Sunday, November 01, 2015

Corruption in El Salvador

2015 has been a year in which anti-corruption efforts made significant progress in Guatemala.   The battle against corruption was waged by CICIG -- the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.   A massive scandal involving the customs system in Guatemala has been exposed and prosecuted.  The CICIG obtained indictments of high government officials, the resignation and arrest of the president, and a strengthened civil society.

But what about El Salvador?

In Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, El Salvador had a score of 39, on a 100 point scale where 0 is the worst and 100 is the best.  With that score, El Salvador ranked 80th out of 175 countries.

The most recent Human Rights Report from the US State Department regarding El Salvador states:
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The NGO Institute for Social Democracy stated that officials, particularly in the judicial system, often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. 
The customs scandal in Guatemala may spill over into El Salvador.  The Attorney General's office has opened an investigation into Salvadorans allegedly linked to the "la Linea" customs scandal that rocked Guatemala.

Perhaps the highest profile corruption case in El Salvador is the case of former president Francisco Flores who was in office from 1999-2004.  Flores is accused of misappropriating at least $10 million in funds from the government of Taiwan allegedly given for relief following the 2001 earthquakes. The case of Flores will have a preliminary hearing on Thursday, November 5.

The failure to move the case against Flores has led to criticism of El Salvador's attorney general Luis Martinez.   The public interest lawyers at FESPAD have petitioned to have the attorney general removed from the case as prosecutor for conflict of interest, negligence and bias.  

Another example of corruption dates back to 2007.  The investigative journalists at El Faro published a feature this week reporting that a key witness in the murder of three deputies to the Central American Parliament in 2007 was told by attorneys from the prosecutors' offices in both Guatemala and El Salvador to lie about his knowledge of a key figure involved in ordering the murder.

Corruption linked to drug trafficking continues to flourish in El Salvador.  From a Revista Factum article republished in English at InsightCrime:
The Attorney General chose to prosecute police who investigated members of the Texis Cartel, a Salvadoran drug trafficking organization, before prosecuting the head of this criminal group, businessman Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo." For the policemen, the Attorney General's Office (FGR) has asked for prison sentences. For Chepe Diablo -- who the Obama administration designated an international drug kingpin in 2014 -- freedom and exoneration.
According to Reuters, the US has attempted to get El Salvador to agree to a commission similar to Guatemala's CICIG:
In July, Thomas Shannon, counsellor to the U.S. State Department, met Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and suggested the country establish its own U.N.-backed anti-corruption body. 
    "He spoke about the possibility of an International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador," said Marcos Rodriguez, the country's secretary for citizen participation, transparency and anti-corruption. 
    "We will analyse it, but for the time being we don't need it ... The judicial powers, the attorney general's office, have said the same," said Rodriguez, who attended the meeting.
He said Washington had not applied any pressure to force El Salvador to set up the U.N.-backed commission....
After Shannon's visit, USAID finally proposed renewing a separate anti-corruption plan to improve transparency of El Salvador's public institutions, a spokesman at the agency said. 
Worth US$25 million over five years - or about half what the CICIG gets in Guatemala - the five-year project lacks the reach of the CICIG, which used wire taps, emails and raids to help the government investigate fraud and ultimately bring down Perez. 
Instead, the USAID plan will depend on "political will and implementation of transparency regulations," according to the documents seen by Reuters.  Rodriguez said El Salvador was ready to take part in it.
InsightCrime analyzed the position of El Salvador:
El Salvador's rejection of a CICIG-like model is likely motivated by the government's fear of what a powerful international body equipped with broad, independent investigative powers could potentially uncover. In Guatemala, the CICIG has been instrumental in revealing corruption far beyond just the president's office; the body also took down the head of the social security agency, a prominent congressman and several other important government and criminal operators. The CICIG has been so successful of late, its commissioner, Ivan Velasquez, is now more popular in Guatemala than the two candidates running in Sunday's presidential election.  
While it's obvious why El Salvador's government would be reluctant to have any corruption exposed, it is under pressure from the international community to take steps to combat impunity. The decision to renew the USAID plan is likely an attempt to appease foreign backers (the most notable being the United States) while also limiting the body's ability to actually investigate graft. 
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, however, questions the proposal of an international corruption commission in El Salvador:
Guatemala and El Salvador both suffer from corruption and impunity, but the solutions for combating such problems do not need to be the same. The Department Counselor Thomas Shannon has suggested El Salvador to consider implementing an international commission to move forward in the country’s campaign against corruption. However, this commission would not solve the root of the problem; instead, it would allow for the introduction of invasive international donors to the Salvadoran political apparatus. Due to its hybrid nature, a CICIG-like commission runs the risk that the international donors might use the commission’s jurisdictions for their own ambitions. While the commissioner Iván Velásquez claims that the CICIG is an independent institution, the commission has received criticism for following an agenda shaped by its funding sources. 
The introduction of a commission similar to the CICIG can also drive El Salvador to an unhealthy international dependence in the matters of fighting against corruption. In Guatemala, the CICIG has been a vehicle to investigate corruption cases, but the commission has not been effective in promoting an independent judiciary system. The CICIG’s mandate has been extended on three occasions, in 2009, 2011, and 2013.[26]Therefore, Guatemala’s battle against corruption hangs in the balance of international donors funding the CICIG. 
El Salvador has a long way to go before winning its battle against corruption. However, the country, through its system of checks and balances, has proven its institutional capacity to overcome the challenges presented when investigating high-profile corruption cases. As a result, in El Salvador, a former president is in the process of being prosecuted. At the forefront of this fight, the country should prioritize its efforts in increasing its transparency and accountability of its domestic institutions by implementing effective judiciary laws and appointing officials that adhere to those laws before calling for international intervention.
Proposing effective mechanisms for identifying and prosecuting corruption in El Salvador may not be what the country's leading political parties really want.   On the right, ARENA would like to have investigations of the current government, but knows that there are plenty of cases of corruption from past right wing governments to investigate.   The FMLN wants to prosecute Francisco Flores and other ARENA presidents and officials, but also worries about creating an independent mechanism which it could not control and which might turn the focus on the last 6 years of left wing governments.   As a consequence, while both parties will denounce corruption, it is in their institutional interest not to create an effective tool against it.

It will be up to civil society to put pressure on the political actors if there is ever to be progress against corruption in El Salvador.   Parties like FESPAD, the Institute for Social Democracy and the University of Central America are advocates for good government.   Salvadorans and their allies should support those efforts.  

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