El Salvador Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has ordered the arrest of several prominent suspects accused of judicial corruption, including his own predecessor, an unprecedented move that suggests Meléndez's office is prepared to pursue high-profile corruption cases.
On August 22, authorities arrested ex-Attorney General Luis Martínez and prominent businessman Enrique Rais. Also arrested were Martínez's former deputy, Julio Arriaza, a former judge, Rais' nephew and two of his lawyers. Meléndez has also issued four arrest orders for suspects whose identities remain unclear.
The men are accused of participating in a conspiracy to defraud the justice system in several cases relating to Rais' business interests.
In the interest of full disclosure, we note that one of the subjects of this article, Enrique Rais, is suing InSight Crime Senior Researcher Hector Silva in connection with an article he wrote based on official investigations.
At the center of this case, according to officials in the Attorney General's Office consulted by InSight Crime, is the "improper" relationship established by Martínez and Rais in order to advance the businessman's legal agenda, particularly in relation to a multi-million dollar lawsuit involving two Canadian former partners in Rais' waste disposal company, MIDES S.A. de C.V., which handles most of El Salvador's solid waste.
An advisor to Meléndez told InSight Crime that the arrest warrants issued and executed on Monday are based in part on the suspicion that Martínez, Rais and the other suspects collaborated to obstruct investigations and tamper with evidence in order to weaken cases brought against Rais and strengthen cases that Rais brought against his adversaries.
"What we are attacking is the organization that [Rais] had, that began with the former attorney general and allowed him to handle justice at his will," said the advisor, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive case.
Court documents show that some $25 million are in dispute between Rais and the Canadians. The businessman's former partners have claimed that he failed to repay debts related to transactions involving MIDES. In turn, Rais has accused the Canadians of extortion and defamation.
As InSight Crime and Salvadoran news outlet Revista Factum previously reported, these legal battles have often turned out in Rais' favor. The prosecutors' new allegations against Rais and Martínez suggest that this was due to a corrupt relationship between the two while Martínez was serving as attorney general.
After Martínez left office in September 2015, Rais' luck in Salvadoran courts started to change. By March 2016, the Supreme Court had reversed a ruling by a lower tribunal that exonerated Rais of extortion. And now, the businessman faces charges that could land him in jail.
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Revista Factum first revealed the nature of the relationship between Martínez and Rais in a November 2014 report that showed that Martínez, while in office, had traveled in airplanes owned by Rais. Later, other Salvadoran media outlets expanded the search and found that Martínez used those planes regularly for official and personal business.
When first asked about it, Martínez did not deny taking the trips, and he dismissed a reporter's question by saying that it was a matter of no importance. When asked in private, the former attorney general told politicians and donors that he was using the planes for security reasons.
El Salvador's Governmental Ethics Tribunal (Tribunal de Ética Gubernamental - TEG) later opened an inquiry about the plane travels. In July, TEG fined Martínez $8,900 and ruled that the former attorney general had conducted himself in an inappropriate manner in order to advance Rais' legal agenda. Rulings by the TEG do not have criminal implications, but the agency passed its findings to Meléndez's office, advising that crimes might have been committed.
Enrique Rais after his arrest. c/o Salvador Meléndez/Revista Factum
In April of this year, the Rais-Martínez question found its way into a Florida courthouse when a local sheriff, William Snyder, asked the judge to secure the seizure of a helicopter and three planes belonging to companies connected to Rais as part of a civil case questioning the legality of those companies.
As InSight Crime reported, the petition filed by the sheriff's office said that Rais was the subject of a narcotics investigation headed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and that drug-sniffing dogs had alerted authorities to two of the airplanes.
Several prominent political figures, including former Attorney General Martínez, had flown on those planes in recent years. Other passengers include José Luis Merino, a leading figure in El Salvador's governing party, and former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.
There is no indication that Martínez was involved in trafficking drugs, but both Merino and Lobo have been dogged by suspicions of their involvement in the narcotics business.
Sheriff Snyder settled the civil suit in June. Rais paid a $20,000 fine, and a judge ordered him to properly register his aircraft before they were returned to him. The DEA, however, kept its drug investigation open, and the agency now appears to be looking into evidence of Rais' potential involvement in money laundering as well. On August 21, a day before the arrests of Rais and Martínez in San Salvador, El Nuevo Herald published an article that confirmed the existence of the DEA investigations.
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The arrests of Raís and Martínez serve as a strong indication that Meléndez's office intends to pursue corruption cases against even the most powerful defendants. Just last week, Melendez's office ordered searches of several properties owned by Miguel "Mecafé" Menéndez, a close associate and political ally of former Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who is being investigated for alleged corruption during his time in office.
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However, Meléndez will undoubtedly face obstacles to successfully prosecuting those cases. He has previously expressed concern about "external pressure" being brought "to interfere in cases involving corruption and probity, in ongoing investigations or future investigations." And even without external pressure, Martínez and Raís both have the resources to muster a strong legal defense. The United States appears to be strongly supportive of Meléndez's moves to tackle high-level corruption, but it remains to be seen if this will prove a decisive factor.
The success or failure of corruption cases brought against powerful figures like Martínez and Rais could have implications for the nearly unanimous agreement among Salvadorans that their country should establish an international anti-corruption commission similar to the one that has achieved significant success in neighboring Guatemala. If the Attorney General's Office can convict powerful figures like Martínez and Rais, it would show that the current system can handle such cases. If it is unsuccessful, however, the call for establishing an international anti-corruption body is likely to only grow louder.