El Salvador Judges Accused of Stealing Seized Cash

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The arrest of 12 judicial officials, accused of pilfering hundreds of thousands of dollars from criminal proceedings, highlights the urgent need to clean up El Salvador’s justice system.

El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has arrested 12 members of a criminal network that allegedly embezzled $300,000 via a scheme in which judicial officials absolved murderers, drug traffickers, and extortionists, reported El Mundo.

According to investigators, several defendants being prosecuted for money laundering were absolved by corrupt judges; afterwards, the defendants were expected to walk away and not demand that the confiscated cash be returned. In other cases, judges would authorize returning the seized cash — which in one case involved $150,000 — only to distribute the money among other corrupt officials involved in the scheme. 

The network was made up of three judges — only one of whom has been suspended — who were already under investigation for bribery; two former prosecutors for El Salvador’s Financial Investigation Unit (UIF), and a number of lawyers.

The case against these officials was built based on testimony by a protected witness, “Ades,” who once worked within the criminal network.

Ades claimed that the network’s activities led to people accused of serious crimes unjustly being absolved or having their prison time reduced, seemingly in return for substantial bribes.

Investigations are ongoing, in order to determine whether former UIF chief Rolando Monroy, among others, was also involved in the scheme, El Mundo reported. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Cases such as these highlight just how dysfunctional El Salvador’s judicial sector is, both in terms of corruption, and the ability of authorities to catch corrupt officials. Bribery scandals involving high-level judges are not uncommon: in 2012, 80 percent of the country’s judges were reportedly under investigation.

However, the ability of El Salvador’s judicial bodies to actually build successful cases against corrupt officials is extremely limited. Impunity in the country is estimated to be at 90 percent. Notably, this latest case apparently only materialized as the result of testimony from a single protected witness.

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Inefficiency in the justice system has contributed to Salvadoran security forces all too often taking justice into their own hands. This year, the police force has upped its aggressive tactics and reportedly formed death squads against the country’s notorious street gangs, prompting calls that the police now need reigning in.

Lack of police trust in the courts is contributing to El Salvador’s overall chaos, but the country may not have to look very far to find an example of how to best tackle judicial reform. Recent developments in Guatemala suggest that training up prosecutors in building cases around technical evidence, such as phone recordings and e-mails, can have a huge impact. Many cases in El Salvador depend heavily on witness testimony, meaning if no one is caught in the act and if there are no informants willing to collaborate, the investigation goes nowhere. 

Guatemala was able to train up its prosecutors in part due to UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), ultimately resulting in the the resignation and arrest of former President Otto Perez Molina on corruption charges in September 2015. But with El Salvador recently rejecting the possibility of establishing a similar institution, the country may well remain over-dependent on less easily attainable testimonial evidence.

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