José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government’s Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. He does not mention that he amassed a fortune of $60 million, all the while escaping the justice system.

To be sure, “Chepe Diablo,” as he is known, has so far proven to be untouchable. But this may be about to change, as Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has announced the reopening of a money laundering investigation, and he has requested that the United States and other countries share their information on Salazar Umaña in an attempt to finally bring him to justice.

On September 5, 2014, Blanca Noemí Ayala de Reyes, the head of the Criminal Investigation Unit of the Finance Ministry sent a memo with reference number 10014-NEX-0603-2014 to the Organized Crime Unit of the Attorney General’s Office. The document detailed two cash payments made by José Adán Salazar Umaña to the Salvadoran government, one for $467,949.77 and the other for $335,784.91.

This is the first article in a three-part investigation into impunity that can be bought or coerced by government officials and narco “kingpings” in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Read all the chapters of the investigation here.

The name Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” was already well known in law enforcement circles by then. Government and police intelligence had long claimed that Salazar Umaña was the leader of the Texis Cartel, one of the country’s most prominent drug trafficking organizations. Media had also labeled him the leader of the Texis Cartel, and in May 2014, the US Treasury Department had made him part of the Kingpin List, a blacklist of people and businesses connected to drug trafficking activities.

What’s more, prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office and investigators from the Finance Ministry had documents that showed that Salazar Umaña had amassed enormous, yet unjustified wealth. To be sure, Chepe Diablo tripled his fortune between the mid-2000s and 2014, and the Finance Ministry discovered he had evaded taxes in 2010 and 2011. And when they inquired directly with Salazar Umaña, he reportedly could not justify this income or those of his companies, particularly those of his hotel consortium, which he had launched near the end of the 1990s.

But Chepe Diablo is a lucky man, or at least that is the easiest way to explain how he has escaped justice in El Salvador. Sure, he had deep pockets, enough to pay the aforementioned fines noted by Ayala de Reyes for that tax evasion case in cash. In total, he would eventually pay $1.05 million in cash to escape prosecution for tax evasion. And he has a lot of powerful current and former associates, including the current vice president of El Salvador, with whom he once started a business.

However, the money laundering case seemed like a sure-fire prosecution. The Finance Ministry sent audits. Prosecutors sent recommendations to proceed. But Attorney General Luis Martínez — himself now under investigation for corruption and obstruction of justice in two cases not related to Salazar Umaña — buried the case. In addition, the companies that the Finance Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office linked to Chepe Diablo kept their business with the government.

Even other countries have, to date, refrained from formally accusing Salazar Umaña of any criminal activity. Old police reports from Guatemala tied him to a small drug trafficking group in that country, but the investigations were later shelved. The US Treasury Department’s 2014 designation also hinted at more to come, possibly an indictment, but no accusations have followed.

Of course, this may still change. On December 6, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said he had asked the Supreme Court to request information concerning at least 20 companies and financial operations linked to Salazar Umaña from the United States and several other Central American countries.

The court’s approval of the request is still pending. “There it is,” Meléndez said, referring to the case.

Meléndez added that, under his predecessor’s tenure, Salazar Umaña and his associates had received privileged information concerning the authorities’ probes into the cartel’s activities on several occasions.

“Yes, we know that information leaked during this process,” Meléndez said.

The money laundering investigation that Meléndez just reopened is the first serious legal action taken by the Salvadoran state against Salazar Umaña and his structure since the tax evasion case. But it is not clear that this investigation will lead to a formal accusation either.

To be sure, whether we are talking about evading justice along the Guatemala-El Salvador border, steering clear of an indictment in the US or paying off Salvadoran officials just the right amount of fines, Salazar Umaña has shown a remarkable ability — or had remarkable luck — which has allowed him to evade prosecution and troublesome investigations.

Dark Times in Guatemala

José Adán Salazar Umaña’s long list of legal troubles began in the early morning of July 14, 2001, when a Guatemalan named Irma Edelmira Banegas Suchite arrived at 7 a.m. at the police station of Puerto de Iztapa, in the Escuintla department in southern Guatemala. The woman came to report that a “Honduran” man had threatened her the day before. According to the police report, the last name of the accused was Salazar and his nickname, Chepe Diablo.

“Yesterday at about 5 p.m. a person of male gender who is known by the name of José Adán Salazar, nicknamed (Chepe Diablo), who is apparently Honduran came to the house [of the plaintiff]; the man, through threats and intimidation, told [her] that he wanted to use the business of the plaintiff to sell drugs, and that he would physically eliminate her and her family if she refused to collaborate; the business of the plaintiff is called LAN-DAI, [it] is located on the main street of this town,” reads the document signed by Officer Carlos Caljú Hernández, who was managing the station that day. By 12:15 p.m., the document had been entered into the Justice of the Peace Court records of Iztapa, in Escuintla.

(InSight Crime confirmed the authenticity of the complaint with both Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and an officer of the National Police who was stationed in Escuintla in 2001. In July, prosecutors stationed in Guatemala City verified the validity of the stamps on the documents.)

Escuintla is a coastal department along the western part of the border with El Salvador, and is considered a hotbed for drug trafficking. In 2001, based on the complaint, as well as other testimonies, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation into Salazar Umaña’s alleged drug dealing.

Prosecutors also told InSight Crime that Salazar Umaña’s name appeared in another, larger investigation into drug trafficking groups in the eastern department of Zacapa. But justice officials contacted in Guatemala said these were just rumblings, and no follow up work was done to corroborate the Zacapa reports.

“What happened is that there were criminal groups in these areas meddling in all kinds of things,” said a former police officer, who for security reasons asked to remain anonymous. “One of the things they did were small robberies [of drugs], but [they] also recovered packages that the drug traffickers left on the beaches.”

The officer also recalled that the group linked to Chepe Diablo was involved in the recovery of “tulas,” a word used to describe drug packages that the speedboats left close to the coast and that local small drug trafficking groups would later come to collect. According to that same officer, these criminal groups would also carry out kidnappings and killings.

But the Guatemalan investigations never resulted in any formal charges.

From the Border to the New Elite

Metapán is a white-stoned, peaceful colonial city. It is located amidst the chain of mountains that cover the northwest of El Salvador, close to the border with Honduras and Guatemala. Just as the majority of Central American cities built during the time of the Spanish colonization, the city center is flanked by buildings that serve as the headquarters of the traditional powers: the Catholic Church, the mayor’s office and the market. In the case of Metapán, the center is also very close to the Isidro Metapán soccer team’s stadium.

Salazar Umaña’s influence is palpable in at least three of these places: the mayor’s office, the market and the stadium.

Chepe Diablo was an associate of Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán and currently one of the main financial backers of the minority Party of National Reconciliation (Partido de Conciliación Nacional), according to sources from the party. For years, Salazar Umaña was the president of Isidro Metapán and of the Salvadoran Football Federation. And he has offices on the second floor of the market from where, among other things, for the past decade he managed the cattle fair of Santa Ana, the department where Metapán is located.

According to investigations by the Los Angeles Times and El Faro, Metapán is the command center for the Texis Cartel’s operations. The name comes from Texistepeque, a smaller city close to the Guatemalan border that, according to police investigations cited by these media outlets, has been used to move illegal drugs, money, weapons and contraband for the last two decades.

Last September, InSight Crime consulted two Salvadoran ministerial officials who have been following the cartel’s activities and its members since the end of the last decade. Both agreed that the drug trafficking operations have grown more sophisticated, leading to the creation of a conglomerate of legal and powerful enterprises. The most important of these is Gumarsal, which counts among its clients the government, which buys agricultural goods from the company.

Gumarsal was founded on May 23, 1997, when Salazar Umaña, his son José Adán Salazar Martínez, Umaña Samayoa, and Umaña Samayo’s son Wilfredo Guerra Umaña, each put 25,000 colones (around $2,900) into a common fund. It focused on selling processed wheat flour, a market which was at one point the domain of businessman Adolfo Salume. Salume is not one of the famed “14 families,” a fictitious moniker used by foreigners to help them understand the tremendous concentration of wealth in El Salvador. He is a Salvadoran of Middle Eastern descent and the owner of Molinos de El Salvador (Mills of El Salvador), among other businesses. And he is a powerful economic and political force in the country.

But by the end of the last decade, Gumarsal started to grow rapidly and to challenge Salume’s flour monopoly. Threatened, Salume struck back. In interviews with the press, Salume attributed this rapid growth to millions in investments, massive imports of flour and Gumarsal’s ability to undercut the market with low-priced flour. At least part of this was true. Between 2004 and 2011, Gumarsal bought $63.2 million worth of grains and products from the United States, a large amount for a recently formed company.

However, Gumarsal was only part of Chepe Diablo and his cohorts’ scheme. The group also founded Molinos San Juan, Indumasa and Gradeca, thereby creating a vertically integrated distribution chain similar to Salume’s. Between March 2011 and May 2012, for example, Molinos San Juan — whose net worth was then estimated at $31.9 million — imported 1,760 metric tons of wheat to supply, among others, the government.

To be sure, whether we are talking about evading justice along the Guatemala-El Salvador border, steering clear of an indictment in the US or paying off Salvadoran officials just the right amount of fines, Salazar Umaña has shown a remarkable ability — or had remarkable luck — which has allowed him to evade prosecution and troublesome investigations.

Until what stage Salazar Umaña was the force behind Gumarsal is difficult to say. Salazar Umaña’s name does not always appear on the company documents between its founding in 1997 and 2004, and it disappears completely thereafter. What’s more, the owner of the company, Wilfredo Guerra, insists that Salazar Umaña, who is his godfather, has no relationship with the company. And after Salume created an online news service, Diario 1, which he used to attack the company, which Diario 1 connected to Salazar Umaña, Guerra sued him and a journalist for defamation.

When the US Treasury placed Salazar Umaña on its list of kingpins, Gumarsal contracted a law firm in Washington, DC to lobby the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the part of Treasury Department that determines the Kingpin List, and other US government entities. It was not just a question of image for the company. OFAC prohibits other companies and people do any business with those on its list.

Still, for the Attorney General’s Office of El Salvador, the partners of Gumarsal were and remain part of the same story.

“The case includes José Adán Salazar Umaña, Wilfredo Guerra Umaña, Juan Umaña Samayoa, also known as Juan Samayoa,” according to one document prosecutors wrote in relation to the tax evasion case. “They were being investigated for money laundering crimes, because there was enough evidence” to warrant such an investigation.

Along the way, Salazar Umaña’s fortune rose. In addition to Gumarsal, Molinos San Juan, Indumasa, and Gradeca, Salvadoran investigators determined that Salazar Umaña owned Transportes Dany, a trucking company, and Hoteles Salvadorenos SA de CV (Hotesa), a hotel chain, and that those companies had falsified records of their earnings.

“The Finance Ministry found in two separate reviews of each of the people who were investigated as well as Hotesa SA de CV and Gumarsal SA de CV, that those involved had falsified the books and showed a rise in earnings that is not justified,” the same Attorney General’s Office report says.

During its first ten years, Hotesa, for instance, never stopped growing. In 2008, for instance, it was valued at $3.7 million, according to a document signed by Salazar Umaña. Two years later, its earnings had risen by 32.6 percent, compared to the year prior, and it was valued at $18.5 million.

Today, the hotels and flour sales appear to be Salazar Umaña’s most important legal businesses, although even the Attorney General’s Office is having trouble connecting him to these companies. Molinos San Juan and Hotesa were valued at $40 million in 2010, and their net earnings were pegged at $14 million per year.

Authorities think that Salazar Umaña is hiding much more money. Investigations that continued after the tax evasion case was closed allege that he has secret bank accounts. The auditing that the Finance Ministry did of 2010 and 2011 earnings is also connected to OFAC’s designation.

“There is a lot of money that Salazar Umaña cannot justify,” a US federal agent, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told InSight Crime.

At the end of 2010, Salazar Umaña declared earnings of over $13 million. Of this money, the Finance Ministry determined that he could not reasonably justify $1.4 million.

That is why in 2014, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating Salazar Umaña for tax evasion and for money laundering. That same year, the Financial Crimes Unit (Unidad de Investigaciones Financieras – UIF) opened file 22-UIF-2014 for tax evasion, in which the UIF lumped together Salazar Umaña, his son, Umaña Samayoa and Wilfredo Guerra, in addition to Gumarsal and Hotesa.

But by then, Salazar Umaña and his group had enough power — and luck — to escape justice.

The Narcos from the West

In photographs that have come out in the Salvadoran press, and in the one interview that he did, Salazar Umaña is always smiling. Dressed in jeans, a short-sleeve shirt, and hiding behind generic sunglasses and a baseball hat, Chepe Diablo does not project an image of a sinister character.

Salazar Umaña has never liked the cameras or the attention.

“He’s shy,” his godson and owner of Gumarsal, Wilfredo Guerra, told us when we asked if he could help us arrange an interview with Salazar Umaña. (InSight Crime tried to find him at his offices in Hotesa as well, but we were unsuccessful.)

In the only interview that he ever gave, he insisted that he was an honorable businessman who had gotten his start changing money along the El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala border area. But by 2008, authorities were already looking closely at his businesses in Metapán where the businesses operate.

The case file came together in 2009, when police intelligence baptized the investigation “Caso Limites.” The case connected Salazar Umaña with the now Mayor Umaña Samayoa and Roberto “el Burro” Herrera.

The Caso Limites case file described Herrera as “the second in command of a drug trafficking structure?He has been designated control of Santa Ana and [the department of] Ahuachapan.”

“El Burro or Coyote,” another part of the case file reads, “is one of the leaders of a strong structure dedicated to moving drugs through the western part of the country. What’s more, it is connected to the MS13 [street gang] and the Zetas [Mexican criminal organization] in Guatemala?This drug trafficker moves with ease, in part because he has good relations with high level police officials and other government officials.”

Another alleged member of the criminal organization is Jose Misael Cisneros, alias “Medio Millon.” Cisneros has been accused of drug trafficking and murder and was described by the US Treasury Department as a “target” in June 2013. Salvadoran authorities have also investigated Cisneros for providing weapons to the MS13 faction known as the Fulton. But while US authorities have identified him as a part of the MS13, Salvadoran authorities say he is more of a collaborator than a full-fledged gang member.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

At the end of the last decade, Cisneros, who was also investigated in in Boston and Nantucket, Massachusetts, for drug trafficking and other crimes, was operating in the town of Nueva Concepción. Nueva Concepción is located along the Northern Highway in the department of Chalatenango, an area controlled by the Fulton, where the gang allegedly manages the flow of drugs. Cisneros, it appears, was the middleman between the gang and the Texis Cartel.

Beginning in 2009, Herrera, Cisneros, and Salazar Umaña began appearing regularly in police intelligence reports. And in February 17, 2011, police intelligence detained Herrera for a few hours to question him. The action was based, in part, on a report from the Interpol from two years before that connected Herrera to crimes in the United States. In July 2013, then Attorney General Luis Martínez green lighted an order to capture Herrera and charge him with car theft and drug trafficking. Authorities captured three dozen more suspects connected to the case, including a military official, a prosecutor, and several businessmen. Herrera was eventually convicted and sentenced to 35 years. He is now in the country’s maximum security prison in Zacatecoluca.

Cisneros was also arrested in 2012, and then again in 2015, and charged with murder and weapons trafficking. But he was released on both occasions.

Salazar Umaña, however, was never charged with any crimes related to the Texis Cartel. This despite the fact that, in an interview with InSight Crime 2012, Attorney General Martínez said he was confident he could stand up the accusations against the Texis Cartel, including those that involved high level police and their connections with Salazar Umaña, Herrera, and other members of the criminal organization.

However, Martínez’s office never investigated those officials or Salazar Umaña. Instead, he went after the officers who had investigated their superiors for their connections to the drug trafficking group, accusing them of leaking documents, which led to El Faro’s ground-breaking report on the criminal organization. (Various media outlets, among them Diario de Hoy, said the Attorney General’s Office was accusing them of “evidence tampering,” but this was not the case.) The investigations against these lower level police seemed to contradict the evidence collected and used in the prosecution of Herrera, as well as the evidence collected by the Finance Ministry and OFAC.

In the end, in spite of the conviction and sentencing of Herrera, as well as the investigations by the Finance Ministry and the OFAC, Salazar Umaña was about to escape prosecution.

Case File 22-UIF-2014 and How to Trash an Investigation

Suspicions about Salazar Umaña’s activities began at the tail end of the Antonio Saca presidency (2004-2009). They were spurred by the rapid growth of his businesses. The proof seemed irrefutable.

“There is no legal justification for that kind of growth,” a former Saca administration official, who knew of the investigation into Salazar Umaña, told InSight Crime.

The Finance Ministry’s investigation into tax evasion talks of three businessmen and two businesses, all of them related to the Texis Cartel, and all of them with the ability to pay hundreds of thousands in fines in cash. According to ministry documents, Salazar Umaña — in his own name and name of his company, Hotesa — paid $1,056,707.43; Gumarsal — the agricultural company that Salazar founded with Mayor Juan Umaña Samoyoa, along with his son, Wilfredo Guerra — paid $1,327,860.47; Samoyoa, in his own name, paid $135,636.24; and Guerra paid $393,037.08.

The investigation had some serious anomalies. In 2010, the Salvadoran Treasury Department conducted several audits of Salazar Umaña. The auditors tracked Salazar Umaña’s unregistered bank accounts and found $753,289 the businessman could not reasonably justify. In 2011, they found that Chepe Diablo had earned an additional $280,500 in real estate, which they believed he could not reasonably justify. In that same year, Salazar Umaña Salazar Umaña reported earnings of $600,761.91, which he put into his Banco de América Central ($567,967.49) and Banco Hipotecario ($32,794.42) accounts, that they also believed he could not justify. Finally, there was another $208,899.10 deposited into the Banco Hipotecario, which they believed he could not justify.

The investigators also found various payments dating back to 2004, which did not seem right, such as payments for what they believed were fictitious debts. For example, representatives of Salazar Umaña’s companies told investigators that they had received a loan of $350,000 from a company known as Chevron Caribbean Inc. At the time, Salazar Umaña owned gasoline stations that Chevron Caribbean Inc. supplied. Representatives of Salazar Umaña’s companies told investigators the loan was used to build Hotel Sevilla, a part of the Hotesa chain. However, Salazar Umaña did not register this loan until 2011, three years after it was supposedly made, and investigators presumed that money itself was “non-existent,” and possibly part of a money laundering scheme.

“There is a lot of money that Salazar Umaña cannot justify,” a US federal agent, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told InSight Crime.

In 2014, while Luis Martínez and his Attorney General’s Office were investigating the Salazar Umaña group for tax evasion, the Salvadoran Finance Ministry sent them their findings. (InSight Crime obtained these documents as well.) One of the criminal investigators who participated in the investigation agreed to speak to us on the condition of anonymity. (We contrasted this person’s version with those of other Finance Ministry investigators who participated in the inquiry. The statements of these investigators were, in some respects, also corroborated by the most recent statements made by the current Attorney General Meléndez, who said the case was “halted,” or “in some way, shelved.”) The investigator said that, using the Finance Ministry’s findings, the prosecutors recommended further investigation. They also did something that seemed quite obvious: asked a San Salvador judge to seize all the accounting and documents related to Salazar and his group on the tax evasion case for the purposes of “doing an audit?so we can establish whether or not money laundering is taking place, and determine who might be involved.”

There, the investigator explained, was the evidence of “how those who were being investigated had lied.”

The next step was for financial investigators and auditing specialists in the Attorney General’s Office to green light the investigation and open the case for money laundering, something the prosecutors did by filing a formal petition to the judge. In fact, the case seemed ready for its formal launch by March 2015. The attorney general simply had to name the investigators.

“It’s basically by the book, the idea that the Attorney General’s Office should have opened a case for money laundering against these people, because by law it’s clear that when someone recognized they have evaded taxes because of income that they have not declared, then they must be laundering it,” one of the investigators said in an interview in San Salvador.

However, the Attorney General’s Office withdrew the request from the judge’s office. Using childish excuses, the head of the Finacial Crime unit (FIU) and other prosecutors directly assigned by then Attorney General Luis Martínez to investigate the case instead started to actively obstruct it.

First, they delayed requesting documents from court that had all the documents concerning the tax evasion and money laundering. “The documents were vital to the investigations,” said one of the lower-ranking prosecutors who participated in the case and testified that his bosses delayed the proceedings. The person spoke to us via text and asked for anonymity because of fear of losing their job by speaking publicly about this matter.

The FIU’s reasons for not asking for the evidence seemed incredible. First, the prosecutor explained, the head of the FIU said that they could not ask for the documents, “Because there was no physical space to have the documentation and the experts work.”

This, the prosecutor said, is a lie: for at least two decades, the Attorney General’s Office has had extra space to deal with large case files.

Another excuse was that it was necessary to think very carefully about any action of the Attorney General’s Office, because Salazar Umaña was “in the eye of the United States” and the press, so any move against him needed to be calculated. (Since 1917, El Salvador has had an extradition treaty with the United States, but it is rarely enforced.)

On August 24, 2015, the head of the FIU, Tovías Menjívar, issued a memo, which three media outlets eventually obtained, stating simply that the office was no longer going to investigate the case. This went beyond not asking for the Finance Ministry’s evidence and delaying the start of the investigation, the memo made clear that no one was to continue with the case. InSight Crime tried without success to speak to Menjívar.

But the case still lingered in the court, and so to make sure it was closed, Attorney General Martínez put his niece, Alessia Esteffi Herrera Menjívar, in charge of the case. Herrera followed Martínez’s orders and asked the court to return all the files to Salazar Umaña and his team. Menjívar then closed case 22-UIF-2014, and the only Salvadoran designated a “kingpin” by the United States was free of charges.

A Man with Good Friends

Molinos San Juan is a thriving business. Last year, it invested $7 million to expand its flour mill and production facility.

On June 17, the company put out a full-page advertisement in El Diario de Hoy newspaper, talking about its 1,100 employees, as well as the production facilities of its mother company, Gumarsal: “We are preparing to increase flour production in El Salvador this month. Beginning five years ago, Gumarsal, one of El Salvador’s top granaries and its derivatives…has remained committed to increasing its size offering high quality products to bakeries.”

Guerra’s and Umaña Samayoa’s investment in the company reached $2.5 million, according to an interview that Umaña Samayoa did with El Faro in February 2014. Molinas San Juan has 17 percent of the flour market, he added.

For his part, Adolfo Salume, the group’s principal competitor in the flour and granaries market, says this explosion of commercial activity is directly related to their connection to illicit drug trafficking and started with an initial investment of $30 million. Guerra denies this claim. What’s more, Gumarsal representatives in Washington, DC told InSight Crime that their company has nothing to do with Salazar Umaña.

When pressed on Salume’s accusations about Gumarsal’s alleged connection to drug trafficking, Guerra told El Faro that, “I have no idea what the hell you are talking about.”

“When the article about the Texis Cartel came out [in El Faro], we were surprised,” he added. “I went crazy because reading that bullshit it seemed like something the tabloids would make up, a rumor that would come from some friend of a friend. So that surprised us when it came out. What happened is that since we started this, there has been a huge storm of accusations. But the reality is that we were simply getting into the flour business.”

The situation soon moved beyond accusations and included a lawsuit for defamation filed by Guerra and Mayor Samayoa Umaña against Salume and the Salvadoran journalist Lafitte Fernández. In May 2015, the courts ruled against Salume and Fernández. Later, an appellate court reversed the lower court decision.

Meanwhile, Gumarsal continues to flourish, especially as it relates to its business with the government. In October, InSight Crime watched while Gumarsal hauled sacks of grain to the Finance Ministry, part of the multiple contracts the company has with the state. The Agriculture Ministry was also buying products from Gumarsal as recently as 2012, according to then President Mauricio Funes.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Chepe Diablo

Salazar Umaña has political contacts as well. In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report on organized crime in Central America. When speaking about the Texis Cartel, it mentioned how it and its leader Salazar Umaña had grown thanks to “the protection provided by politicians.”

These contacts include the current vice president, a former guerrilla commander named Oscar Ortíz. Ortíz, Salazar Umaña and a third partner named Rogelio Cervantes started something they called Desarrollos Montecristo in June 2000. Salazar Umaña was not yet on law enforcement’s radar.

They registered the company in the city of Santa Ana with a lawyer named Salvador de Jesús Tobar Ruiz. Tobar Ruiz was also the lawyer of record for a property that authorities would seize later, as part of the investigation into the Texis Cartel.

Among Desarrollos Montecristo’s principal activities was, “the buying and selling of urban properties for the purposes of tourism.” Between 2002 and 2012, Ortíz and Cervantes made three transactions regarding the buying and selling of land. The most recent transaction happened in 2010, while Ortíz was mayor of the municipality of Santa Tecla, a city on the edge of the capital San Salvador. By then, Ortíz was a prominent player in the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), which is currently the ruling party.

In various interviews, Ortíz denied any association with Salazar Umaña, but he has not disavowed his connection to Desarrollos Montecristo. But he also lied, claiming that he had not seen Salazar Umaña since 2004, when in reality the two had gathered in 2014, as a photograph from El Faro showed. After El Faro, Factum and La Prensa Grafica all wrote about this relationship, the vice president claimed it was part of a defamation campaign against him. Then Attorney General Luis Martínez did not investigate the possible connections.

But Martínez’s actions, or inactions, are starting to catch up to him. He has been charged with corruption, evidence tampering and extortion in two separate cases, neither of them related to Salazar Umaña or the Texis Cartel. In one case, Martínez is connected to Enrique Rais, who the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently declared a “Priority Target.” In the other, he is charged with illegally issuing a wiretap. Two different judges, however, have allowed him to walk free while the cases proceed against him.

Since Douglas Meléndez became attorney general, and with some pressure from the US government, the Salazar Umaña case has been revived. And in April, Meléndez complained about his predecessor’s decision to shelve the case.

“Unfortunately, I have found a precarious situation as it relates to cases,” Meléndez told a group of journalists just weeks after he took office. “Precarious as it relates to corruption, to drug trafficking cases; as it relates to money laundering.”

“We have reopened some investigations that were halted or in some way shelved,” he said, referring to the Salazar Umaña case.

The US embassy seemed happy with these statements. However, since that time, prosecutors have yet to move on the cases. What’s more, the little movement they have had, according to two US investigators and two Salvadoran investigators consulted by InSight Crime, has come because of US assistance. The US government has also offered to finance the Special Group Against Impunity (Grupo Especial Contra la Impunidad – GECI), the unit that Meledez said he would create to deal with cases like this.

The stance is consistent with the interest expressed by the United States beginning in 2014, with the designation of Chepe Diablo as a kingpin. Nonetheless, as luck would have it, Salazar Umaña remains free.

*This investigation was done with the assistance of Sweden.

What are your thoughts?

Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

One reply on “The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice”