El Salvador’s security minister claimed that no members of Congress were accused of ties to a recently-captured drug trafficker known as “El Repollo,” but was forced to backtrack when facts emerged telling a different story.

It is not the first time; it is only the most recent. Last week, two journalistic investigations revealed that the Salvadoran state — the Attorney General’s Office, the National Police (PNC) and the Security Ministry — ignored clues that tied one member of Congress, Wilber Rivera Monge, to Jorge Ulloa Sibrian, alias “Repollo,” a drug trafficker accused of transporting at least 10 tons of cocaine from El Salvador to the United States, while Guatemalan authorities accuse him of shipping another 6 tons northwards.

According to witnesses interviewed by the police between 2010 and 2012, since 2004 Rivera Monge has been part of the drug trafficking structure led by Ulloa Sibrian, who was arrested March 15 in Guatemala and deported the following day to El Salvador.

Online newspaper El Faro, which carried out its own investigation, reported that a Salvadoran arrested in the United States told Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials in 2007 that an individual — identified only as “Wilber” — belonged to a group of drug traffickers. According to El Faro, Wilber is the head of a used car sales business, the description of which coincides with one owned by representative Rivera Monge in San Salvador.

Cesar Castro, editor for La Prensa Grafica’s judicial team and coordinator of an investigation into the links between Ulloa and Rivera, said that the police reports accessed by journalists indicate that the official provided a vehicle to Ulloa that was used to transport 130 kilos of cocaine in 2007. Additionally, in 2010 the Police Intelligence Center found that, since 2009, Ulloa had used a car lot that belonged to Rivera Monge in order to meet with Jose Misael Cisneros, leader of the Fulton Locos Salvatrucha clique of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), operating in Nueva Concepcion, Chalatengo. Cisneros also works for the Texis Cartel, and with Carlos Barahona, alias “Chino Tres Colas,” a leader of the Barrio 18 gang.

Despite all the evidence and records, Salvadoran police did not initially include Rivera Monge in their investigation of Ulloa Sibrian. Prior to the week of March 25, Public Security Minister David Munguia Payes even told La Prensa Grafica reporters that no government representatives were involved in the drug trafficker’s case. Nonetheless, two weeks later, when the newspaper was ready to publish its scoop regarding the ties between Rivera Monge and Ulloa, Munguia said that the police did, in fact, possess some information. He said that if there was no arrest warrant,  it was because the Attorney General’s Office had not found sufficient evidence.

Both La Prensa Grafica and El Faro found signs that Ulloa Sibrian and representative Rivera Monge’s relationship involved commercial transactions that followed traditional money laundering patterns: expensive purchases coupled with low-priced sales [See interview with Prensa Grafica editor Cesar Castro Fagoaga below]. 

In past cases, the Salvadoran state has sabotaged or buried investigations and evidence regarding the involvement of members of Congress with organized crime. Roberto Carlos Silva Pereira, an alternate representative for the National Coalition (PCN) party, ran in the 2006 elections, even though a special task force formed by the Housing Ministry, the police, and the Attorney General’s Office — and assisted by the DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — suspected that he had been involved in money laundering since 2004. In 2005, the group presented a report to the president which stated that Silva had moved $800,000 in just one transaction from a bank branch in Usulutan — something that was uncommon, illegal and, at the very least, suspicious, according to a former minister who formed part of the commission. No investigation has been opened since. In 2006, Silva ran for Congress and won.

In October 2006, El Salvador’s Congress opened a pre-trial money laundering case against Silva, but, following a process plagued with anomalies, he managed to escape house arrest and ended up entering the United States without documentation. He was arrested, and has been awaiting deportation or extradition since 2007. Also that year, Silva Pereira was accused in Guatemala of participating in the murder of three Salvadoran representatives allegedly tied to drug trafficking, an incident reportedly related to a debt. 

And in 2009, an El Faro investigation revealed that Adolfo Torrez, a National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party strongman, had ordered half a million dollars from Silva in order to resolve his legal problems. Torrez, also accused of drug trafficking in police reports, died under strange circumstances on June 1, 2009.

From the first signs of trouble in the Silva Pereira case, the Salvadoran state allowed at least a year to go by before taking action. In Rivera Monge’s case, this was five years: from 2007, when — according to El Faro — the DEA told Salvadoran police, until 2012, when police witnesses openly noted Rivera’s involvement in the Ulloa Sibrian investigation. Even then, Minister Munguia Payes denied that members of Congress were implicated in drug trafficking. Recently, in Washington DC, Munguia said that El Salvador did not have a serious drug trafficking problem and insisted that the only issue was micro-trafficking, or small-scale drug dealing.

The newspapers and police investigations tell another story: that of drug traffickers who move tons of cocaine, and members of Congress who use their constitutional power to launder money with the protection of authorities who do not investigate them.

Below, an interview with Cesar Castro Fagoaga, the judicial editor for La Prensa Grafica

How did you begin to follow the trail of representative Wilber Rivera Monge?

We had previous information about this man, this drug trafficker Jorge Ulloa Sibrian. A couple months ago we got access to sources who told us about his modus operandi in El Salvador and Central America. In this information the name of representative Rivera Monge was mentioned…

In relation to what?  

The investigation that Salvadoran police had opened. From testimonies.

What did the witnesses say?  

That he formed part of the network, that his role was to launder money through the sale of vehicles and properties, and that he provided vehicles to the organization so that they could modify them and use them to transport cocaine. In fact, they mentioned that one of the vehicles that he provided to the structure was used to transport 130 kilos of cocaine in 2007.  

From what point in time do witnesses connect the representative to Repollo’s organization?  

Since 2004, at least according to the investigation in El Salvador.

And since when has he been a member of Congress?  

He began in this cycle (2010). He started as an alternate for representative Reynaldo Cardoza, for the National Conciliation and Hope Party (CN-PES).

That is to say, this man won a seat despite the fact that police are investigating him for drug ties?

Exactly. The thing is that we don’t know if the authorities were aware of that when he won a seat. What I’m saying is that the witness said that he [Rivera Monge] has been linked to the network since 2004. We [at the newspaper] are certain that he has been under investigation since October 2012.

Why are you certain that an investigation has been underway since October 2012?  

Because there are documents that prove it. The police have been in contact with witnesses since October — as they have told us — who have spoken of Rivera.

So, even though an investigation has been underway since 2012, when he was already a representative, there haven’t been movements for a pre-trial commission in Congress?

They attempted to give him a pre-trial hearing for attempted homicide when he was accused of evading a police blockade and nearly ran down some police, but the case didn’t move forward and Congress didn’t see any reason to press the issue. Now, well, there is no order for Rivera’s arrest for this case. In fact, prior to the week of March 25, we asked the security minister if, speaking generally, there was an investigation into any member of Congress involved in Jorge Ulloa Sibrian’s drug trafficking network, and he said no. Nevertheless, last week, when we were about to publish the information and had already spoken with the member of Congress, the minister acknowledged that the investigation did in fact exist and that if it hadn’t moved forward it was likely due to insufficient evidence…

He told you first that there was no investigation and later that there was… How much time passed between the two statements?

Two weeks.

Did he lie to you the first time or did he not know the first time?  

I would like to think he didn’t know…

Right, but he’s the minister, isn’t he?  

Yes, it seems very strange that he wouldn’t have known, considering that the police are dependent on him.

This isn’t the first official who has gotten caught up in these problems, but it reminds me most of the case of Roberto Silva Pereira, for whom there was a pre-trial commission and money laundering charge, which is what Rivera has also been named for…

Yes, witnesses point at Rivera as having participated in money laundering. Regardless, we also performed our own investigation at the newspaper regarding Rivera Monge’s properties in relation to Ulloa Sibrian. There are cases in which both men are involved, in which the representative, for example, bought an extravagant property with cash and sold it at a loss of $75,000 to $200,000, via agents believed to be front men for Ulloa Sibrian. This behavior has been repeated with various properties, which reinforces the money laundering theory.

If you, as a newspaper, identified these movements and transactions, why hasn’t the Attorney General’s Office found them?

We have been asking for an interview with the attorney general since the arrest of Ulloa on March 15, but we haven’t gotten a response. Before publishing the case of representative Rivera we again asked for an interview, in order to find out why they haven’t published an arrest warrant against him, but have done so against other people from Ulloa’s organization who are also mentioned in testimony given to the Attorney General’s Office. Nor have they told us if they are investigating Rivera Monge.

Recently, Minister Munguia Payes said in Washington that El Salvador does not have a serious drug trafficking problem; that the country is a secondary route and its principal problem is the gangs. What is your opinion regarding this in light of the investigation of Repollo’s network and information that recently emerged about a network of vans that moves drugs from Costa Rica to Guatemala?

The minister has also made that assessment here, that El Salvador is a secondary route. I understand that what he wants to say is that it is not a big problem in the country. Nonetheless I believe that the arrest of Ulloa Sibrian and the resulting investigations have allowed us to see a wider scope, because this is a man who has moved 10 tons of cocaine between Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua since 2005, and has made various and significant deliveries, which we aren’t used to seeing, at least from the point of view of the media. Keeping this evidence and this information in mind, which the minister is aware of, I think the problem is bigger than he has said.

Read the latest from Hector Silva Avalos here.

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