El Salvador's attorney general has opened an investigation to determine whether José Luis Merino, one of the three chief leaders of the ruling FMLN party, is involved in drug and weapons trafficking.
Merino is a member of the political commission of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) and a congressman in the Central American Parliament. He has been one of the financial brains of the former guerrilla army turned political party since the end of El Salvador's 12-year civil war in 1992.
Attorney General Douglas Meléndez said he has reopened an old investigation of Merino and will add to it accusations made by US Senator Marco Rubio in a June 29 hearing.
"You've got the right hand man of the president of El Salvador, José Luis Merino. This guy is a top-notch, world class money launderer, arms smuggler for the FARC as well as corrupt Venezuelan officials," Rubio said during a hearing on global corruption at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Why is this guy not sanctioned?"
The FMLN was quick to dismiss Rubio's accusations in a press statement that characterized the senator as a "political loser" mounting a politically-motivated attack.
The attorney general, however, said he was looking into it. "There is an investigation of events related to Mr. Merino that was opened in 2014," Meléndez told reporters in El Salvador, adding that it was "related to the issue of drugs and weapons."
"We are going to review that information and pick it up," Meléndez said.
A source in Meléndez's office told InSight Crime that the attorney general has asked his staff to review the old accusations and include them in a new file that he decided to open after hearing Rubio's statement. "He has asked for everything we have on Merino, and will go on from there," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"Given these statements from a public official of another country, and given that they are addressing a politician and public official of our country, we can't not investigate," Meléndez told reporters.
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The pre-existing investigative file was opened in 2014 by the attorney general at that time, Luis Martínez, after Spanish newspaper ABC published a story alleging that one of Merino's staffers had made contact with officials of President Nicolás Maduro's administration in Venezuela to arrange flights presumably carrying illegal drugs. Meléndez's staff said former attorney general Martínez failed to advance with that investigation.
The ABC story, based partly on US sources, said that in 2011 one of Merino's deputies asked Maduro's secretary to expedite flying permits for an airplane bearing the US registration N769M, owned by Execuflight, a company linked to Salvadoran businessman Enrique Rais. Venezuelan sources told InSight Crime that N769M had asked permission at least twice to fly over Apure, an area signaled by the US State Department as a cocaine hub.
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This is not the first time José Luis Merino, alias "Comandante Ramiro Vásquez," has been mentioned in connection with drug crimes.
In 2008, Colombian officials reported emails from Merino showed up on the laptop of slain guerrilla commander Raul Reyes, of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia FARC). Reyes was killed in a Colombian air strike and assault on a guerrilla camp across the border in Ecuador. The recovered emails linked Reyes and the FARC to Venezuelan officials and others, including Merino. Merino's name appeared in several emails related to an arms trafficking operation.
El Salvador also opened an investigation, but -- as with the 2014 investigation -- it never advanced. Merino and the FMLN have consistently dismissed the accusations as politically-motivated attacks fabricated by right-wing opponents and the media.
US law enforcement officers told InSight Crime that Merino has been a person of interest for Washington for almost a decade now. "He has been there long enough," said an official, who asked not to be named due to lack of authorization to speak publicly.
The file that Meléndez is opening now will be at least the fourth investigation in which José Luis Merino's name is included. None of the previous investigators pursued drug and weapons trafficking allegations, and to have a Salvadoran attorney general say he is investigating the FMLN strongman for those alleged crimes is unprecedented.