Authorities in El Salvador captured two current mayors and over a dozen other suspects for awarding government contracts in exchange for personal kickbacks, an emblematic case of how corruption networks operate throughout Latin America.
On the morning of April 25, national police officers arrested Hugo Balmore Juárez Sánchez, mayor of Monte San Juan in the department of Cuscatlán, and José Rodolfo Antonio Hernández Quijad, mayor of El Congo in the department of Santa Ana, reported La Prensa Gráfica. Authorities also issued arrest warrants for the former mayors of both municipalities, as well as for the ex-mayor of a third town, San Rafael Cedros. In total, 17 suspects have so far been detained.
The former mayor of San Rafael Cedros, Dina Concepción Arévalo Chicas, allegedly granted government contracts worth approximately $700,000 to a local business in exchange for bribe money that reached anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. Prosecutors say the businessman that offered the bribes, Aldryng Gabriel Espinal Fuentes, is an intermediary for the Perrones, a powerful criminal organization that smuggles drugs and other contraband through Guatemala on behalf of larger organized crime groups.
In El Congo, Edwin Enrique Parada Quezada -- who was mayor from 2012 to 2015 -- commissioned 12 public works projects to several construction firms, including at least one run by Hernández Quijad. The contracts were worth over $375,000, but the projects were never completed; Parada Quezada allegedly kept 90 percent of the earmarked money while the other 10 percent went to the businessmen. (See diagram below)
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This case contains elements of several recurrent themes seen in corruption networks across Latin America. As in the current case, government officials are prone to use public works projects to siphon off millions of dollars from state coffers.
The biggest example of this is still unfolding in Brazil, where investigations into a multi-billion dollar kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras have already implicated numerous political and economic elites, and could cost President Dilma Rousseff her job. Similar cases from elsewhere in the region abound; indeed, this type of scheme became so institutionalized in Guatemala that some say the country has essentially turned into a mafia state. President Otto Pérez Molina resigned from the office in September 2015 amid bribery allegations and was arrested the next day. Whether this systematic corruption at the highest levels of government continues as it did before the massive graft scandal that landed a former Guatemalan president and his vice president in jail remains to be seen.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles
This Salvadoran case highlights the increasing importance of mayors in local corruption schemes. The decentralization of power in countries throughout Latin America has given mayors more authority over local budgets and security forces, enabling corrupt officials from Mexico to Colombia -- and several places in between -- to build what amount to mini criminal fiefdoms.
These expanded powers are also making mayors the preferred targets of criminal organizations, and those who refuse to submit to armed groups are often subject to attack. In Mexico, for example, some 70 mayors have reportedly been assassinated by criminal groups over the past decade. Gisela Mota was still in bed after a late night celebrating her Jan. 1, 2016, election in the town of Temixco, south of Mexico City, when armed men dragged her into the yard and shot Mota to death.