Five judges, one-third of El Salvador’s Supreme Court, finished their nine-year term on July 15. But the selection process for their replacements has not been finalized, in part because members of Congress linked to corruption cases and with possible ties to organized crime have made a bid to place like-minded judges in those positions.
Supreme Court judges in El Salvador are elected by a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Assembly. None of the political forces represented in Congress can achieve a majority on their own, and the possible coalitions have fallen due to the demands of some congressmen to include lawyers with questionable credentials regarding anti-corruption matters in the list of candidates, according to two congressmen from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA), the main opposition party, and a Supreme Court assistant who have closely followed the negotiations and spoke to InSight Crime on the condition of anonymity.
Among the congressmen who insist on naming questionable candidates are those who in the past were investigated by the Probity section of the Supreme Court for dubious economic gains and possible illicit enrichment, according to legislative sources consulted by InSight Crime in San Salvador. This specific office is responsible for analyzing the statements that public officials make regarding their assets when entering and leaving office.
ARENA congressman Carlos Reyes is one of those questioned by the Probity section. He has also been one of the main promoters of candidates questioned due to possible conflicts of interest, according to three sources from the ARENA party that do not agree with Reyes’ positions.
In addition, Reyes is facing questioning regarding his attendance to a World Cup soccer match in Russia and the origins of the funds he used to attend. According to the Probity section, Reyes' fortune went from $850,000 to $1.6 million between 2012 and 2015, one of the periods in which he was a congressman.
However, the Probity section did not complete the economic examination of Reyes under the direction of lawyer Carlos Pineda. They also refrained from recommending civil prosecution for possible illicit enrichment to the Attorney General’s Office, which they did in other cases where the economic growth of the officials in question was less severe.
Reyes is still a powerful politician in El Salvador. Not only was he re-elected as a congressman, but his party named him head of the caucus, so his word in the election of the new Supreme Court judges holds considerable weight.
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This issue is particularly relevant because Pineda, the head of the Probity section who left the economic examinations of Reyes and other congressmen and officials unfinished, is one of the candidates for Supreme Court judge that these congressmen are promoting with more zeal.
Another individual who has propelled candidates such as Carlos Pineda is Guillermo Gallegos, the head of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) -- the product of a split within ARENA -- and a godson of former President Antonio Saca. Saca was arrested in 2016 and will stand trial for allegedly embezzling about $300 million from the treasury.
Gallegos was also linked to Herbert Saca, one of the main political operators during the administrations of Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes who was linked to drug trafficking groups like the Perrones and Texis Cartel.
The election of new Supreme Court judges was first paralyzed on July 13, when Gallegos, his party and other congressmen demanded that Pineda’s name be included among the candidates, three congressmen consulted by InSight Crime, who have knowledge of these negotiations and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
In the investigation for illicit enrichment against Gallegos, who was president of the National Assembly until May 2018, "There is an inclination to make a decision in favor of him ... GANA operators within the court maneuvered to influence the outcome of that investigation,” a Supreme Court source familiar with the anti-corruption process there said.
In an initial examination, the Supreme Court found Gallegos had an unjustified economic growth of more than $3 million. However, as in the case of congressman Carlos Reyes, the Probity section tried to soften these findings. Judges who were partial to these politicians were delaying the decision to send them to civil trials or recommend criminal proceedings to the prosecution.
Both Gallegos and ARENA party spokespersons have said that the delay in the selection of new judges is due to normal political negotiations in Congress.
These last-minute negotiations have ruined the formal process of selecting and interviewing candidates for Supreme Court judges. Most of the congressmen had drawn up lists headed by young lawyers with a strong background on anti-corruption issues.
Norman Quijano, ARENA party congressman and president of El Salvador’s Congress, has left open a special session of the political committee of the Legislative, formed by the heads of the parliamentary benches and the directors, to try to choose the new judges. However, El Salvador begins a holiday period on August 1, and it is possible that the election of the new Supreme Court judges will be delayed even further.
InSight Crime Analysis
Corruption in El Salvador is endemic, like in Guatemala and Honduras, as recognized by international bodies like the US State Department and Transparency International.
However, in the smallest of the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, the fight against corruption is minimized by the importance the issue has acquired in the two neighboring nations. This is partly due to the attention generated there by international anti-graft bodies like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH).
But corruption is not a lesser evil in El Salvador. In the last three years, two former presidents -- Mauricio Funes and Antonio Saca -- have been prosecuted for allegedly embezzling some $700 million from state coffers, which is almost equal to the country's fiscal deficit.
In the absence of the kind of oversight and technical assistance provided by international commissions in Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador’s national institutions carry the weight of fighting corruption by themselves.
One of these institutions is the Attorney General’s Office, which opened the cases against Funes and Saca based precisely on the cases the Probity section of the Supreme Court carried out against the former presidents, this time with aid from US investigators. The Attorney General’s Office, however, has been questioned due to a lack of judicial success and because the attorney general has not played a decisive role in the trials against congressmen before whom he now seeks re-election.
The other key institution in the fight against corruption has been the Probity section. In 2009, the outgoing judges gave the office a renewed role when they returned the institution’s legal authority to request banking information from officials under investigation. Despite the fact that the Probity section began with a firm footing, especially in the cases against the former heads of state, it has lost steam since last year and investigations have began to stagnate.
Today, the games of El Salvador’s corruption networks permeate Congress and the judiciary, keeping the election of new Supreme Court judges stalled. For the congressmen representing these networks, it is apparently a badge of honor to have those who enter the highest court tone down the investigations.