The US government has added dozens of politicians, prosecutors, judges, and business elites to a list of allegedly corrupt actors in Central America. But this continues a strategy that has so far failed to make a dent in corruption in the region.
The State Department featured over 60 new actors in an update of the so-called “Engel List,” first published in July 2021, as a means of sanctioning individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who “knowingly engaged in actions that undermine democratic processes or institutions” and “significant corruption.”
A draft of the list was leaked on July 15. US authorities say the official document is yet to be published and may include more actors.
All actors featured on the Engel List – named after US congressman, Elliot Engel, who spearheaded the list’s creation – are barred from entering the United States.
Naming and shaming corrupt individuals has become a key pillar of US policy in Central America. But critics say it has not stopped some of these actors from dismantling justice systems and profiting from organized crime.
And despite the new names, there are few signs the administration of President Joe Biden is willing to go beyond listing corrupt officials who, in many cases, appear unfazed by the measures.
Below, InSight Crime looks at why the updated Engel List is unlikely to boost US efforts to curb corruption in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
In El Salvador, the State Department continued its strategy of singling out officials close to President Nayib Bukele. The US has targeted the Bukele government on many issues – from covert gang negotiations to financial misconduct – and last year sanctioned many of his administration’s top officials.
For the updated list, the US government took aim at a close Bukele ally in the legislative assembly, Christian Reynaldo Guevara Guardón, head of the parliamentary bloc for the president’s party, New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas). The State Department accuses Guevara Guardón of undermining “democratic processes or institutions” by introducing a law punishing the dissemination of gang messages in the media with up to 15 years in prison. US officials previously criticized the law, labelling it an attempt to censor the media and prevent reporting on corruption.
Bukele’s press secretary and long-time ally, José Ernesto Sanabria, also made the list. The US accuses Sanabria of “using his position and wielding Bukele’s influence to inappropriately pressure” opposition politicians into resigning under threat of criminal charges.
The US also singled out a presidential advisor, Francisco Javier Argueta Gómez, accused of “masterminding” the ousting of five Supreme Court magistrates and the country’s Attorney General, who were replaced with Bukele allies in mid-2021.
Like last year’s list, the loose connection between the acts allegedly committed by Salvadoran officials raises questions about the coherence of the criteria used to designate corrupt individuals.
Previous US corruption lists have been met with apathy and ridicule by Salvadoran officials, rather than a readiness to address the allegations. There was no change this time round.
“I’m not afraid of them,” tweeted Guevara Guadrón, Bukele’s parliamentary bloc leader, after the updated list was leaked. He also described the Biden administration as “stupid, weak, and inefficient,” in a written statement July 15.
The head of El Salvador’s Congress, meanwhile, slammed the list as a “tantrum by someone in Washington,” in a tweet posted the same day.
Like the previous year, the State Department listed a host of judicial officials accused of influence-peddling in a scheme aimed at positioning allies on Guatemala’s high courts. But the US also broadened the list’s scope to include high-profile prosecutors and members of Guatemala’s influential business elite.
Among the most notable inclusions was José Rafael Curruchiche Cucul, head of the Attorney General’s Office special anti-impunity prosecutor’s unit (Fiscalía Especializada Contra la Impunidad – FECI). The US accuses Curruchiche of disrupting high-profile cases and raising dubious claims against anti-impunity prosecutors, including FECI attorneys.
It marks an extraordinary turnaround for FECI, previously a crucial ally for the US in tackling corruption until the country’s Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, fired its top prosecutor and replaced him with Curruchiche last year.
The US has also sanctioned Porras, who with Curruchiche has presided over the steady dismantling of FECI by removing prosecutors working on high-profile cases or slapping them with spurious criminal charges. Porras has not changed course despite the sanctions against her, and Curruchiche is likely to follow in her path.
For the first time, the list targeted members of Guatemala’s powerful private sector. This included two owners of private energy firm, Corporación Energías de Guatemala (Guatemala Energy Corporation), Ramón Campollo Codina and Steffan Christian Emanuel Lehnhoff. Both are accused of “bribing public officials” to the detriment of US policy goals.
The businessmen have not publicly responded to the accusations.
Companies linked to Campollo Codina have been heavily involved in financing the campaigns of top politicians, many accused of corruption in Guatemala, according to reports in local press. In response to these allegations, a lawyer for Campollo Codina's businesses told Guatemalan news site Vox Populi that “they are within their right to finance political campaigns."
The corruption list also took aim at Guatemala’s construction industry, which has long been a vehicle for money laundering and embezzlement. Two co-owners of the company, Asfaltos y Petróleos (Asphalt and Oil), Ramiro Mauricio López Camey and Mauricio López Oliva, both made the list for allegedly bribing government officials to secure public contracts for construction. Neither individual has publicly responded to the allegations.
The company has alleged ties to Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei and has obtained over $100 million in public works contracts since the president took office in 2020, according to elPeriódico.
Guatemala’s business elites have previously emerged unscathed in US corruption lists. Their inclusion suggests the US is now willing to go after a private sector that has long leveraged high-level political connections to win favors in exchange for often illicit financial backing. It is unclear how visa restrictions will disrupt suspicious cash flows between the private sector and politics.
In Honduras, the State Department’s picks pointed to possible corruption within the new administration of President Xiomara Castro, while also digging up ghosts from the past administration of her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009).
The State Department named the vice-president of Honduras’ congress, Rasel Antonio Tomé Flores, a high-ranking member of Castro’s Libre party. The US alleges Tomé Flores misappropriated over $320,000 in public funds as president of the country’s National Telecommunications Commission (Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones – Conatel).
Tomé Flores was previously investigated for the alleged wrongdoing in 2015, but was not formally charged. In 2018, he was found guilty of abusing his authority for illegally contracting a television channel while head of Conatel.
In a Twitter post on July 15, Tomé Flores claimed US officials told him that he is not included in the official Engel List.
Tomé Flores was joined on the list by fellow congress vice-president and Libre member, Edgardo Antonio Casaña Mejia, accused of channeling more than $5 million in teacher pension benefits to political allies and constituents to “secure votes and maintain political power.”
The alleged scheme led Honduras' Supreme Court to ban Casaña from holding public office for six years in December 2021, but he was later allowed to become a member of congress. Casaña has dismissed the accusations as political persecution.
The US government also designated a smattering of former officials who served under former President Zelaya. This included Enrique Alberto Flores Lanza, presidential minister during Zelaya’s term, who the US accuses of “receiving $2 million in public money from the Honduran Central Bank and improperly redistributing it to political allies.”
Three other former officials who served under Zelaya also made the list, accused of accepting bribes or wielding influence to direct public contracts to allies.
By naming current and former officials close to Castro and her husband, the US has shown its willingness to target corrupt officials linked to the new president’s political clan.
With bilateral relations still sprouting after Castro’s inauguration in January, the US may have more leverage in Honduras than in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, where officials are now well-versed in weathering the fallout from sanctions lists.
*This article was updated after the US State Department omitted El Salvador finance minister, José Alejandro Zelaya Villalobo, from its official list of corrupt actors in Central America, published July 20.