Audio recordings obtained by Factum reveal meetings between a group of political operatives, led by then President Funes, who conspired to attack political opponents, buy influence and manipulate the Attorney General's Office. Two of his advisers and accomplices were former president Antonio Saca and his cousin Herbert Saca. The group conspired to illegally obtain classified information from the Attorney General's Office and the United States to use it against former President Francisco Flores.
Everyone in that room, in front of a bar with a glass of blue ribbon whiskey in hand, was prosecuted, convicted or ended up a fugitive. Everyone except Herbert Saca, who even today remains abstemious and far from the courts. Most of those who were in that house in Antiguo Cuscatlán were accused in one or several corruption cases. But that happened a few years later. On this Friday, October 11, 2013, a few days after the bomb exploded in a radio program, President Mauricio Funes' war room planned how to attack a common enemy.
At the head was Funes, settled in the armchair in front of the bar. Behind the bar, several meters away, was Herbert Saca. Flanking them on the sofa on the right from Funes’ perspective were Miguel Menéndez, also known as Mecafé. President Antonio Saca and Cesar Funes, a former official of the Saca administration and one of those closest to the former president, shared a seat in front of Menéndez on the other side.
“He is the key to fuck Paco,” President Funes said to his cabinet. “I sent him to say that if he wanted protection, we would give him protection, to give him confidence ... And if he resigned from the prosecutor’s office, it’ll cost us nothing to absorb him in the secretariat of justice for a while. That's no problem.”
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.
On this Friday afternoon, one day before his usual radio program, “Conversing With the President,” Funes gathered his parallel cabinet to plan the political and media operation against Paco: Francisco Flores, the former president who died in 2016 due to a brain hemorrhage while being prosecuted for corruption.
The group gathered information about alleged irregular diversions of money to deploy a campaign against Flores. Information that, according to them, was filtered by people from Flores’ Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party. But it still wasn’t enough. Funes felt that at the moment he had a time bomb that could blow up at any time, and that was why he was afraid to make it public. What was missing, "the key" that Funes mentioned a few seconds ago, was the fiscal assistant with the Suspicious Transaction Report (STR).
What was missing was corrupting that prosecutor.
Factum had access to several audio recordings of various meetings attended by former President Funes with very close officials and his parallel council, formed by Saca’s cousins, Cesar Funes and Mecafé. These recordings and interviews with four former officials from Funes’ closest circle, as well as state intelligence agents during his administration, showed not only the scope of the Funes-Saca alliance, which began with the creation of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) political party and reached its height with this crisis cabinet that broke Flores’ fall using public resources to bribe a prosecutor in the middle of an election campaign, they also show a president close to the corrupt officials he denounced before arriving to the presidency, which had the state for its political operations that corrupted institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office and the Legislative Assembly, and that even had to mediate between the internal disputes of its political operators. Mecafé could not stand the influence of Herbert Saca.
The recordings, like those of that October 2013 meeting held in the Cumbres de Cuscatlán residential area, were authenticated by people who participated in that same meeting. Other sources close to Funes, who were not there that day but who were aware of the meetings of the parallel cabinet, confirmed the agreements reached and that were publicly aired on Saturday, November 23, 2013, during Funes’ radio program when he spoke openly of the STR and mentioned for the first time the name of former President Francisco Flores.
They started arriving after 5pm at the end of the day and of the week, eight months after the end of Mauricio Funes’ term on Friday, October 11, 2013. They all sat in the last living room of the house, the one that was beyond the dining room and the living room. Three armchairs formed a letter C at one end of the room. On the other side was a bar. It was the war room.
The meeting took place at house number 76 on Xochiquetzal Street in the Cumbres de Cuscatlán residential area of Antiguo Cuscatlán municipality. When this 2013 meeting happened, the property belonged to former president Saca.
It is no coincidence that Funes and Saca were together this afternoon in October 2013 to plan a political strategy against Flores. It was less than four months until the 2014 presidential election in which El Salvador elected Funes’ successor. Saca, who governed the country from 2004 to 2009, was one of those competing in the election. Flores was then one of the architects of Norman Quijano’s campaign, a former San Salvador mayor and ARENA’s presidential candidate.
There was something that went beyond the electoral conjuncture: the hatred that both Funes and Saca felt for Flores. It was largely Paco who pushed for the exile of Tony Saca from ARENA after the right-wing party’s electoral defeat in 2009. For Funes, Flores was the perfect embodiment of ARENA’s confrontational rhetoric that had served to try and rescue his presidency from the increasingly common accusations of corruption that tarnish its mandate.
At the end of September 2013, Funes had used his radio program to launch a vague accusation against "an ARENA president" for diverting funds donated from Taiwan and destined to help victims of two earthquakes in 2001. It was a general accusation without specific names for one reason: Funes didn’t have documentation to support his accusations. That's what this Friday meeting in October was for, to plan how to obtain privileged information, even if that meant infiltrating the Attorney General’s Office or paying bribes.
To carry out the operation against Flores, according to the recorded conversation, Funes offered to make use of state resources. He said, for example, that he could "absorb" the fiscal agent who had compromising information for Flores in the legal secretariat of the presidency, and offered to order then-Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo and then-Police Director Rigoberto Pleités to officially request information from US agencies about open investigations into Flores in the United States. The intention, as was clear after listening to the recordings, was not to present evidence for the prosecution to mount a criminal case, but rather, to affect the former president and his surroundings politically.
This afternoon conversation on Xochiquetzal Street in October was about $10 million given to Flores from the Taiwanese government. Funes and Saca knew what they were talking about when they referred to donations from Taiwan, and it was intuited that at least one of them had received this type of funds.
“You were in government, and I am now. I have not received any cooperation to my name so far,” Funes said, addressing Tony Saca.
“I never accepted anything from Taiwan in my name,” Saca said.
“I don’t know any government that gave any cooperation on behalf of a president,” Funes said.
“If it's a muddy move, yes,” Saca said.
In the conversation, Tony Saca made little reference to another fact associated with the funds from Taiwan that were diverted by Flores: ARENA partly financed the campaign that led Saca to become president in 2004 with that money. In 2014, an investigation from El Faro determined that "Saca and his campaign structures for the 2004 election ... received checks from an ARENA party account that, according to the Attorney General’s Office, was fed with millions of dollars donated by Taiwan."
But in the October 2013 conversation, César Funes, an official in Saca’s presidency whose campaign proselytizing was fed by Taiwanese funds, even seemed outraged by the Chinese meddling in Salvadoran political affairs.
“What is a foreign government doing in the campaign of a political party in El Salvador?” César Funes fired off.
Mauricio Funes took it for granted that ARENA received the money, but understood that Saca was not the direct receiver.
“Besides, that money never came to you,” the president said in reference to his predecessor.
Tony Saca recognized the use of Taiwanese money, but he did so by trying to distance himself from his own electoral campaign.
“Taiwan contributed. I did not manage the campaign money ... but what Toño always alleged [Antonio Salaverría, one of ARENA’s top leaders in 2004 and party president] and what was part of the lawsuit was that Paco had kept that money,” Tony replied.
Money from Taiwan reached all across ARENA. With these funds, the right-wing party in part financed a bank account named "ARENA D-Day." The funds also served to finance ARENA’s 2006 legislative campaign, according to a Factum investigation into the finances of Deputy Gallegos, one of the founders of GANA, a promoter of Tony Saca's presidential candidacy and in the end, one of Flores’ main inquirers in a legislative commission that formed after Funes' revelations in his radio program.
Gallegos, who headed that 2006 legislative campaign, received funds from Saca’s presidency through a Banco Cuscatlán account, the so-called "ARENA D-Day” account. This was one of the financial instruments that Flores used to help divert part of the Taiwanese money, according to subsequent investigations by the Attorney General's Office.
Nobody spoke of those nuances on the Taiwanese funds at the meeting on Xochiquetzal Street. The issue then was "fuck Paco." The conversation continued with a question from Funes. The president complained of not being sure what he had on hand to incriminate Flores.
“Right now it's all gossip. They say 'show me' and I have nothing to prove it ... but they have it documented,” Funes said, resigned. “I haven’t dared to give them Paco Flores’ name yet.”
The "key to fuck Paco" was Diego Balmore Escobar. He was a prosecutor who had access to an official report issued by the US Treasury Department and the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), known as the STR, which in this case revealed indications of criminal activities related to the diversion of public funds by Flores. In this October 2013 meeting, Funes and Saca planned how to obtain this information illegally by bribing Escobar to deliver it in exchange for a seat in the presidency or by giving him money. Not to contribute to a possible investigation by the attorney general, but to use it as a political weapon.
Escobar knew of the presidential interest, but was cowed, as Funes later said. The parallel cabinet still had a card to play, a contact that had moved between journalism and politics in the last decade. The cell phone of a Costa Rican journalist soon rang.
The Start of A Beautiful Friendship
When he was a candidate between 2007 and 2009, Funes said that Tony Saca and ARENA were responsible for the inequality and El Salvador’s social and economic regressions. In his inauguration speech on June 1, 2009, Funes promised not to do what he claimed Saca and his people did: "Avoiding error begins by not doing what some did wrong in this country, ruling for a few, being complacent with corruption, having links to and being accomplices of organized crime ..."
Just a few weeks after he said that, according to Factum, Saca and Funes established the first bases of their alliance. This included a former secretary of state during Funes’ presidency who had access to the meetings between those who laid the foundation of the alliance between both politicians from the electoral victory in 2009 and well into the five-year term.
The group formed by Funes, ex-President Saca and his collaborators worked as an operational commando, a crisis room and sometimes as a kind of parallel cabinet. One of its first actions, and perhaps the most important one, was the November 2009 creation of GANA, the political party that deputy Guillermo Gallegos led and that commanded the electoral alliance that postulated Tony Saca to the presidency in 2014.
On November 19, 2009, just a week after the party was created, Gallegos told an official from the US Embassy in San Salvador that Funes had "adopted" them, according to a report published by El Faro based on a declassified cable published by Wikileaks.
The birth of GANA took place at a tense moment between the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and the new president after Funes refused to give the FMLN leadership some cabinet posts. There were also disputes over the funds for the proselytism presidential campaign. Francisco Cáceres, Funes' private secretary, took these complaints at the time to the US Embassy in El Salvador, according to documents leaked by Wikileaks.
One of the former officials consulted, who was one of Funes’ secretaries in the presidency, assured that at the beginning of his term, the president was the main orchestrator of the new party. Money to bribe deputies came from Capres [the administration] and was operated by Herbert Saca, the former official wrote in response to Factum's questions.
Three other sources and confidants of Funes agreed that there were disbursements of public funds to support the creation of the new party. Two of these sources held ministerial positions during a good part of the five-year term. Each of the sources were also in meetings in which Funes participated and where details of the alliance between GANA and Saca were discussed. The other source was a former FMLN official who, because of his position in the presidency, also learned firsthand about the close relationship between Funes and Saca.
"In one of the first meetings between Tony Saca and Funes, he [Funes] told him that he did not trust the FMLN or its deputies. And that's when Tony proposed to fragment ARENA to give governance in the Assembly ... Funes sought independence from the FMLN because he was an outsider. He didn’t want to see his hands tied in the Assembly ... That's how legislative operations began ... the purchase of wills in the Legislative Assembly," said one of the former secretaries of state who heard some of the conversations in which Funes spoke of these issues with Saca and his operators.
"It was Tony who conspired to take the deputies from ARENA to GANA ... [but] MF [Mauricio Funes] believed the idea was HS [Herbert Saca’s] ... that GANA would be one part at the service of MF, given that MF was not on good terms with the Frente [FMLN]," the former Capres [administration] official wrote in messages with Factum between August and October 2018.
That same former collaborator within Funes’ inner circle reiterated: "Basically, HS operated the legislative subjects and unions for Funes, and HS said that he handled a structure of parallel intelligence."
What ex-President Funes' recordings, the written documents and the testimonies revealed was that what was said in his inaugural speech soon became a dead letter. Beyond the investigations of the Attorney General’s Office for alleged corruption that weigh on him today, the former president "of change" led a political operation in which the main interlocutors were Tony Saca and his right-hand man, Herbert.
The Tracks Leading From ARENA
“Right now it's all gossip. They say 'show me' and I have nothing to prove it ... but they have it documented,” Mauricio Funes told his audience.
It was at the Cumbres de Cuscatlán meeting when all the pieces started to fall into place. The "they" to whom Funes referred were former ARENA officials who had been following Francisco Flores for awhile. The matter began on September 23, 2013, when Funes first heard the news that a US government agency, then unknown, had issued a STR for funds that Flores had diverted from Taiwan’s donation to bank accounts in the United States and Bermuda. The first to bring the matter to the attention of Funes, as the president himself told his audience, was former minister Mario Acosta Oertel, who headed the Interior Ministry during Armando Calderón Sol’s presidency.
Factum consulted with Acosta Oertel about his mention of this in the talks. He denied that he had informed Funes about the STR. "There was no possibility that I had access to that then ... That line of investigation is very clear. It was with the Attorney General’s Office, they had it," Acosta Oertel told Factum.
Moreover, Acosta Oertel claimed that one year after the presidential elections, he himself reprimanded Funes for the version that linked him to the STR. This is how Acosta Oertel recalled it.
"Look you son of a bitch, why did you mention me?" I said.
“Ah, it was political, because remember that it was in the middle of the campaign,” he told me.
“You have to clarify it in public.”
"I'm going to do it," he told me.
“Get out of here, bastard," I said.
But neither Funes nor Saca, as the audio recordings revealed, or other sources within the presidency, corroborated Acosta Oertel’s version of events.
"There was a breakfast in Repres [the Presidential Residence on Masferrer Avenue in San Salvador where Funes lived throughout his term] in which HS [Herbert Saca], TS [Tony Saca], Macosta, César F [César Funes] and Mecafé all attended. At breakfast, Acosta reported that Paco had the STR of Taiwan’s money and that Flores could be harmed on that front," the former official who worked closely with Funes in the presidency told Factum. The source agreed to answer questions on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
There were references to Mario Acosta at the October meeting at the house on Xochiquetzal Street. In one part of the conversation, Funes and the two Sacas referred to Mario Acosta and then-Attorney General Luis Martinez as having had discussed the Flores issue. The chief prosecutor had told them that he had enough information to investigate the former president.
“Mario had told you, see? Mario Acosta had told you that Luis [Martinez] had told him that he was going to break on Tuesday ... He has not broken anything ... He doesn’t think to do anything,” Mauricio Funes said.
At another moment in the conversation, Funes explained to the others that Luis Martínez sent him a message with Roberto Lorenzana, the current technical secretary of the presidency and FMLN leader, and with Franzi "Hato" Hasbún, who is dead now but was secretary of strategic affairs from 2009 to 2014, immediately after the “Conversing With the President” radio program in which he spoke of Taiwan’s funds without mentioning Flores.
“According to the prosecutor, you were mishandling the subject. What he received was a report of suspicious transactions that were sent to him by the IRS, but there was no request for an investigation,” Funes reaffirmed in his conversation with Hasbún
In fact, much of the October 11 talk passed between Funes and Tony Saca’s doubts about what Flores was really accused of and who was accusing him. César Funes clarified that they were speaking of two different things: A supposed IRS investigation and the STR to which Mario Acosta had referred. Little by little, without all the information at hand then, those present clarified the Taiwanese money route.
“What’s registered is the movement and the amount. That money entered Costa Rica, went from Costa Rica to Miami, and from Miami to Bermuda, to one of Paco Flores’ accounts … which doesn’t necessarily have to have his name attached to it,” added Funes.
“And the checks?” asked Tony Saca.
“The checks come in Paco Flores’ name,” César Funes responded.
“The checks come in the name of Francisco Guillermo Flores Pérez … Yes, they’re in his name,” confirmed Saca, after listening to his successor.
Between breakfast in Congress and the meeting at the house on Xochiquetzal Street, Tony Saca already asked Porfirio Chica to further investigate money from Taiwan, another alleged donation from a private company to Flores and the route the funds took through accounts belonging to him or the ARENA party. President Funes included some of that information in his first radio address on the subject, but he did not mention Flores in it.
Chica, a former alternate legislator with ARENA and a liaison between the Saca administration and the country’s media giants, was one of the people who fed information to the group, according to the tapes. He also offered to slip information into national and international media. For this operation, the former congressman negotiated his price with Herbert Saca: $15,000 to publish in US newspapers, according to recordings of the meeting at the Xochiquetzal house.
Chica was also the legal representative of the company Inteligencia Digital, S.A. de C.V. Among its offerings were communication consulting for government institutions. Between April and August, for example, the Lempa River Hydroelectric Executive Commission hired the company to “conduct monitoring and place news in different media in the interest of the institution,” according to a copy of contract CEL-5985-S in Factum’s possession.
In 2013, Chica worked for then-President Funes on mediating with the Sacas, according to the audio files to which Factum had access.
Factum contacted Chica, but he denied his participation in the plot against Flores.
“I can’t confirm something if I don’t know whether it existed as an offer. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. It’s completely false that they were going to pay me,” Chica told Factum.
After exploring the option, however, the information Chica provided did not satisfy Funes.
“I read it and reread it again and again ... To me, really, what Porfirio left me on the USB didn’t seem substantial ... It’s an analysis ... but the concrete fact, moving funds ... that isn’t clear. It’s not documented properly. We’re guessing. It doesn’t even mention amounts ... Porfirio was adding his [own] explanations ... Shit, but it’s not clear ... I’m not saying there isn’t a connection, but it should have been documented more. Porfirio should have been asked to get more information,” said Funes.
“He’s coming today,” Tony Saca says, trying to calm him down.
Funes was also referring to Chica’s other mission: to get US media outlets to echo the reports on the diversion of funds that Flores was suspected of.
“He didn’t get it published because you told me that he was going to publish it in the New York Times, and he didn’t get anything done,” Funes said to Herbert Saca.
Based on what Herbert Saca said at one meeting, it is known that Chica asked for money to do what Funes demanded.
“It’s a good thing I didn’t give him the money because he wanted make off with it. Now I’m teaching him ... He asked for 15,000 [dollars] to publish in four newspapers,” said Herbert Saca, who would speak very little in this meeting.
Tony Saca entered the conversation to say he thought the information they had was insufficient to pique the interest of a foreign media outlet in the story. Funes agreed.
“Nooo. La Página can publish it here, but papers like the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, the New York Times or El País aren’t going to publish what Porfirio gave me,” the then-president said, referring to a Salvadoran news website.
When speaking with Factum, Chica denied that he requested a payment from Herbert Saca or that he gave information to the group.
He wrote to Factum’s director, “That was something that never happened. Those things happened with Lafitte, never with me.”
Meanwhile, the conversation on Xochiquetzal Street continued on similar topics until a name came up that would ultimately be the key to everything: Diego Balmore Escobar, an auxiliary agent at the Attorney General’s Office, which at the time was under the direction of Luis Martínez. Through a third party, Balmore Escobar made it known that he had access to the STR.
It was in discussing a potential deal with Balmore Escobar that Funes explicitly mentioned the possibility of using government resources to move ahead with the operation against Flores. In this case, the idea was to give Balmore Escobar a job at the Secretariat for Judicial Affairs of the Presidency to keep him handy in case Attorney General Martínez -- who, according to the conversation, was indecisive about investigating, let alone arresting Flores -- fired him for taking sensitive information from the AG’s Office.
The group started to paint a clearer picture of the plan. Funes circled back to the financial diversion that could be linked to Flores.
“To Bermuda … That’s the issue. Imagine he [Flores] could say, ‘Well, he gave me $10 million, like Taiwan gave you a car, Taiwan gave me $10 million. And what do you want me to do? It came in my name, so what I did was endorse the check … and I gave it to the Finance Minister to deposit in a government bank.’ But then why does it leave a Costa Rican bank and go to Miami and Bermuda? Well, but that’s one situation. That’s the situation that I understand Diego [Balmore Escobar] has documents on,” said Funes.
“Ideally all that news would be broken by an outside media outlet, and that’s why Saint Diego has to be given all the guarantees (he needs), so he hands over the copy of the document,” César Funes added.
“Now I want to tell you something … Paco Flores can say that that money … I don’t know if he would dare to say that that money was used for the ARENA campaign … No, the issue is that the money went over there, to the island,” said Tony Saca.
“And we can’t get information with Diego?” Tony’s cousin, Herbert, asked.
Herbert Saca knew that it was time to call Lafitte Fernández, the Costa Rican journalist who headed the newspaper El Diario de Hoy in the 1990s and, according to Funes and Herbert Saca, was the intermediary to use for reaching agent Balmore Escobar.
The Herbert Factor
Herbert Saca was one of the quietest attendees at the meeting on Xochiquetzal Street in October 2013. Mauricio Funes led the discussion. Tony Saca supported his assertions or jumped in with questions or comments to which César Funes gave additional, often long-winded, responses. Mecafé only chimed in occasionally to back up something that was said. Herbert Saca made only five statements total. And were concise but revealing, covering two main aspects of his role: admitting that he managed money for the operators and mentioning the advice that Attorney General Martínez asked him for.
There were other statements that made it possible to deduce that Herbert Saca was the one who communicated with all those involved in the scheme. Sitting behind the bar at the Xochiquetzal meeting despite not drinking with the others, Herbert was essential not only in the plot against Flores but in the alliance between Funes and his cousin, Tony.
At the beginning of Funes’ administration, he and Herbert Saca met at a firing range owned by Mecafé, which was located on Bernal Avenue in San Salvador, according to two of the ex-secretaries of state consulted for this story. Later, they met regularly at three different places: at the Cumbres de Cuscatlán house on Xochiquetzal Street, at a home near the Cuscatlán Stadium -- which they called “juguetón” (the big toy) due to its proximity to a toy store -- and at a building on Maquilishuat Street.
Herbert Saca was in charge of managing the money Funes gave him for the political operation, which was supported by both the audios Factum had access to and the two ex-secretaries of state. Moreover, the two cabinet members during Funes’ presidency who spoke to Factum anonymously for security reasons and to maintain the integrity of criminal procedures still underway, confirmed that the funds came from the presidential residence and were used to pay legislators, informants and officials.
What helped the Saca cousins’ influence and power to grow between 2009 and 2014 was a combination of Funes’ political insecurities and poor functioning in the circle of collaborators he maintained during his presidency.
“Herbert began coming to the presidential residence because the president [Funes] was getting stressed out about his inner circle and how the FMLN was watching him and wanted to screw him over. People from the Amigos de Mauricio movement thought they could use him as a political operative, but they were wrong. Herbert used them to get in,” a former state intelligence official told Factum.
The reluctance towards Herbert Saca from Funes’ inner circle was evident in two other audio recordings aside from those at the meeting on Xochiquetzal Street, which Factum also had in its possession. Mecafé, who served briefly as head of the International Center for Fairs and Conventions (Centro Internacional de Ferias y Convenciones – CIFCO) and whose businesses benefitted from state contracts, complained to the president about the role Herbert Saca played in a meeting held in the beginning of 2013.
“Will you give me permission to speak?” Menéndez asked his boss before leveling his attack on Herbert Saca.
Funes stopped him cold, then explained why he passed on the management of the operation to Herbert Saca.
“You’ll never be able to manage the representatives [in Congress] … You’re a businessman … You manage businesses. Don’t be stupid. Get your mind off Herbert Saca. Other people are our enemies,” Funes reprimanded him.
This was not an isolated discussion. In another meeting held shortly thereafter, still in the beginning of 2013, Mecafé again warned Funes about how much trust he was placing in Herbert Saca. And again Funes dismissed the claim, telling Menéndez he needed to understand that each person had a place in the government and what that place was. Herbert was trying to sell Funes to his other advisor. It was seen as a necessary evil. But the recorded conversation made it clear that Tony Saca’s cousin had already become the most important political operator in the Funes presidency.
“You’re obsessed with Herbert. Of course. I understand. It bothers you when he comes over and makes his comments, the shit he does. But pay no attention to him. Be more intelligent than him. You’re in a better position than him,” said Funes, on the brink of scolding Menéndez.
“This is serious, President,” responded Mecafé.
“First of all, in this presidency … you’ve been closer to me than him … He’s only handled political issues for me. In the beginning all he did was buy cars for me … I found out he had been cheating me, and now I don’t buy cars through him. Do you think it didn’t hurt him when I bought the Mini Coopers, the Fiat 500, the Mercedes and all the other cars I’ve bought through you instead of him? Of course it hurt him,” Funes said, trying to calm Menéndez down.
At some points during Funes’ presidency, Herbert and Tony Saca gave the impression they were distancing themselves, according to a former official Factum consulted. The official said it was a farce, however. In reality, Tony was the brain and Herbert was the muscle.
“HS always said that TS was on the sidelines, which wasn’t true. TS was the one who handled everything,” said the ex-official.
Factum reached out to Tony Saca’s lawyer, Herbert Saca and former President Funes for comment. In Tony Saca’s case, Mario Machado, his defense attorney during the September 2018 case in which he was found guilty of embezzlement and money laundering, said he would pass Factum’s questions along to the former president. No response was received at the time this story was published.
There was no response from Funes either, until Factum made a public interview request to the ex-president two days before publication, and he responded via his Twitter account. Currently in Managua, Nicaragua, where he has been given asylum, the former president said he would do the interview and provided his email address (email@example.com), the same one Factum used before. Reporters from the magazine sent him the interview questions, but he never responded.
A secretary of Herbert Saca’s at HS Imports, his vehicle importation company, said she would give Factum’s message to him, and if Saca decided it was necessary, he would return the call. The magazine never heard from him.
In the operation against Flores, Herbert Saca was in charge of distributing money. He admitted in one of the audio recordings to which Factum had access that he negotiated payments with Porfirio Chica in exchange for information on the financial movements of ARENA’s third ex-president.
Funes and the Saca cousins had already cemented their relationship during the FMLN’s first administration. This was verified by multiple sources: a former official at the presidential residence, a former cabinet member and a state intelligence official who served during the first half of the Funes administration.
The former cabinet member provided more details. He said it was Tony Saca who, during the presidency’s transitional months between March and June 2009, spoke to the new president about Herbert.
“Tony told Funes that he was going to introduce him to someone who would help him understand how the government functioned and how to run it,” said the source.
Further into the presidential term, Funes met Tony Saca’s cousin, and he was not impressed.
“He didn’t give a very good impression,” said the ex-official.
The reason may have been that Herbert Saca had had little formal education, which was made evident by the many error-ridden messages he sent to the president. However, his weak writing skills turned out not to be an obstacle for him.
“Herbert ended up running the government.”
The rough start transformed into a close, daily relationship.
“They met at least once a week. They talked like they were friends. They talked politics, about dark dealings, about payments to politicians,” explained one of Funes’ former collaborators who witnessed several meetings between the ex-president and Herbert Saca.
The former cabinet member’s description of Herbert Saca was very similar to another one in 2013 that came from a former member of the presidential residence under Tony Saca.
“He’s a very astute man with a great capacity for relationships, but also a great gift for dark dealings … Without a doubt, he’s an effective operator, [but] not for a healthy political operation, of course.”
A former member of the Funes cabinet remembered the many deals he witnessed between his former boss and Antonio Saca’s inner circle.
“The left won, but the right governed,” he said, the right being the Saca cousins.
“I don’t believe it was a criminal organization in principle. It was a political organization, but it’s true they committed unlawful acts … The same people were [involved] in everything.”
President Funes had more advisors, other advisory groups and his cabinet. But it was with the “same people” who were involved “in everything” that he planned his political operations and bribes, according to one of the former secretaries of state.
From One President to Another
Ice cubes clinked in glasses holding Johnnie Walker Blue Label while the conversation pressed on. Before they got to the plan for contacting agent Balmore Escobar, Funes wanted to explore more possibilities for getting information that would damage Flores.
After consulting with Tony Saca, the president proposed more ways to use government resources for the operation. He suggested, for example, sending a Salvadoran police official to Washington. In official communication with US agencies, the reason would be to find out if there was an ongoing investigation against Flores. But it would be a hoax.
“[Tell them] that the Salvadoran government wants to collaborate with them on the investigation,” Funes said.
At that point in the conversation it was clear any information Funes and his allies obtained would essentially serve only one purpose: to attack Flores through the presidential radio program and other media.
Funes proposed that the executive office make its own inquiries without consulting the Attorney General’s Office.
“Tell [Security Minister Ricardo] Perdomo to ask the commissioner the IRS appointed for the information … We can do that without the Attorney General, through the [Salvadoran] embassy [in Washington],” explained the president.
In 2006, Tony Saca’s administration had created a police attaché position as part of its diplomatic team in Washington. In reality, it was a minister-counsellor post, which is third in rank within the Salvadoran foreign service. And it was not without its fair share of scandals.
The first police attaché to arrive in Washington, in the mid-2000s, was Ricardo Menesses, who at the time was director general of El Salvador’s civilian police force (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC). He was also suspected of having ties to the Perrones drug trafficking gang.
In May 2013, five months before the meeting at Cumbres de Cuscatlán, the Funes administration attempted to appoint commissioner Luis Núñez Cárcamo to the post. But he too was tainted by links to the Perrones, having been investigated by the inspector general in 2010. Funes ultimately gave up on the appointment.
Since its inception, when Menesses held the post, the primary role of the police attaché in Washington was to document the flights of deportees whom the United States sent to El Salvador. But another responsibility the position held was to work with US police agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), according to a source consulted at the Salvadoran Foreign Affairs Ministry.
It was expected, within the context of informal diplomatic exchanges, that the attaché would request information on specific cases. But according to an official whom Factum consulted at the US Department of State and another at the US House of Representatives, requests for the FBI to provide data on an ongoing investigation -- including one against a former president -- must be made through formal diplomatic or judicial channels. In Flores’ case, this would have involved requests through the US Supreme Court or the US Attorney General’s Office, which was precisely what Funes wanted to avoid.
In the October 2013 meeting, Funes expressed concerns about the issue. He had a tough time deciding whether to do it through the attaché in Washington or through a higher-ranking official sent from San Salvador. Then and there, he asked his predecessor about it, from one president to another.
“Tell me something, since you’ve been president -- and I’m asking you as president -- how do you think I should ask or order the police director to send the … head of the financial crimes unit to Washington to meet with the authorities?” Mauricio Funes asked Tony Saca.
“And what happens if he comes back empty-handed?” César Funes quickly followed up.
That day, at the house on Xochiquetzal Street in Cumbres de Cuscatlán on the monied outskirts of San Salvador, then-President Funes did not consult with his cabinet on any actions for his government to take or public policies to implement. Instead, in the twilight of his term as the first left-wing president elected in El Salvador, he sought advice from former right-wing President Saca and his closest advisors on how to get information to attack an adversary. They discussed such details as the possible use of government resources to do it, such as the PNC or the Salvadoran embassy in Washington.
The concerns that Tony Saca and César Funes had were not related to ethical or legal problems -- concerns one would expect a government official to have -- so much as something much more practical: access to information the Americans supposedly had. In response, Mauricio Funes tried out potential arguments to take to Washington.
"I heard that the gringos are interested in investigating money laundering crimes committed by former government officials, and since the prosecutor does not clarify or say anything, or move a single finger, then I as the government, with the instruments within my reach, get to investigate," said the president.
The ultimate solution now arose: the STR. Funes wanted more details, to be certain that there was a paper trail proving the embezzlement of funds attributed to Flores. These documents existed, the issue was now what needed to be done to get a hold of them."What I need to be sure of is that there is such an investigation ... that's why ... And when will Porfirio come?" asked Funes.
"Call him, he must be here," said Tony Saca.
"I'm going to call him," answered Herbert.
"I do not want to get blown off, then. Imagine that I'm into this... I've already gotten into this ... And if it turns out to be nothing," Funes continued.
"To me the only thing that worries me about all this ...," said Tony Saca, laconic.
"... Is that it doesn’t exist?" asked Funes.
"That it doesn’t exist," Tony said.
"You are right. But you heard Porfirio who said yes, and René too," Funes replied.
César Funes intervened again, as he has done several times during the conversation, providing a summary of what has been spoken and moving the conversation move forward. It is he who returned and insisted on the central objective.
"What we can generate through Diego, President, is the copy of the STR, which supports what you have declared so far," proposed Cesar Funes.
"Diego is key in this," seconded Herbert Saca.
"How can we send for Diego right now?" Asked Funes.
The next step was to contact Diego Escobar through Lafitte Fernández, the Costa Rican expert who settled for many years in El Salvador. Herbert Saca clarified that he had Escobar's phone number but suggests that Funes should not speak to him directly because the prosecutor "can be nervous." "Do it through Lafitte," he suggested. The cabinet agreed that the best option was to use the intermediary.
When the October 11 meeting was about to end, Funes and the others agreed to contact Diego Escobar through Lafitte Fernández. The recordings that Factum has heard ended right at that point: with the agreement to make an offer to the prosecutor who, it is supposed, has the STR in his possession. The reconstruction of this episode were made possible through the same sources that have been alluded to, which allowed for authenticity of the recordings to be corroborated and for the reconstruction of the October 11 meeting, as well as key and legislative documents.
By November 23, 2013, Funes already had all the information he needed. From then on, in response to the US documents he had obtained at an October meeting in the Cumbres de Cuscatlán neighborhood, he began a political and media avalanche revolving around a fact that seemed impossible to deny: Francisco Guillermo Flores Perez, as president of El Salvador in 2003, received personal checks from a Taiwanese donation supposedly destined for victims of the 2001 earthquakes.
After mentioning Flores by name in his radio program on November 23, Funes appeared five days later in the TV program Debate with Nacho Castillo. There, he showed for the first time a copy of the STR live on camera.
"Here I have the suspicious transactions record that entered the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic on September 23 of this year and that the same attorney general confirmed that he had received it…”, he said.
He then read the following: "Suspicious transaction report number 3000002863051 ... was completed by ... suspicious transactions ..." Funes stopped to explain that the STR was prepared by the financial investigations unit of the United States Treasury Department, “for suspicious transactions totaling 5 million dollars in a period between October 22, 2003 to March 29, 2004."
On October 22, 2003, explained Funes, the Taiwanese embassy in El Salvador extended two checks to Flores through a New York bank, one for $4 million and one for $1 million. The STR also listed a third later check for $5 million.
However, when Funes had made the information public, the prosecutor Martinez had already decided not to open an investigation against Flores. This was what Funes had told his the meeting on October 11, 2013.
"What he (Martinez) told me is ‘I cannot incriminate the president Flores...but don’t worry...I’m going to get him in another way for money laundering,’" Funes told them.
The collusion between Funes and ex-prosecutor Martinez was evident. One of the former employees with whom Factum spoke for the preparation of this report was present at a meeting between Funes, Luis Martínez and at least two other collaborators close to the former president.
There, said the source, the attorney-general boasted of having information about the most important political actors in the country thanks, in part, to wiretapping.
The wiretapping center in El Salvador was inaugurated in 2012 after the approval of legislation that gave the Office of the Attorney-General the power to tap communications in the context of investigations related to seven serious crimes -including homicide and extortion.
While he was a prosecutor, Luis Martínez used the listening center for other purposes. Almost three years after the meeting in Cumbres de Cuscatlán, Douglas Meléndez, the lawyer who replaced Martínez, confirmed these suspicions when he opened an investigation into the misuse of telephone interventions wiretapping in August 2016. Martinez was convicted in November 2018 for illegally revealing private conversations, obtained through wiretapping, in a case involving Antonio Rodríguez, a former Spanish priest.
Herbert Saca, in any way, seemed to know what he was talking about when he expressed his suspicion that Martinez was spying on them. After all, Herbert had served as an intermediary between Martinez, Funes and his cousin Tony. In fact, during the October conversation at the Cumbres de Cuscatlán house, Herbert explained that his relationship with Martinez was close enough for him to give the prosecutor advice.
During the conversation, when those present were still discussing their doubts about the US information about the transfers attributed to Flores, César Funes said that prosecutor Martínez had already received information from the Americans. Who had Martinez told about this? Herbert Saca.
"That's what the prosecutor will handle when he comes here ... on Saturdays," recalled César Funes.
"Did he tell you when he was here?" asked Mauricio Funes.
"He told Herbert ... He did not tell me," replied Cesar.
"He told me that he would advise him because he is an ex-president, right?" answered Herbert.
An El Faro investigation revealed that Funes and Martinez communicated about the STR and Francisco Flores. The online newspaper obtained access to chats between the two on WhatsApp.
In one such chat, Funes seems to explain to Martinez one of his radio interventions in this regard: "... I referred to the topic of the STF... My attitude was one of total respect for the professionalism and independence of the Prosecutor's Office. As I made it clear the last time we saw each other: once I establish a friendly relationship (with someone), I do not usually betray. I consider you my friend and therefore you will not find in this relationship any intent or bad faith."
Then, in the same conversation, an appointment was made to meet Tony Saca in the Cumbres de Cuscatlán house. "Do you think we can meet at 5 o'clock (sic)? A friend in common, President Saca, would also like to take a drink and speak with us."
“Thank you, President," Martinez responded, accepting the invitation.
From this, it is clear that Martinez did not intend to seriously investigate Flores.
However, the doubts of Luis Martinez did not mean the ex-president was safe: the deputies from GANA, allies of the Saca and Funes, and the FMLN parliamentary ranks, had prepared another weapon against Flores. On the same day that Funes revealed the content of the STR on television, the Assembly approved the creation of a special commission to investigate where the Taiwan money had gone.
After this came the avalanche.
Saturday, November 30, 2013: Funes repeated the contents of the STR on his radio program and congratulated the deputies for creating the commission.
December 11, 2013: the commission began its work.
January 7 and 28, 2014: Flores testified before the commission and ended up incriminating herself by accepting that he received money from Taiwan without clarifying what happened to the funds.
May 6, 2014: A court ordered the arrest of Flores on corruption and money laundering charges.
September 5, 2014: Flores was placed under house arrest.
September 18, 2014: The Superior Court ordered the former president to return to prison.
November 5, 2015: Preliminary hearing began against Flores.
January 31, 2016: Francisco Flores died of a cerebral hemorrhage. End of the process.
Martínez never thoroughly investigated the suspicious transactions and, according to the criminal charges against him, used the Attorney General’s Office to protect Flores.
In a multiple indictment for corruption crimes that the FGR presented on October 18, 2018 against Martínez, it was explained that the former prosecutor instructed his subordinates to "omit investigating crimes and related persons in judicial file Reference 06-UIF-2014, in which Mr. Francisco Guillermo Flores Pérez and others were charged, for crimes related to money laundering. "
Tovías Armando Menjívar, a former deputy of Martínez and witness in the case against the ex-prosecutor, stated that the STR arose from a request made in June 2013 by prosecutors investigating possible criminal handling within the Lempa River Hydroelectric Commission (in the case known as CEL-ENEL). This was to determine "the veracity" of information about Flores for "transporting a large amount of cash as well as financial information” related to him.
Menjívar said that in October 2013, prosecutors received a report from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the US Treasury Department, the instance to which Funes referred in Nacho Castillo's program. FinCEN confirmed that "the government of China-Taiwan issued in favor of Mr. Francisco Flores Pérez in his capacity as president of the Republic of El Salvador, (the sum) of ten million dollars," according to the charges against Martinez.
According to Menjívar, Luis Martínez asked for this information to be controlled from the start and that that no case be opened due to information received from FinCEN. Prosecutors from the financial unit, however, drew up three indictment projects that included Flores and other business and political leaders allegedly linked to the embezzlement of the Taiwanese money. It was not until the third time that Martinez authorized the filing of the injunction and then only to a court of his choosing. Each move on this case had to be approved by him personally, meaning the investigation never progressed. Currently, Luis Martínez is being prosecuted for failing to investigate the Flores case.
In the end, the STR only served to allow Mauricio Funes and Tony Saca, protected by the alliance that united them and thanks to the work of their operators, to mount their own political persecution. Along the way, El Salvador violated international agreements that protected the public disclosure of sensitive information such as Flores’ STR. As a result of this, the country was expelled from a group of countries with the legal capacity to exchange such data within the framework of criminal investigations.
In October 2013, when Funes, Saca and his family met, the Attorney General's Office was hijacked by a criminal enterprise, allowing bribes, illegal prosecutions and cover-ups. This had been set up by Martínez with the support of the politicians and interest groups that had placed him in this role. The STR about the activities of Francisco Flores only served to fuel more underhanded political operations, like the one discussed by Funes and Saca at the Cumbres de Cuscatlán house.
But it was not Martinez who provided the STR to Funes. So how did the president get a hold of it? According to two sources close to him, a former official who worked during Funes’ entire five-year presidential term and a member of the cabinet that was part of the president's inner circle, it was Escobar who provided the STR to Funes.
"They contacted Diego and ... they got the STR. Later, it was supposed that they provided money for Diego to leave the country,” said the former official from the president’s house (CAPRES), who spoke on condition of anonymity for security.
"What was said later in several meetings among the same people is that a payment was made," said the former cabinet member.
Factum could not confirm, beyond what was expressed by both these ex-officials, that a payment was made to obtain the STR. Thes magazine contacted Diego Escoba but the former prosecutor refused to address his participation. Factum did arrange an interview with Escobar, the time and place were agreed. However, Escobar cancelled ten minutes before the appointment, citing an important workload. He never communicated with Factum again.
Near the end of the October 2013 meeting, Funes called Lafitte Fernández to establish contact with Diego Escobar. In the conversation, the president assumed that Escobar had the STR in his possession and was willing to hand it over.
Funes called 7883-1673, the number Fernandez had given him. This number was used by Fernández when he lived in El Salvador, as Factum has proved.
"President Funes is speaking to you. I sent you a message to see if we could talk to that person of yours ... who has what interests me ... Tell them that I'm in a safe house and I'm with Tony, with Tony Saca, and then ...," said Funes on the phone with Lafitte Fernández.
"That's why ... I'd like to talk to him today because we have to hurry. Why don’t you ask him and tell him that we can send for him with all the necessary security so he does not feel intimidated. And we will talk, just talk,” the president continued.
Lafitte Fernández spoke to Factum by phone from Costa Rica, where he now lives. In the call, the former journalist admitted that he met several times with Funes and that he knew Diego Escobar. He told Factum:
"Funes called you and told you he needed an urgent meeting with the prosecutor Diego Escobar. And you told him that Diego was screwed and that he thought it was best to leave the country, which was why he could not speak with them at the time in that safe house.
"So Funes told you to come yourself as you also had information," Factum told Fernández.
"(Silence) Eh ... yes, but it didn’t happen like that."
"So how did it happen then? That's why we're calling you."
"No! You tell me!"
"Laffite ... do you remember that call on October 11?"
"No! I do not remember it! No no. I met several times with former President Funes for other things, but I do not remember this."
"Do you know Diego Escobar, Laffite?"
"Of course. I've known him for many years."
"And why did you say in that call to the former president that Diego Escobar was screwed and that he wanted to leave the country?"
"(Silence) Hey ... I do not think I said that. Respectfully. Also, what is the accusation? What is the illegal behavior? Which one?"
"According to the audios we have heard, you were the person who contacted then-Prosecutor Diego Escobar with the ex-president to get access to the STR."
"No, no, no. It was not like that."
"Explain it to us."
"Do not! I do not have to explain anything that is false. You tell me what behavior you are ascribing to me. What you are telling me, I am telling you is not true, right? Then you tell me what my illegal or unethical behavior is ... I do not know."
The truth is that, between the second week of October 2013, when the group drew up the plan to approach the prosecutor who was supposed to have access to the STR, and the last week of November, when he revealed it on his radio program and during the television interview by Nacho Castillo, Mauricio Funes obtained a copy of the STR.
The disclosure of the STR, also made through official propaganda media such as the Transparencia Activa portal, gave rise to a political operation in the Assembly, one of whose main executors was Guillermo Gallegos, another important man in the Saca clan. Gallegos, who has been under investigation by the Supreme Court for excessive wealth accrued during
The political alliance between Funes, the Sacas and all their operators ended up being unmade. They partly undid the suspicions aroused in the group by the investigations undertaken by the Supreme Court’s probity division and the Attorney General’s Office, during the mandate of Douglas Meléndez.
One of Funes’ ex-collaborators and a former cabinet member concurred that, even with Funes having left the presidency, the two former presidents met to draw up strategies before possible investigations.
In the end, the Saca clan and Funes and his acolytes stood alone. It did not go well.
Antonio Saca and César Funes were convicted this year for corruption and money laundering offenses for the deviation of nearly $300 million from the Presidential Office. They will spend at least the next decade in prison.
Mauricio Funes is a fugitive from justice. In June 2018, a judge issued arrest warrants against the former president, his wife and several former officials for various corruption offenses. In August 2016, after a brief stopover in Guatemala, the Daniel Ortega regime in Nicaragua granted asylum to Funes, who claimed he was a political refugee from Arena for having denounced Flores. This is despite the fact that El Salvador, the country from which he claims to be fleeing, has largely been controlled since 2009 by the FMLN, the party that took him to the presidency.
Flores died in 2016 while being reluctantly prosecuted for corruption reluctantly undertaken by Luis Martínez as attorney-general. In October of this year, a court decided to return to the family of the ex-president all the assets confiscated during this legal process.
Herbert Saca, the great operator, is free. The Salvadoran authorities have never accused him of anything, although the Attorney General's Office and the OIE did have him on their radar. Attorney General Meléndez ordered in November 2016 a raid of HS Imports, a company owned by Herbert which investigations in 2004 and 2006 linked to several cases of corruption involving Funes, former officials and a top Arena leader. That investigation has stalled.
Arena has never explained how the party used the Taiwanese funds diverted by Francisco Flores to personal and party accounts. The current Arena leadership has limited itself to saying that the electoral accounting documents of 2004 and 2006 were lost. The Attorney General’s Office under Luis Martínez and Douglas Meléndez took no criminal action against other politicians and Arena leaders who knew about Taiwanese funds or private banking officials who let those transfers take place.
When he hung up from speaking from Lafitte Fernández, President Funes told the room that, according to what he had just heard, Diego Escobar was “screwed” and that he was thinking about leaving the country.
"Well, he can leave after creating this mess," said Tony Saca.
*With additional reporting from Fernando Romero, Bryan Avelar and María Cidón. Editing by César Castro Fagoaga and Ricardo Vaquerano. Video by Gerson Nájera.
*This article was translated, edited for clarity and length, and published with the permission of Revista Factum. It does not necessarily represent the views of InSight Crime. See the Spanish original here.