El Salvador’s attorney general announced the creation of a new anti-impunity unit in the prosecutor’s office that will work on politically sensitive corruption cases and have strong backing from the US government, although it lacks direct international participation.

Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said during a September 14 teleconference sponsored by the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. that the Special Group Against Impunity (Grupo Espcial Contra la Impunidad – GECI) will begin work in the coming weeks. El Salvador has been under pressure to allow an international mission to assist the country in taking on corruption cases, like those established in neighboring Guatemala and Honduras.

GECI, however, will not be like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en GuatemalaCICIG), which empowered an international entity to conduct criminal investigations. Nor will it be like the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an international body that advises the country’s law enforcement agencies and provides political cover for the fight against corruption.

El Salvador’s anti-impunity model entails the country’s Attorney General’s Office maintaining sole responsibility, under the supervision of Meléndez.

The attorney general said the unit would be made up of a select group of prosecutors. Three officials knowledgeable about talks between the US State Department and Meléndez told InSight Crime the United States will support the unit with training as well as financially.

Meléndez made the announcement during a video conference with the Wilson Center-sponsored conference in Washington. The attorney general spoke about the challenges his office faces in trying to apply the law in El Salvador, especially where politically sensitive corruption cases are involved.

El Salvador’s Justice and Public Security minister, Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, made a brief appearance at the conference.

Meléndez did not provide much detail on the new unit, but he did say that several prosecutors close to him are putting the final details for its formation into place, and it could get off the ground before the end of September.

US officials in Washington — both in Congress and the executive branch — and in El Salvador told InSight Crime that they have been discussing the prosecutorial project with Salvadoran officials since at least July. They said Washington will provide the unit with technical assistance, especially on corruption investigations involving current or former government officials, as well as illegal enrichment and money laundering.

“In El Salvador, we have qualified justice … It’s like Monsignor Romero used to say, … like a snake that only bites those who have no shoes.” — Attorney General Douglas Meléndez.

“Cases like those of Enrique Rais and the former attorney general  [Luis Martínez], that of ex-President [Mauricio] Funes, or possible investigations against [former President Antonio] Saca fit the profile,” said a US official familiar with the project.

On September 15, a source within El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office told InSight Crime that the new unit will start investigating and prosecuting files already opened against former officials for embezzlement and illicit enrichment.

During the conference, Meléndez announced the new unit after discussing the issue of corruption within El Salvador’s judicial system. He said cases that his office has already brought before the courts — including those of Rais, Martínez and Funes — serve as a barometer of the judicial branch’s attitude toward corruption cases.

Funes is charged with using his position as president to gain financial benefits and the former attorney general, Martínez, is accused of accepting benefits from Rais in exchange for manipulating court cases in the businessman’s favor.

“We have had our first experiences with the judicial branch, and in some cases we do not think its response has been the most appropriate,” Meléndez said. The attorney general was less diplomatic in statements about judicial corruption he made earlier in El Salvador.

“It is not just the gangs that have cliques; the judicial system has them too,” he told reporters on August 31 soon after pressing charges against Rais, who runs a subsidized solid waste management firm, and Martínez. The former attorney general is not only accused of favoring Rais in several cases, but also of tolerating the fabrication of evidence in support of the businessman’s interests.

Meléndez said he expected the GECI project to encounter resistance.

“The issue of impunity has been around and it will continue to exist,” he said. “You can’t hide the sun with one finger.” Meléndez told about 30 academics and journalists attending the conference that the project has already encountered some criticism in El Salvador.

The attorney general’s stance has generated reactions in Washington as well.

“It is not easy to investigate corruption,” Representative Norma Torres told InSight Crime. “The attorney general has not been in his post for long, but I do expect him to be able to investigate corruption cases without consideration of the party affiliations of those who are implicated,” said the Democratic congresswoman from California and member of the House National Security Committee.

Torres said countering corruption was one of Washington’s main foreign policy objectives in Central America.

Complaints from Politicians

The government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has maintained almost since the beginning of his term in June 2014 that El Salvador has no need of an international anti-impunity mission like CICIG in Guatemala. The El Sao Paulo Forum, which Sánchez Cerén’s party is a member of, went even further during a June 2016 meeting in San Salvador and likened support for such a mission to support for a coup d’état.

Neither Sánchez Cerén nor his Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) have publicly commented on Meléndez’s anti-impunity initiative. However, the attorney general has been criticized by important members of FMLN in relation to some of his investigations.

One of the cases that has most upset party members is the arms trafficking investigation of a former Defense minister who currently serves as ambassador to Germany, Gen. Atilio Benítez. Blandino Nerio, an FMLN congressman, has even accused US Ambassador Jean Manes of “disrespectful interference” in Salvadoran affairs, accusing the envoy of trying to influence the congressional debate on whether to lift the immunity of Benítez.

Asked about the accusation of interference, Manes responded with a question of her own: “Why? Is there someone who doesn’t want to fight corruption?”

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The Benítez case was a topic of discussion at the Wilson Center conference and is one of the cases that had been shelved by Melendez predecessor Martínez. Meléndez revived the case not long after assuming office.

“In El Salvador, we have qualified justice,” Meléndez said “It’s like Monsignor Romero used to say,” he added, referring to the martyred and beatified former archbishop. “Like a snake that only bites those who have no shoes. It is not easy to reverse the tendency given the power that certain groups and individuals have accumulated in the country.”

Meléndez was asked at the conference why his office had not pursued investigations of opposition party figures who served in previous governments, despite official complaints having been filed against them.

The attorney general defended his neutrality, noting that he had revived investigations related to El Salvador’s gang truce and initiated cases against mayors of both major political parties accused of working with the gangs. Melendez also noted that he has investigated opposition mayors for embezzlement of public funds.

“It is very difficult to avoid the political class commenting on our investigations,” Meléndez said. “What they cannot do is try to steer our investigations.”

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