US Congress Members Request Investigation of El Salvador Official Linked to Organized Crime

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Fourteen members of the US Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, signed a letter on June 21 in which they called upon the Treasury Department to open an official investigation of Salvadoran political leader and current Vice Minister of Foreign Relations José Luis Merino for “long-standing associations with transnational organized criminal networks [that] are the subject of US criminal investigations.”

Washington has sent a new message about suspicions regarding José Luis Merino, alias “Ramiro Vásquez” — one of the most influential members of the governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) — namely, his possible participation in international networks linked to regional organized crime. This time, the message also comes from the Democrats. And this time, the message is clearer. 

Congressional Democrats and Republicans believe that Merino’s criminal activities pose a “significant threat” to US national security. For that reason, they requested that the US Treasury Department open an investigation “in the national security interests of the United States” under the Kingpin Act.

“Today, we are writing to request that you use your authority under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act to investigate the US-linked banking activities of Salvadoran citizen, José Luis Merino, known also by his nom de guerre Ramiro Vásquez,” reads the letter signed by congressional officials on June 21 and presented to the Treasury that same day. (A copy of the letter is embedded below.)

The signatories highlighted Merino’s status as El Salvador’s vice minister of foreign relations.

“Mr. Merino is a senior member of El Salvador’s governing party [whose] reported long-standing associations with transnational organized criminal networks are the subject of US criminal investigations for cocaine trafficking and money laundering,” the letter reads.

The members of Congress further explained their reasons for requesting an investigation into Merino’s finances: “Multiple open source reports indicate that financial structures controlled by Mr. Merino, currently the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, have acquired hundreds of millions of dollars in unexplained wealth while helping the FARC guerillas in Colombia, corrupt elements of the Venezuelan government, and other criminal groups move funds to safe harbor,” the letter states.

Sources consulted in Washington stated that once the letter is dispatched to the Treasury Department — which InSight Crime confirmed it was on June 21 — it falls to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to open an inquiry and initiate investigations.

A researcher familiar with OFAC processes, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that the congressional letter is not binding. In other words, while OFAC is not compelled by the letter to open an investigation, the researcher clarified that it would not be typical for the executive branch to ignore a petition of this nature.

The Salvadoran Foreign Relations Ministry responded in a press release, claiming that “there are no grounds sustaining the allegations made, and there are no existing legal proceedings against Vice Minister José Luis Merino, neither in El Salvador nor in the United States.”

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

While it is true that there are no legal proceedings against Merino, there is an open investigation by the Attorney General’s Office against the vice minister for possible links to arms and drug trafficking. In July 2016, Salvadoran Attorney General Douglas Meléndez confirmed that he had received an inquiry in 2014 “about events relating to Mr. Merino … regarding the topic of drugs and arms.”

The US State Department says that the congressional letter responds to “a relative internal process of two US institutions” and assured that any investigation will work within “the framework of our legislation and the legal instruments of which we are signatories.”

Washington’s Renewed Interest in ‘Commander Ramiro’

Merino’s participation in companies funded with Venezuelan money, specifically associations with the conglomerate Alba Petróleos in El Salvador, awakened Washington’s curiosity near the end of the 2009 to 2017 term of former US President Barack Obama.

In July 2016, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio accused Merino of having links to drug trafficking and money laundering.

In El Salvador, Merino has an open investigation pending against him in the Salvadoran District Attorney’s office for suspicions that he assisted members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) in the trafficking of drugs and arms. That inquiry was opened in 2008, after the Colombian attorney general sent to El Salvador proof of correspondence from FARC leader Raúl Reyes — assassinated in March 2008 — in which “Commander Ramiro” was identified as a FARC intermediary in the purchase of weapons and missiles.

SEE ALSO: Elites and Organized Crime

According to Reyes’ letters, a significant part of the relationship between Marino and the FARC was backed by officials of former President Hugo Chávez’s government in Venezuela.

Following Rubio’s declarations, Attorney General Meléndez stated that the 2008 investigations had been reopened, but since then, the case has remained at a standstill.

Merino’s direct and indirect involvement with various companies financed by Alba Petróleos and his long-standing relationship with the FARC are only the beginning. There is also Merino’s alleged connection to Enrique Rais, a Salvadoran businessman whose airplanes were impounded in the United States on account of suspected drug trafficking in 2016. Rais is a fugitive from his own country evading corruption charges that implicate El Salvador’s attorney general. Merino recently admitted in a televised interview that Rais is his personal friend, but he denied all other connections to the business tycoon.

Two US federal sources confirmed last week to InSight Crime what was revealed in the congressional letter; namely, that in Washington, there are pending investigations opened by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into networks with possible links to Merino.

With the letter signed by congressional officials from both parties, the suspicions surrounding Merino — which the FMLN had previously perceived as political attacks stemming from the Republican Party alone — have extended to both spheres of the political spectrum represented in the US Congress.

The Signatories

Before, it was only Marco Rubio and spokespeople from the most conservative sector of the Republican Party — the FMLN’s political adversary and usual collaborator of the Salvadoran right, united under the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) — that had grumbled over Merino’s alleged connections to organized crime. Today, doubts arose on the other side of the aisle, including among the most left-leaning sectors of the Democratic Party.

The sponsor of the letter sent to the Treasury Department was Representative Albio Sires, a Democrat from New Jersey and ranking member of the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

Among the Republican signatories were Mario Díaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lethinen and Carlos Curbelo, all from Florida and traditionally linked to a critical FMLN opposition group.

Other signatories from the Republican Party include Ted Yoho, also from Florida; Jeff Duncan, from South Carolina; Christopher Smith, from New Jersey; and Michael McCaul, from Texas.

From the other side of the aisle, the Democratic signatories include Eliot Engel from New York, Norma Torres from California, Joaquín Castro from Texas, Gregory Meeks from New York, Robin Kelly from Illinois, and Adriano Espaillat from New York.

Engel and Torres were two of the congressional members closest to El Salvador, and both have assisted the FMLN government in US Congress. Since 2014, Torres has become one of the principal voices supporting the anti-corruption fight in Central America, and she is also one of the top supporters of US financial assistance in the region. 

Letter sent by the group of US congressional officials to the Treasury Department, in which they requested an investigation into Merino’s finances:

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