El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has appointed a new security minister whose alleged ties to officials and political operators accused of corruption raises concerns about the government's commitment to a transparent security policy.
The new minister, Héctor Gustavo Villatoro, who was sworn in on March 26, is a long-time state official whose career in government dates back to the 1990s.
According to a government press release, Villatoro's appointment is part of a new strategy aimed at "strengthening the investigative process for homicides and disappearances to reduce impunity rates."
And during the swearing-in ceremony, Bukele challenged Villatoro to further bring down El Salvador's murder rate, which has decreased significantly during the president's time in office.
Bukele did not explain his reasons for replacing former security minister Rogelio Rivas, though the decision came just days after Rivas had recognized a slight uptick in homicides, according to La Prensa Gráfica.
The government has also faced scrutiny in recent months over persistent disappearances.
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For his part, Villatoro thanked the president on Twitter and used his first press conference to discuss potential updates to El Salvador's penal code, though he did not provide specific details.
"As of yesterday [March 26], all penal and repressive laws are up for review so that we can satisfy the desire for justice shared by all Salvadorans," Villatoro said.
Villatoro was head of El Salvador's customs authority during the administration of former President Antonio Saca (2004-2009) and resumed that role in 2019 for the Bukele administration.
In June 2020, Villatoro became head of El Salvador's Financial System Superintendence (Superintendencia del Sistema Financiero -- SSF) -- a role he held until his appointment as security minister.
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Bukele's choice for security minister raised eyebrows due to Villatoro's alleged ties to officials and political operators involved in major corruption schemes.
Past El Salvador intelligence reports cited by El Faro position Villatoro as a political operator active during the government of Saca, currently jailed for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars when president.
Those reports allege that Villatoro was then an operator for Herbert Saca, the cousin of Antonio, who reportedly administered cash bribes to members of the El Salvador Congress in exchange for votes during the subsequent government of Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), according to an investigation by Revista Factum.
Villatoro has denied having connections to Herbert Saca, but a 2020 report by Washington DC-based think tank IBI Consultants named the new security minister as a "close associate of Herbert Saca and head of customs during the Saca presidency when drug trafficking exploded in the country."
To be sure, Herbert Saca was subject to an investigation for possible links to the Perrones cartel -- a once-powerful drug group whose operations expanded significantly in the mid- to late-2000s.
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"The choice of a security minister sends a message to the Salvadoran public and the United States," Dr. Michael Paarlberg, assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told InSight Crime in an email.
"Naming Villatoro, given his role in the corrupt Saca administration and connections to shadowy networks, does not send a reassuring message," Paarlberg wrote.
The IBI report also links Villatoro to José Luis Merino, a former Salvadoran guerrilla commander and vice minister of foreign affairs accused by the US Congress of “long-standing associations with transnational organized criminal networks [that] are the subject of US criminal investigations.”
"Villatoro's connections place him within a network of figures credibly accused or convicted of embezzlement, money laundering and bribery," Dr. Paarberg told InSight Crime.
El Salvador's security forces have long been plagued by corruption and human rights abuses, with numerous security and law enforcement officials involved in extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, torture and unlawful disappearances, according to the US State Department's 2020 Country Report on Human Rights.