An ex-president in El Salvador has become the first former head of state in the country to confess to corruption and later receive prison time for it, but the light sentence handed down as part of the plea deal he struck with authorities makes this moment bittersweet.
Former El Salvador President Elías Antonio “Tony” Saca, who served the country between 2004 and 2009, was sentenced September 12 to 10 years in prison for embezzlement and money laundering, and was ordered to pay $260 million as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, the Attorney General’s Office announced in a press release.
Prosecutors asked for five years for embezzlement and five more for money laundering as part of the plea deal. However, this is just a fraction of the 30-year prison sentence that Saca could have faced without the agreement for the crimes he committed, according to El Faro.
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Saca and his co-conspirators were arrested in October 2016 on corruption charges and were accused of embezzlement, illicit association and money laundering. They were accused of embezzling more than $300 million from state coffers into personal bank accounts. Saca pleaded guilty to these charges in August 2018 in a historic confession that marked the first time a former Salvadoran president confessed to committing such crimes.
Saca seemed to have a premeditated plan for how he would rob the state. A law passed shortly after he took office approving the “internal regulation of the use of public funds” allowed him to siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s accounts into his own personal accounts through checks and money transfers without leaving much of a paper trail behind.
In addition, the former president overspent the state’s money by handing out bonuses, paying for travel expenses, bribing journalists and transferring money to the accounts of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista — ARENA) political party, which he headed at the time.
InSight Crime Analysis
The sentencing of former El Salvador President Saca marks a historic moment in the fight against corruption in the Central American nation, but his light sentence comes as little surprise given the country's shortcomings with combating widespread graft.
Former President Saca’s corruption network penetrated all aspects of Salvadoran society, from government institutions to prominent business elites and the country’s media. But Saca, who headed the network, didn't receive the harshest sentence. Despite confessing to robbing the state of more than $300 million, the former president's 10-year prison term was less than the 16 years in prison that Pablo Gómez, one of the network's lower-level members responsible for writing checks, received.
While Saca's confession is historic, he is not the first Salvadoran president to become entangled in the corruption that has come to define the country's politics. Saca’s predecessor, Francisco Flores, was accused of embezzling millions of dollars of the state’s money. And Saca’s successor, Mauricio Funes, was convicted of illicit enrichment in 2017.
What was different about Saca, however, was his and his family’s strong links to organized crime. Saca’s cousin, Herbert Ernesto Saca Vides, was one of El Salvador’s most effective political fixers due to his links to both organized crime groups, like the infamous Los Perrones, and the upper echelons of the country’s political elite.