Leonel Sandoval Villeda does not spend much time worrying about the Salvadoran justice system, mostly because his control over judges and police has allowed him to escape unscathed from investigations related to drug trafficking, organized crime and the Texis Cartel. Moreover, the contacts that this Santa Ana businessman has made in the upper echelons of the police and in the judiciary have not only allowed him to walk free after two arrests, they have also helped make him rich by giving him free rein to extort debtors and increase his portfolio of properties.
This information was confirmed by a national police (PNC) official involved in the investigations into the Texis Cartel, a criminal organization that authorities have linked to Sandoval, and by a source in the Attorney General's Office, which in the past three months has carried out three operations against one of the arms of the western El Salvador cartel.
A high-level police source familiar with the drug trafficking investigations that have been ongoing in western El Salvador since 2009, and who agreed to comment on the case under the condition of anonymity, confirmed that informants and inquiries into Sandoval have pointed to connections with Police Commissioner Mendoza Cordero since the very start. The first investigations into the case indicated that the businessman and the commissioner established contact in 1999, when the official became head of the investigations department in Ahuachapan.
The relationship between the two, according to the police source, became very useful for Sandoval.
"Sandoval is a money lender. When his debtors didn't pay him, Mendoza arranged everything so that the PNC would pick them up. They would be followed, and as I understand it, Mendoza spoke with the judges to speed up the cases that he referred on behalf of Sandoval in order to seize the properties used as a guarantee for the loans," said the investigator.
Sandoval Villeda is a wealthy man. His fortune, at least that which can be measured based on the properties registered in his name, has grown substantially in the past 10 years -- the same years in which Mendoza Cordero rose to prominence as a regional police chief in western El Salvador.
Between 2003 and 2009, Sandoval acquired 39 properties, scattered among Acajutla and Metalio on the western coast, the metropolitan center of Santa Ana, and the north of the department, between Cutumay Camones and Texistepeque. Included in this group of properties have been rural lands dedicated to agriculture, as well as urban buildings in various Santa Ana neighborhoods -- among them San Esteban, Santa Cruz and San Sebastian -- a hotel and an inn.
As of October 2013, according to Salvadoran property registries, Sandoval was the owner of 48 estates valued at over $1.7 million. Of these, 81 percent were acquired after 2003. The police source, meanwhile, said there are 80 properties owned by Sandoval, but many are not registered under his name.
SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles
Between 2008 and 2010, PNC investigators found that Sandoval used the threat of jail -- with the help of police and judicial officials -- to pressure his debtors to hand over their properties. According to investigations, this is how Sandoval gained properties such as a city home in the Santa Cruz neighborhood of Santa Ana, transferred on March 11, 2004, and a rural property in the Chilcuyo district of Texistepeque, transferred a day later. In 2004 alone, Sandoval acquired 19 properties. In 2006, a similar transfer took place of a property in the Mazacuat district of Santa Ana.
According to investigators, Sandoval did not only rely on the help of police to carry out embargos, force sales, and beef up his portfolio of properties, there were also important members of the judiciary in his list of clients.
On September 4, 1998, Sandoval registered a second mortgage for over $85,000 on a piece of land measuring approximately 39,500 square meters in the Chupaderos district of Santa Ana. The notary that legalized the transaction was Agustin Garcia Calderon, a well-known Santa Ana lawyer who was elected president of the Supreme Court of Justice two years later and spent nine years at the job.
Sandoval also signed contracts with Romeo Aurora Giammattei, currently the ninth justice of the peace in San Salvador. On March 20, 1999, the lawyer acquired 100 percent of a 104,200 square meter plot of land in La Nueva, San Julian, Acajutla, for around $28,500. Since 1996, the owner of the land had been the Santa Ana businessman.
The time period in which Sandoval acquired the most land coincides with the period during which Commissioner Mendoza Cordero was one of the most powerful police officers in western El Salvador, where both Sandoval and the Texis Cartel operate. According to information in his resume, found on the PNC website, Mendoza Cordero first arrived in the west of the country in 1999, as the departmental chief of Ahuachapan. Between 2000 and 2001, he was chief of the Santa Ana department; between 2004 and 2006, he was head of investigations in the western region, police chief of the western region, and then again police chief of Santa Ana.
InSight Crime requested an interview with Commissioner Mendoza Cordero to speak about his relationship with Sandoval and with Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias "El Burro." A day later, the PNC communications department responded that Mendoza would not give an interview: "Work and health-related reasons prevent the official from attending to your request," they said. (On August 17, commissioner Mendoza Cordero, his wife and his two daughters were injured in a car accident on the San Salvador-Santa Ana highway).
The first raid and the comfortable escape
The first time that Salvadoran police entered the house of Leonel Sandoval Villeda was in April 2010, according to intelligence reports on the investigation into the Texis Cartel. Agents arrested Sandoval and discovered a cap with the logo of the director of the PNC, as well as a small arsenal of weapons, including several whose use is limited to the armed forces. Sandoval was released after posting a $100,000 bail.
In order to carry out the raid in Sandoval's house, the PNC had to resort to a legal device that is far from unusual in El Salvador -- requesting the warrant in a different jurisdiction to where the suspect lives or is active in order to avoid leaks. The PNC opted to make the request before a justice of the peace in San Salvador, Jose Orlando Campos Orellana.
SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel Profile
The raid, according to the police report, was the result of investigations into Sandoval's commercial transactions and his active participation in the real estate market, and was part of a broader investigation in which the name of Commissioner Mendoza Cordero appeared. Its purpose was to:
"... Find financial registries, documentation and accounting registries in relation to the taxes, the transfer of residential properties, the provision of services and the rental tax in the name of the man mentioned, since he has not formerly collaborated with Housing Ministry auditors for the periods mentioned."
After paying the $100,000 bail in cash, Sandoval should, presumably, have presented himself in court. He never did so. In theory, he was a fugitive from justice from April 2010 until June 12, 2013, when he was newly arrested in his house in Santa Ana. However, calling him a fugitive is just a figure of speech; according to prosecutors and police agents, Sandoval was "located" the whole time. The Santa Ana businessman, land owner, man of influence, had not fled anywhere; he was in his house, running business as usual.
The second time Sandoval was arrested, in 2013, was also ephemeral: the Santa Ana judge, Maria Delma Zelada, decided that the arsenal the police had discovered in Sandoval's house three years earlier was not acceptable evidence, since the search warrant specified that prosecutors were searching for accounting documents, not arms, and Sandoval was set free.
Before leaving prison, according to police directors, Sandoval admitted to police investigators reporting directly to then Justice and Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo that he had had not just one, but various PNC chiefs from western El Salvador on his payroll during the 2000s.
With the arrival of Perdomo to the Security Ministry and of lawyer Luis Martinez to the post of Attorney General, operations against the Texis Cartel were reinitiated. Although Sandoval is now a free man, another businessman -- this one a cattle farmer -- linked to the cartel by investigations that began in 2009 is in prison: Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias "El Burro."
According to agents from the Attorney General's Office, the PNC and US officials, the offensive against the Texis Cartel has been aided by a phone tapping center installed with $5 million provided by the United States. Washington has remained close to the operations. The assessment of one of the US agents familiar with the investigations was bittersweet: "It is great that they have started, but I'm not sure they will get to the end. I'm not sure if they will take full advantage of the capacity of the phone tapping center," he said.
A source from the Attorney General's office said when the wire-taps and other investigations provided enough evidence for the arrest of Burro Herrera, the office of Attorney General Martinez began to receive pressure from the PNC to speed up the operation. However, according to this same source, there was something that did not fit: "when they reviewed the actions of some police and prosecutors, they saw that there were procedures in the case of Mr. Herrera that were performed in such a way that a judge would declare them null. They then had to rework the case being very careful not to pass information to whoever was acting as an informant," he said.
When Herrera Hernandez began to speak with the prosecutors after he was captured on July 23, 2013 for car theft, one of the things he said, according to one investigator, was that he knew Commissioner Mendoza Cordero and that they could speak to him on his cell phone if they wanted to.
The main objective of the investigation into the Texis Cartel is understood to be Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," the leader of the organization. Beyond this, say sources close to the attorney general, the objective should be the high-level police officers who collaborated with the organization.
Not long ago, Minister Perdomo said that there are still stones left unturned in the Texis case. For now, even though sources indicate Leonel Sandoval Villeda is on the radar of the PNC, the Attorney Generals and the security minister, the case of his business dealings and his relationship with Commissioner Hector Mendoza Cordero remain one of those stones -- a dark, overlooked corner in the investigations into the Texis Cartel.