José Luis Merino, a high-ranking and controversial government official in El Salvador, has been the subject of a US-led investigation into corruption and drug trafficking. Now US authorities are also questioning his relatives.
No official notice was given, but two US officials told Factum that Fred Merino, the brother of Foreign Relations Vice Minister José Luis Merino, was arrested on February 7 at George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that there are ongoing investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in which Vice Minister Merino is a “person of interest.”
Fred “and his wife were detained for two hours in a normal process that anyone entering the United States could be subjected to,” said one official, speaking under the condition of anonymity so that he could discuss the ongoing investigation.
A source in the Salvadoran executive branch, also speaking under the condition of anonymity, said that the government had received the news of Fred Merino’s temporary detention through unofficial channels.
Fred Merino is a US citizen registered under the legal name Sigfredo Ismael Merino Cabrera. He played a pivotal role in building the network of businesses associated with the Salvadoran company ALBA Petróleos, alongside his brother, José Luis, who is also a top official of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN).
ALBA Petróleos was founded in 2006 as a joint public-private venture with public funding from Salvadoran municipal governments that received millions of dollars in loans between 2010 and 2015 from Venezuela. In corporate registration documents, Fred Merino, under his given name Sigfredo, appears as the founder of ALBA Petróleos.
According to an investigation published by the digital newspaper El Faro, the Merinos used the law firm Infante & Pérez Almillano to set up various offshore companies in Panama, including ALBA Petróleos of El Salvador (APES) and Atlantic Pacific Logistics, S.A. of C.V. The first is related directly to Fred Merino. These companies have processed loans of some $460 million.
According to an investigation by La Prensa Gráfica's news magazine Séptimo Sentido, Fred and José Luis Merino have sat on the boards of various shell companies, including Consultores Técnicos Empresariales and Valores del Aire, which were legally founded but had barely any commercial activity. In all of these, Fred was the sole owner.
Fred Merino has also been a board member of various other government-funded projects.
Neither El Salvador nor the United States have opened an official investigation into Fred Merino. However, his brother, José Luis, has been identified as a person of interest in at least two investigations opened by the DEA and the FBI. In El Salvador, the Attorney General’s Office has been investigating José Luis since 2008 for possible ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). Still, this investigation has not yet yielded any results.
The two US sources that confirmed Fred Merino’s temporary detention said that the detention was a routine process that any person could have been subjected to -- citizen, resident, or foreigner -- upon entering the United States if the person is of “special interest” to the authorities.
On February 7, when he was detained, Fred Merino was returning from El Salvador and traveling on his US passport.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile
When Factum contacted Fred Merino, the businessman emphasized that he was not arrested, but he admitted that there was a “verification” process.
“I don’t know what you mean by arrest. There was absolutely no arrest at all. My family, my sisters, everyone always has to be verified, obviously, as a question of state security. And that is normal and has absolutely nothing to do with … If they have an investigation there, they will know where to direct the questions,” he said.
The reason behind this and previous “verifications” of other family members, according to Fred Merino, is his brother José Luis.
“Do you know how many times I have gone through Houston and how many times I have been asked if José Luis Merino is my brother? I have never denied it. Ask them how many times they have questioned me. If you have access to the real US information sources, [you will see that] I am an American citizen,” he said.
InSight Crime Analysis
In the United States, sources from the DEA and the FBI have both confirmed to Factum that they are investigating possible links between FARC money and José Luis Merino, who has used the nom de guerre “Ramiro Vásquez" since his days as a guerrilla fighter in El Salvador's 1980 to 1992 civil war.
The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations opened an investigation in July 2016 after Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) accused Merino of having links with drug trafficking and money laundering in Central America and Colombia.
Later, on June 19, 2017, a bipartisan group of 14 members of congress signed a letter requesting the US Treasury Department open an official investigation into Merino. In the request, the lawmakers alleged “long-standing associations with transnational organized crime networks [that] are the subject of US criminal investigations.”
Following Fred Merino’s February 7 detention in Houston, his brother José Luis took a very active role in the FMLN’s campaign ahead of the March 4 municipal and legislative elections. Two sources from the FMLN attribute this, in part, to concern that US investigations may have political repercussions both for José Luis Merino and for the party.
The stakes were high for Merino during the elections. Had he won a parliamentary seat, he would have been guaranteed three years of immunity. However, he lost. The FMLN suffered a major defeat that day and Merino, one of the party members who received the fewest votes, was not elected.
Regardless, José Luis Merino has not lost the immunity he enjoys as a vice minister. Rather than renouncing his post to compete in elections, the leader of the FMLN simply asked that President Salvador Sánchez Cerén grant him a leave of absence for the duration of the campaign. The Supreme Court is studying the legality of the president’s consent to this request.