A scrapped investigation into alleged food aid theft by officials in the administration of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele has provided the first clear evidence that the government has systematically abandoned corruption probes involving its functionaries.
The news outlet El Faro obtained the incomplete Attorney General's investigation into the theft of some $1.6 million of food products destined for poor people during the coronavirus pandemic. The investigation alleged that Osiris Luna, El Salvador’s prison director and deputy justice minister, diverted food from the Public Health Emergency Program (Programa de Emergencia Sanitaria - PES) and then later sold it to a businessman previously accused of smuggling. The pilfering of food aid warehoused in prison facilities occurred between September and November of 2020, according to the investigation.
The probe – conducted by a special prosecutor’s unit created by former Attorney General Raúl Melara – included wiretaps, official documents, delivery ledgers, and photos of trucks moving food out of La Esperanza prison, better known as Mariona. El Faro also conducted interviews with prison employees, reviewed vehicle registries and obtained other judicial documents to confirm the findings.
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The investigation never led to charges against Luna. But Luna appeared on a US State Department list in July that accused him of engaging in “significant corruption related to government contracts and bribery.”
Two other officials in the Bukele administration were also under investigation for possible involvement in the scheme, including María Ofelia Navarrete de Dubón, minister of local development, El Faro reported.
Navarrete de Dubón, who had control over large quantities of food purchased during the pandemic, agreed to provide Luna with some 500 sacks of rice on September 29, according to a wiretapped call.
Hours after that call, Luna’s mother, Alma Yanira Meza Olivares, offered to sell the rice in bulk to a buyer whom investigators later identified as Ismael Oliverio Martínez Arévalo, according to a wiretapped conversation. Martínez Arévalo, according to El Faro, had previously faced charges of moving contraband – which included smuggling rice from Honduras -- but was acquitted.
Meza Olivares hung up when El Faro reporters attempted to talk with her about the investigation.
According to the case file, Martínez Arévalo made four trips on September 31 to a prison warehouse, hauling the rice away in a truck.
According to the investigation, Luna also allegedly arranged for Martínez Arévalo to receive portions of some 40,000 baskets of food aid stored in prison facilities.
On October 19, Luna and a person close to him, Wilfredo Ostorga Hernández, agreed to meet at Martínez Arévalo’s house, according to a wiretapped call. Two days after the meeting, sacks of food were transferred to trucks outside the Mariona prison. According to the investigation, Ostorga Hernández had inmates remove items from boxes and plastic bags stamped with logos of the Public Health Emergency Program and the government.
Once the trucks left the facility, a call was registered between Martínez Arévalo and Ostorga Hernández, who expressed that his boss, Luna, had asked if he could collect payment that day, according to an investigative document from the Attorney General’s Office.
Investigators took photos of the trucks at the prison and followed them to dropoff points. Through the license plate of one of the trucks, El Faro was able to determine that it was registered to a family member of Martínez Arévalo.
Some 21,000 food baskets were pilfered during that trip.
A further 80,000 baskets of food aid came to prison facilities in late October through the then-national coordinator of PES, Franklin Castro Rodríguez, who told Luna “to do whatever he wanted” with the packages.
Over the next two months, another 19,000 baskets were diverted to Martínez Arévalo and his brother, according to the investigation. Sacks of sugar and 38,500 bottles of oil were also taken.
Castro and Navarrete de Dubón, who were both described by investigators as "direct authors" of the misappropriation of the food aid because they allowed Luna to take control of it, did not respond to messages left by El Faro.
Luna, Martínez Arévalo, and Ostorga Hernández also did not respond to calls and messages by El Faro about the allegations.
Investigative documents described one of the illegal pick-ups as directly involving Luna.
“Osiris Luna and Ostorga Hernández traveled late at night to the Santa Ana prison and waited for Ismael Martínez and his brother Samuel to arrive before dawn and load the two trailers with sacks full of food products belonging to the State,” an investigative document obtained by El Faro states.
InSight Crime Analysis
The scrapping of the food aid theft investigation is but the latest egregious example of how probes into corruption schemes involving the Bukele government are being thwarted.
Legislators aligned with President Bukele made the first move to dismantle corruption investigations in May. That month, they ousted Attorney General Raúl Melara, who had launched a criminal investigation into the Bukele administration’s coronavirus pandemic spending.
Under Melara, prosecutors were investigating medical supply contracts worth some $20 million over suspected irregularities, including lucrative deals with businesses owned by relatives of government officials or companies that did not specialize in medical provisions.
Questionable dealings included a $225,000 contract for rubber boots granted to an auto parts company owned by the aunt of current health minister, Francisco Alabí, and the purchase of $250,000 in overpriced masks from a recycling company owned by Jorge Aguilar, then head of the country’s Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental). Bukele’s Finance Minister, Alejandro Zelaya, was also linked to a company that sold 300,000 masks to the health ministry for a total of $750,000, double the manufacturer’s price.
Days after ousting Melara, El Salvador’s congress also passed a law granting immunity to officials accused of mismanaging coronavirus funds. The law, though, would not likely have protected those allegedly involved in the food aid theft, including Luna, the prisons director.
This is the second scrapped investigation to involve Luna. The same special prosecutor’s unit created by Melara fingered Luna in a probe over secret negotiations between government officials and imprisoned leaders of the country’s three largest street gangs. In that investigation, also uncovered by El Faro, surveillance photos show alleged gang leaders and government negotiators in balaclavas being ushered into the jails by Luna.
Luna also allegedly engaged in a cover-up of the gang negotiations after El Faro reported his facilitation of them in September. Luna later ordered the removal of 221 logbooks from the Zacatecoluca maximum-security prison, as well as hard drives and computers, according to that scrapped investigation.