The United States has released a highly-anticipated report on corrupt actors in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but the lack of clear criteria for those placed on the list may undermine efforts to create a coherent strategy for rooting out high-level graft in Central America.
A range of former presidents, sitting members of congress and government ministers were among the 55 individuals featured on the so-called “Engel List,” singled out by the US State Department for having “knowingly engaged in actions that undermine democratic processes or institutions, significant corruption, or obstruction of such corruption.”
The list was created as part of a law sponsored in December 2020 by former US congressman Elliot Engel. It required the State Department to identify and report to the US Congress a list of “corrupt and undemocratic actors” in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those on it will have their visas revoked and are forbidden from entering the United States.
However, as with previous corruption lists, there were few surprises and some glaring omissions, which created the impression that these are just names on a list rather than one piece of a broader strategy to tackle graft in the region.
Below, InSight Crime looks at the seemingly incoherent approach taken by the United States to identify corrupt actors in each country.
El Salvador was the only country where the United States took aim at a number of current and former officials in the president’s inner circle. Nayib Bukele has recently found himself in the crosshairs of the US government after using his majority in congress to oust several Supreme Court magistrates and an attorney general, as well as potentially blocking the extradition of several top MS13 leaders.
For the second time in less than two months, US officials targeted President Bukele’s chief of staff, Carolina Recinos, for engaging in “significant corruption” like “misusing public funds for personal benefit,” as well as partaking in a “significant money laundering scheme.”
The president’s legal advisor, Conan Tonathiu Castro Ramírez, also made the list. US officials said he “undermined democratic processes or institutions” after “assisting in the inappropriate removal” of the Supreme Court magistrates and attorney general in early May. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “serious concerns” at the time. “Democratic governance requires respecting the separation of powers,” he tweeted May 2.
Deputy Justice Minister and Prison Director Osiris Luna Meza – another close Bukele ally – was also sanctioned for corruption surrounding “government contracts and bribery.” Luna was at the center of a series of irregular transfers of imprisoned MS13 gang leaders, which added to speculation of an unofficial pact between the street gang and government. The prison director had previously met with other jailed MS13 leaders to discuss political support for Bukele and their help in reducing homicides, according to an El Faro investigation.
The president’s labor minister, Rolando Castro, his former security and agriculture ministers, Rogelio Rivas and Pablo Anliker, as well as New Ideas party ally Walter Araujo, were also targeted for misconduct that ranged from obstructing investigations to misappropriating public funds and threatening political opponents.
However, despite the pointed nature of those targeted, the United States continues to send mixed messages on El Salvador. Just days before the list was published, Jean Manes, the former US ambassador to El Salvador who was recently appointed as chargé d’affaires, met with President Bukele to discuss the “importance of their bilateral relationship.”
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently granted* $115 million in aid to various non-governmental partners in El Salvador to address crime and violence, among other things. This came less than a month after USAID said it would redirect aid away from the government and toward civil society organizations amid “larger concerns about transparency and accountability.”
In Guatemala, where the executive entourage emerged relatively unscathed, the State Department took aim at a number of actors allegedly involved in influence peddling within the country’s justice system.
That included sanctions against recently appointed Constitutional Court magistrate Nester Vásquez, as well as Supreme Court judge Manuel Duarte, two high-profile figures singled out for their alleged role in manipulating “the appointment of judges to high court positions.”
They were joined by other alleged court operators Gustavo Alejos Cámbara and Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, both of whom had already been sanctioned by the State Department earlier this year, accused of bribing legislators and judges to influence judicial appointments and secure rulings favorable to them and others.
Both Vásquez and Alejos Cámbara are implicated in ongoing investigations into influence trafficking in the selection process for high court magistrates, led by the anti-impunity unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI) of the Attorney General’s Office.
Also sanctioned for alleged influence trafficking was Gustavo Herrera, a long-time political operator and businessman whose influence in the courts dates back to the 2014 selection process for magistrates, according to a criminal investigation led by the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Herrera, who has also faced money laundering charges, is currently exiled in Nicaragua.
The State Department also sanctioned Mynor Moto, a fugitive judge long suspected of alleged links to the same court mafias. The State Department claims Moto "obstructed justice and received bribes in return for a favorable legal decision."
The accusations appear to be geared towards a key policy priority for the US government: rooting out corruption in the courts. In recent months, US officials have both stressed the importance of having honest candidates assume positions on Guatemala's top court and heaped praise on prosecutors leading efforts to investigate the alleged court mafias.
But the selective nature of the Engel List raises questions on the relative absence of current ministers and sitting top-level officials, many of whom have been embroiled in corruption scandals.
As with previous US corruption lists, the main sticking point from Honduras was once again the omission of current President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Hernández has been repeatedly accused by the US Justice Department of participating in an international drug trafficking ring, including allegations that he took bribes from drug traffickers. Hernández has consistently denied these charges.
The State Department's decision to sanction former president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo for having accepted bribes from Honduran drug traffickers will surely raise further questions about the consistency of the Engel List selections.
“If [Juan Orlando Hernández] and some of his 40 officials are not in the list, it doesn’t make any sense,” former president Lobo said in a June 2 radio interview.
In absence of top-level officials, the brunt of the State Department’s sanctions fell on congress, with 15 incumbent representatives accused of corruption.
The accusations mostly pertained to embezzlement scandals, including two major cases previously led by the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an internationally-backed corruption commission whose exit in January 2020 was described as a “setback” by top State Department officials.
*This article was updated to clarify where USAID funds are going in El Salvador.