A new US list of corruption suspects in Central America includes officials with ties to sitting presidents -- an important step in recognizing how deeply corruption has penetrated these countries' governments.
In the new corruption report, the US State Department accuses more than 50 current or former senior officials of engaging or facilitating corruption in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The list -- which identifies 11 Salvadoran officials, 27 Guatemalan officials, and 13 Honduran officials -- expands on a previous list issued in April that was criticized for omitting key officials.
Among the most prominent figures on the new list is José Luis Merino, one of the most powerful political operatives in El Salvador's Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) headed by outgoing President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Merino is currently the Vice Minister of Foreign Investment and Funding in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Merino was a central figure in the founding of ALBA Petróleos, a Salvadoran subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). As InSight Crime previously reported, his vast business networks have made many elites wealthy, but he also has been investigated on corruption charges and other crimes.
In the latest report, US officials accuse Merino and his brother of having diverted over $400 million through various shell companies to offshore accounts in Panama and elsewhere. However, Merino has not been charged with any crimes and enjoys immunity in his current government position, the report states.
The State Department also named former Guatemala presidential candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana, who was recently arrested in Miami for seeking between $10 million and $12 million in campaign funds from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for facilitating the group’s drug trafficking activities.
Since Estrada's arrest, Guatemala President Jimmy Morales has found himself in hot water for his links to the former candidate. Morales previously met with Estrada at a private finca and also used a helicopter owned by Estrada for official business on at least one occasion.
Guatemala's former President of Congress Gudy Rivera and fugitive congressman Julio César López Villatoro, the brother of powerbroker Roberto López Villatoro, alias the “Tennis Shoe King," were also named on the list. Both Rivera and the López Villatoro brothers have been accused of using their power to influence the selection of judges and the country’s attorney general through committees known as “postulation commissions,” which play an important role in the selection of high court justices.
Lastly, the State Department highlighted the corrupt acts of former Honduran congressman Fredy Renan Najera Montoya, who served in the National Congress under Juan Orlando Hernández before Hernández became president in 2014. US authorities indicted Najera Montoya on drug trafficking charges for his role in facilitating cocaine shipments sent from Colombia, through Honduras and on to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.
He wasn’t the only official singled out with links to President Hernández. US authorities also listed Yankel Rosenthal, Honduras’ investment minister under President Hernández until June 2015, who admitted to laundering drug money for the once-dominant Cachiros trafficking group in 2017. Yankel’s cousin, Yani, a business tycoon and former minister to the presidency, was also featured on the list. He too was implicated in laundering drug proceeds for the Cachiros.
Left off the list, however, was President Hernández’s brother, former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández. US prosecutors allege Tony to be a “large-scale drug trafficker” who worked in Colombia, Honduras and Mexico. He was arrested in Miami on drug and weapons charges in late 2018.
In the corruption report, US officials acknowledged advances made by each government, but stressed that corruption in the Northern Triangle region is “endemic and systemic and among the foremost challenges these countries face.”
Specifically, the report slammed elites in Guatemala for striking back against progress made by the Attorney General’s Office and the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), an anti-graft body that was ousted by President Morales last year.
Since then, US officials say Morales and his allies have “impeded anti-corruption efforts” and “attacked judicial independence.”
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The latest US corruption report on the Northern Triangle provides crucial recognition of the known or alleged criminal ties of some of the region’s most powerful officials, including those within the inner circle of the current administrations in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
US Congresswoman Norma Torres said in a May 18 press release that the report is a “step in the right direction.” Torres added that “the Trump Administration is finally beginning to recognize the extent of high-level corruption in the Northern Triangle, especially in Guatemala.”
However, it's unclear what, if any, impact this list will have on future efforts to root out corruption in the Northern Triangle.
The Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), which is backed by the Organization of American States (OAS), has been hamstrung since its inception and its future is tenuous.
Earlier this month, the judicial mission’s second leader, Luiz Antonio Guimaraes Marrey, announced he is stepping down in June. Meanwhile, the mission's mandate lasts just another six months, and it's unclear whether it will be renewed. Honduran President Hernández has recently placed more of a focus on combating the country’s gangs than rooting out corruption that has seeped into every level of government.
Anti-graft efforts in Guatemala are also at a crossroads. President Morales’ efforts against the CICIG peaked with the August 2018 announcement of the end of the mission’s mandate, which is set to expire in September 2019. The CICIG is investigating Morales for alleged illicit campaign financing in relation to his successful bid for the presidency in 2015, and is also involved in other probes into powerful elites and allies of the president.
In El Salvador, President-elect Nayib Bukele is about to take office in two weeks as head of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional – GANA) party. As part of his campaign pledges, Bukele proposed creating an independently backed commission to fight impunity and corruption in El Salvador, similar to Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’ MACCIH.
However, Bukele has been criticized for his willingness to negotiate with criminal actors. While mayor of San Salvador, the soon-to-be president reportedly made overtures to the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 gangs in exchange for security and access to gang-controlled areas.
The United States has sent mixed signals in the past on its support for anti-graft bodies in Central America. In addition to local support and resources, these entities need international backing to have teeth. The corruption report is a sign that the United States hasn't completely walked away from that responsibility just yet.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime investigator Héctor Silva Ávalos.