal investigations as leverage to ensure his re-election.

Sources close to Meléndez say the attorney general has been busy trying to clean house since assuming the position. At the outset, he ordered 60 personnel changes, banishing Martínez’s closest collaborators.

The new attorney general has initiated very few investigations so far. His biggest initiative came last week, when Meléndez proposed to the Assembly a half dozen reforms to the Penal Code as part of the administration’s effort to curb rampant crime and violence.

The two public complaints about “external pressure” in corruption cases put forth by Meléndez appear to be sending a clear message, most recently directly to Washington: In El Salvador, organized crime and political mafias feel sufficiently empowered to affect the course of criminal investigations and inhibit the proper functioning of the Attorney General’s Office.

In other words, it is a cry for help.

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