The conviction of former El Salvador President Mauricio Funes leaves a bittersweet taste. While it shows the country’s growing power to prosecute powerful figures, it also leaves the government’s rotten inner workings exposed.
On November 28, Salvadoran authorities convicted Funes, who served as president from 2009 to 2014, of illicit enrichment. If the conviction stands, Funes would be disqualified from holding public office for 10 years. The conviction also opens the door for prosecutors to initiate criminal proceedings against the former president, who is currently hiding out in Nicaragua.
The trial against Funes began in February 2016, when the Supreme Court made public a resolution indicating evidence of illicit enrichment by the former president. In El Salvador, officials have to declare their income to the Supreme Court upon taking office and upon stepping down. In Funes’ case, reports of these declarations revealed extravagant expenses and unjustified income.
After a civil process that lasted a year and a half — and after Funes left for Nicaragua under the auspices of President Daniel Ortega — a Salvadoran court ordered the former president and one of his sons to return just over $400,000 to state coffers, equivalent to a third of the funds that the courts indicated were of illicit origin.
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Funes is another former president who, like many in the region, promised to fight organized crime with all the state’s resources, but ended up entangled in a web of corruption and dark alliances with criminal networks.
In El Salvador, Funes is not alone on the Attorney General’s Office’s list of suspects. His predecessor, Antonio Saca, is in prison while a court tries him for illicit enrichment and corruption. Saca’s predecessor, Francisco Flores, was tried for the same crime, but died before the process was over.
Flores, Saca and Funes all said they would fight organized crime and gangs during their presidential campaigns, making it the central focus of their time in office. Flores and Saca were the main promoters of heavy-handed policies against the country’s gangs, which ended up allowing the MS13 and Barrio 18 to consolidate as criminal structures in El Salvador’s prisons.
Funes began his term by saying that he was going to purge officers of El Salvador’s national police linked to drug trafficking. But instead, he put many of those officers in his public security cabinet and in the state intelligence office. In addition, one of the former president’s main allies, Antonio Saca’s cousin Herbert Saca, is alleged to have links with some members of the Los Perrones drug gang.
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Funes’ conviction and the criminal proceedings against Flores and Saca can be seen as a success story, with the Attorney General’s Office headed by Douglas Meléndez at the center. Cases such as these have shown that it is possible to successfully prosecute powerful actors in El Salvador, including former presidents.
From Nicaragua, Funes has alleged that the charges against him amount to political persecution orchestrated by the “oligarchic right” of El Salvador, which seems to be undermined by the fact that Meléndez was elected with the votes of all of El Salvador’s major political parties, including the one that led Funes to the presidency, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN).
Meléndez, who has received criticism for the weakness of many cases he and his subordinates have presented to the courts, does seem to be set on achieving convictions not only of Funes, but also of Saca and other actors who served the administrations of both presidents. This includes Jorge Hernández, who up until a few years ago was the vice president of the powerful Salvadoran Tele Corporation, and is accused of laundering money from Saca’s presidency.
At the same time, the stories of the corruption of Funes, Saca and Flores also speak to how the Salvadoran political class, both right and left, has hindered the state’s capacity to effectively prosecute organized crime.
Flores, for example, appointed Mauricio Sandoval — a publicist who hewed to the political line of the ruling party — as director of the National Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). Sandoval has been linked to the politicization of the state intelligence agency, of which he was also director, and he has been accused of using criminal investigative institutions to protect party officials. The case that best exemplifies this dynamic is the 1999 murder and rape of Katya Miranda, the daughter of an army officer and member of the presidential security service, as well as the niece of a police chief close to Sandoval. Sandoval used his role in the state intelligence agency to obstruct the investigation, according to a report on the case from El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman.
Saca empowered his cousin Herbert as one of the main operators of his administration. He also moved to control the State Comptroller’s Office as well as the Court of Accounts and the Attorney General’s Office, where he made sure to have political allies. Attorney General Meléndez has publicly questioned the role of the Court of Accounts in the corruption cases against Saca and Hernández.
Funes came to the presidency from a position of political weakness resulting from the tense relationship with his party and the lack of other allies. In this context, he chose to make Herbert Saca his go-between with congress. Like Flores, Funes also empowered questionable officers within the state intelligence agency.
Similar cases exist in Guatemala and Honduras, the other two countries forming Central America’s Northern Triangle. Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office is investigating the relatives and political allies of President Jimmy Morales, and has previously imprisoned Otto Pérez Molina, Morales’ predecessor, as well as former Vice President Roxana Baldetti.