HomeNewsAnalysisIn About-Face, El Salvador Govt Reopens 'Chepe Diablo' Case
ANALYSIS

In About-Face, El Salvador Govt Reopens 'Chepe Diablo' Case

CHEPE DIABLO / 7 DEC 2016 BY HÉCTOR SILVA ÁVALOS EN

When Luis Martínez was the Attorney General in 2015, he ordered his subordinates to shelve the money laundering investigation against businessman José Adán Salazar Umaña. Now, with Martínez out and facing accusations of corruption, the Attorney General’s Office has reactivated the case against Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," and members of his so-called Texis Cartel, and it has officially requested information from the United States and various countries of Central America through diplomatic channels. 

Factum, InSight Crime and La Prensa Gráfica (LPG) have confirmed that in October, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office asked El Salvador's Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia - CSJ) to issue an official request to the United States and other Central American countries to share information on at least twenty companies and financial activities related to José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo," Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán, Umaña Samayoa’s son, Wilfredo Guerra, and Jose Adán Salazar Martínez, Salazar Umaña’s son, because of their allegedly illegal activities related to what is known as the Texis Cartel, a drug transport and money laundering organization that operates from northwestern El Salvador.

Three sources from the CSJ, including a magistrate, confirmed that the request, known as a supplication in Salvadoran legalese, was made. It centers on what can only be an open investigation against the above-mentioned persons for money laundering. When the Attorney General’s Office submits a supplication, it has to pass through the Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry, embassies and other diplomatic and legal channels.

On December 6, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez confirmed in an interview with La Prensa Gráfica that he had issued the supplication. 

"We are in that process, but I am not sure where [the process] is," he told the newspaper following a public event on transparency. "What we do know is possibly there was a leak of information about this process. All of this is related to financial dealings."

Prior to this statement, the attorney general had given a short press conference in which he had confirmed that the prosecutor's office had reactived the case against the Texis Cartel. However, he did not give any details of the investigation and did not mention his predecessor, Luis Martínez. 

"That Texis case was basically shelved," Meléndez said during the press conference. "When I arrived, I noted that, and we reopened it. That case is now under investigation. We might get there, and we might have some success, but right now it's under investigation, just like other cases."

The money laudering investigation is the first major investigation that the Salvadoran state has done against Salazar Umaña and his group, which official investigations and news sources connect to the Texis Cartel, since the government dropped a tax evasion case against members of the group in 2015. Salazar Umaña and others paid some hefty fines following the tax case but all other inquiries were apparently archived until Meléndez reopened them.

In 2014, the US Treasury declared Salazar Umaña a "Kingpin," a designation that led some to believe that a formal US indictment might follow. Instead, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Then Salvadoran Attorney General Luis Martínez decided not to open a money laundering investigation despite reports from the attorney general’s own prosecutors that argued for a formal inquiry.

It also ignored other leads from its own Finance Ministry, which showed that Chepe Diablo may have been laundering money. In the end, Martínez and his staff simply closed the money laundering inquiries.

Factum, InSight Crime and La Prensa Gráfica attempted to consult the ex-Attorney General Martínez and one of his subordinates on the matter, but they refused to give interviews.

The three outlets also reached out to Salazar Umaña at his offices in Hotesa in Old Cuscatalán and left a message but he did not respond; when they contacted his godson, Wilfredo Guerra, he said that Salazar Umaña "did not like interviews."

The decision to issue a supplication is an incredible about-face for an Attorney General’s Office that a little more than a year ago closed all the investigations into Salazar Umaña and his close-knit group of business partners.

It's also part of a larger story in which investigators seem to be putting more pressure on the former Attorney General Martínez. Martínez, who already faces accusations of defrauding the justice system, may have to confront additional accusations related to his handling of the Chepe Diablo cases. 

Sources who worked on both the money laundering and tax evasion cases, told InSight Crime that Martínez and several prosecutors actively obstructed the pursuit of justice, in spite of evidence provided by Finance Ministry investigators that showed that Salazar Umaña had vast amounts of wealth that he could not reasonably justify.

Specifically, prosecutors under Martínez’s guise delayed requesting the materials related to the investigation that might implicate Salazar Umaña for money laundering. In one instance, the Financial Investigative Unit (Unidad de Investigación Financiera - UIF), which was handling the case for Martínez, argued it had nowhere to put the physical case file; in another instance, the UIF said the target, Salazar Umaña, was a public figure and "in the eye" of the United States, so each step of the process had to be measured and careful.

When the head of the UIF could no longer come up with viable excuses, Martínez simply swapped directors, and replaced him with someone he knew would do his bidding, sources told InSight Crime. In the end, the UIF declared the money laundering case dead, asked the courts to do the same, and had the files sent back to Chepe Diablo.

*Jessica Ávalos and César Castro Fagoaga contributed to this report, which was a collaborative effort between Factum, La Prensa Gráfica  and InSight Crime.

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