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Will US-Central America Relations Falter With Latest Corruption List?

EL SALVADOR / 18 MAY 2021 BY PARKER ASMANN AND ALEX PAPADOVASSILAKIS EN

Though far from revelatory, a new list of officials the United States government suspects of corruption and drug trafficking in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras may further roil Washington's relationships in Central America.

The list, which was prepared by the State Department, was released by Congresswoman Norma Torres, a Democrat from California, on May 18 in two parts. One part names 12 current or former senior officials in Guatemala and Honduras, and the other names five from El Salvador.

All of them are "alleged to have committed or facilitated corruption or narcotics trafficking." Torres first received the report in April after requesting it in December 2020. It was declassified on May 4. It is the third such list that US officials have released since mid-2019.

Prominent among the officials named are one current and one former member of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's cabinet. His chief of staff, Carolina Recinos, is alleged to have “engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office,” according to the report. El Salvador's Development Bank (Banco de Desarrollo de El Salvador - Bandesal) reportedly ignored conflict-of-interest warnings in hiring or providing loans to two of her siblings, according to an El Faro report.

Bukele's former security minister, Rogelio Rivas, is also alleged to have engaged in “significant” corruption when he awarded his private construction company "several noncompetitive and unadvertised contracts to build police stations and other buildings that fall under his official capacity," according to the State Department. He also allegedly inflated the cost of the building materials.

SEE ALSO: US Corruption List Omits Key Central American Officials

In late March, Bukele removed Rivas from his post and replaced him with Héctor Gustavo Villatoro. While the latter is not on the State Department's list, he is also suspected of links to powerful political operators and other officials accused of corruption.

The list did not feature any officials from El Salvador's right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista -- Arena), though the party has been ensnared in several scandals, including embezzlement and money laundering, as well as negotiations with street gangs.

Guatemalans on the list included Gustavo Alejos Cámbara and Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, both sanctioned by the State Department earlier this year. They are accused of paying bribes to influence judicial appointments and secure rulings benefiting them and their allies, according to the US Treasury Department.

Boris Roberto España Cáceres, a congressman in the Chiquimula department, which borders Honduras and El Salvador, was also named. Though not as well-known as some of the other Guatemalan officials on the list, España Cáceres is said to be a “key intermediary in an influence-peddling and active bribery corruption ring.”

Former economy minister Acisclo Valladares Urruela, who US prosecutors indicted in August 2020 on charges of laundering millions in drug money, was also listed, as well as other officials accused of drug trafficking.

As for Honduras, US officials singled out a number of sitting legislators implicated in a stalled case investigated by the defunct Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), a body backed by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Five of the six Honduran officials listed -- Juan Carlos Valenzuela Molina, Welsy Milena Vásquez López, Milton Jesús Puerto Oseguera, Gustavo Alberto Pérez and Gladys Aurora López -- are all accused of being involved in the Arca Abierta (Open Arc) corruption case, in which $800,000 was embezzled from various government agencies.

Also listed is Oscar Nájera, a Honduran legislator whom the US State Department sanctioned in late 2019 for having suspected ties to the Cachiros drug trafficking group.

"The truth is we already know that Central American governments are plagued by corruption," Congresswoman Torres said in a statement about the list.

She added that "crooked officials in the region shut down successful anti-corruption mechanisms ... [and] continue to interfere with independent investigations and block oversight bodies."

InSight Crime Analysis

This latest corruption list risks further straining relations between Washington and the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, none of which has responded positively to recent US pressure to crack down on corruption.

Just weeks before the list was published, El Salvador President Bukele blasted criticism from the United States and other countries after they expressed concerns about congress' decision to oust the country’s top prosecutor and five constitutional court justices. “It’s none of your business,” Bukele said in a May 1 tweet.

In April, Bukele was also involved in a Twitter spat with Congresswoman Torres, in which she accused the president of being a “narcissistic dictator ... interested in being 'cool.’” In response, Bukele asked Latin Americans living in Torres’ California district not to vote for the congresswoman, whom he accused of working to “keep our countries underdeveloped.”

By publicly outing high-level officials close to Bukele, the United States appears to be turning up the heat on the Salvadoran president and his allies.

“The timing of this release is not a coincidence. It’s a move that’s clearly intended to send a message to Bukele regarding his recent moves to undermine the rule of law,” Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College, told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Ousting of El Salvador’s Top Prosecutor Imperils Rule of Law

Guatemala has also come under fire from Torres and other US officials over alleged corruption in the selection process for high court magistrates. In April, the US Embassy in Guatemala joined other nations in expressing “deep concern” after congress blocked a prominent anti-corruption judge from taking her seat on the country’s Constitutional Court (Corte de Constitucionalidad - CC).

The decision to place Alejos Cámbara and Alejos Lorenzana on the list -- both accused of meddling in high court appointments -- may have been taken to ramp up pressure on the Guatemalan government, which has done little to address US concerns about rule of law in the country.

As for Honduras, the inclusion of various officials implicated in MACCIH corruption cases highlights the void left following that commission’s exit. Top State Department officials have referred to MACCIH’s departure as a “setback.” Meanwhile, the Honduras government appears to be in no rush to revive the commission's cases.

One notable omission on the list is Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was again left out despite facing repeated accusations from the US Justice Department for his alleged role in an international drug conspiracy led by his brother, a former congressman now jailed for life in the United States. In March, Hernández threatened to break ties with the United States over the allegations, which he vehemently denies.

Whether the new list will have a tangible impact on corruption in Central America is debatable. So far, the United States has not announced any new sanctions for the officials named, and many had already been indicted or investigated by US authorities.

Central America analysts, including Wade, said that the list did not go far enough.

"It's a sparse list given the scale of corruption in El Salvador,” she told InSight Crime.

Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said the list "is a day late and a dollar short" and "barely skims the surface" of corrupt officials in Guatemala.

"There is a very long list of Guatemalan government officials, members of Congress, judges and business elites who represent a current and present danger to the rule of law," Burt told InSight Crime.

This list appears to be a prelude to the so-called Engel List - a collection of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran officials suspected of corruption who will have their visas revoked. The United States is expected to publish that list for the first time in June, according to the legislation.

For now, Congresswoman Torres said the latest corruption list "publicly puts these actors on notice and advances the prospect of accountability."

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