Prosecutors in El Salvador say the armed forces are obstructing an investigation into a former defense minister accused of arms trafficking, further complicating a case that has already become highly politicized.
The Attorney General's Office has accused the Salvadoran military of removing the identification tag on a rifle that it had requested as evidence as part of an investigation into former Defense Minister José Atilio Benítez, reported La Prensa Gráfica.
In June, Attorney General Douglas Meléndez accused Benítez of running an arms trafficking ring when he served as vice minister of defense from 2009 to 2011 and as minister from 2011 to 2013. Benítez, who is now serving as the Salvadoran ambassador to Germany, allegedly falsified documents that enabled nearly 30 weapons to be registered under his name. The weapons were reportedly sold to active and retired military officials.
The identification tag in question was allegedly placed on a different weapon that was used in the 1985 massacre of seven US citizens by guerrillas and that was eventually seized in 1999. The Attorney General's Office also alleges that the military omitted three weapons on a dossier sent to prosecutors listing the firearms registered under Benítez's name, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
In late August, Representative Blandino Nerio of the governing Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) accused US Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes of "interfering" in the Benítez case by urging policy makers to begin a preliminary hearing.
When asked if he was seeking a meeting with Manes, Nerio replied, "That doesn't interest us. Our country's problems are with the Salvadorans. She should be busy with her own things. We are from this country, and this country is sovereign."
InSight Crime Analysis
The Benítez case touches on two contentious issues within the Salvadoran justice system. The first is the involvement of high-level government and military officials in arms trafficking, and the inability of prosecutors to convict them. There have been numerous examples in recent years of current and former officials siphoning off weapons from military stockpiles, some of which have allegedly ended up in the possession of the country's violent street gangs. But judicial impunity for these officers remains the norm, and prison sentences the exception. The suspected obstruction of justice in the Benítez investigation demonstrates how the system works to protect alleged perpetrators of serious crimes.
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The Benítez investigation also speaks to the international community's controversial role in high-profile cases involving Salvadoran elites. The US government has encouraged El Salvador to adopt an international anti-impunity body similar to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), which has been instrumental in investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in that country. The Salvadoran government has steadfastly refused such overtures, and instead recently announced the creation of a new anti-impunity unit within the Attorney General's Office.