Human rights activists in El Salvador are publicly denouncing judicial harassment and intimidation from a powerful Salvadoran businessman directed against a journalist and criminal defense lawyers. Organizations including FESPAD, ASDEHU, Colectiva Feminista, MPJL and others held a press conference on June 10 to highlight alleged abuse and harrassment by Salvadoran businessman Enrique Rais against investigative journalist Hector Silva Avalos and the criminal defense lawyers for opponents of Rais,
Hector Silva, who is producing important investigative journalism at the website RevistaFactum, had published a series of articles investigating Rais, the businessman's ties to the former attorney general, and recent seizure of aircraft owned by Rais by the DEA in Florida. You can see some of those articles in English translation on the InsightCrime website here.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) wrote:
Recently, Silva published several pieces in Revista Factum on Salvadoran businessman José Enrique Rais, and his alleged connections with former Salvadoran Attorney General Luis Martínez and with various political figures. On April 26, Silva co-authored another article on Rais highlighting his ties to several private planes recently seized by U.S. authorities in Florida on suspicion that they had been used for transporting drugs. The stories are well-researched pieces of investigative reporting, based on interviews and documents.
Troublingly, Rais has responded to the articles by filing legal charges against Silva. He has accused Silva of defamation and sought to have a judge issue an arrest order for him. Rais’ attorneys appeared at the door of Silva’s mother’s home in San Salvador to deliver copies of documents. While WOLA does not know the motivation behind Rais’ acts, the effect of the acts themselves, taken together, appears to be intimidation, discouraging Silva, directly and through his family, from continuing his investigative reporting.
In its most recent report on the situation of Freedom of the Press in El Salvador, the Salvadoran Association of Journalists (Asociaciòn de Periodistas de El Salvador, APES) condemned Rais’ actions against Silva.....
There seems little doubt that, in this case, the lawsuit and the related actions have a chilling effect on investigative journalism. This is disturbing, not only for Silva and his family, but also because investigative journalism has proven itself, in Central America and elsewhere, to be an important tool for increasing accountability and transparency, and ultimately for deepening democracy.Silva and other journalists in El Salvador have pointed out connections between the country's former attorney general Luis Martinez and Enrique Rais. The connections include Martinez accepting trips on more than one occasion on aircraft owned by Rais.
With respect to the airplanes of Rais which had been seized by the DEA, it was reported on June 10 that US authorities were voluntarily dismissing that matter having found no evidence of drugs and were returning the planes to the Rais Group.
Silva responded forcefully to Rais in a rebuttal on the RevistaFactum website. Noting that Rais campaign against him also included paid newspaper and television ads, Silva asserted that Rais had never presented evidence to dispute the reporting done by Silva and that Rais was trying to distract attention away from himself.
Rais is a powerful figure in El Salvador. He is the owner of El Salvador's waste management company MIDES. The website for the Rais Group describes Enrique Rais this way:
He is a prominent and successful businessman, considered one of the most important investors in El Salvador and regional level, is known for being a visionary and successful entrepreneur with high degree of Social Responsibility towards the environment, he has contributed significantly to the development of the fishing industry in El Salvador, as well as in the Sugar Industry of the country, presiding positions companies in the international market field.Rumors were also going around on social media in recent days that Rais will seek the presidency of El Salvador in 2019, with one person saying that Rais was the Donald Trump of El Salvador.
Some of the controversy surrounding Rais relates to his disputes with business rivals. Hector Silva describes what has happened to some of them:
Mario Calderon was, in 2012, one of Enrique Rais' main advisers. However, Calderon stepped down. Calderon ended up working with Matteo Pasquale and Franco Pacetti, Rais' rivals. After the change in clients, the lawyer faced three legal proceedings initiated by the Prosecutor General's Office. Today, Calderon is imprisoned in Metapan for one of these cases. His wife, Claudia Herrera, is also in prison.El Salvador's Supreme Court recently ordered the release of Mario Calderon for failure of the attorney general to produce sufficient evidence of a crime.
Bertha Deleón and Pedro Cruz are two criminal defense lawyers who have been defending Calderon's wife, Claudia Herrera, in criminal lawsuits. That case has been protracted for an extended period of time, and the lawyers want to force the court to move forward. Deleón and Cruz filed a motion asking that the judge overseeing Herrera's case be removed from the case on account because he could not be impartial. The motion was partly based on the long history of one of Rais' lawyers, Luis Ernesto Peña Ortiz, working in the same court where Herrera's case is being heard.
The lawyer for Rais, Peña Ortiz, now is bringing a criminal defamation complaint against Deleón and Cruz for allegedly impugning his character in their motion. Deleón and Cruz also report being followed and attempts to record their actions.
Having read the motion filed by Deleon and Cruz seeking to remove the judge from Claudia Herrera's case, it appears they were simply being effective advocates for their client. (That's from the point of view of a US trained lawyer, and not from someone with knowledge of Salvadoran legal procedure).
Allowing investigative journalists and lawyers in the courts to do their jobs without threats and intimidation is important if El Salvador is ever going to rid itself of corruption, end impunity, and strengthen the rule of law. The tactics which Rais is employing in the Salvadoran courts are symptomatic of a weak judicial system unable to resist improper influences.