El Salvador's New Attorney General crusading against powerful, corrupt pols and gangs
- By David Holiday
Guatemala has the CICIG and Honduras now has MACCIH, but El Salvador has no international commission to assist its institutions in the fight against corruption and high-profile criminal cases. Despite overwhelming popular opinion in favor of a such an entity (nearly 97 percent, according to one recent UCA poll), the Salvadoran government has steadfastly refused to consider such a body. In fact, the FMLN secretary general, Medardo Gonzalez, told a crowd of supporters on May 1 that anyone who asks for such an entity should be considered "golpistas" who are only interested in destabilizing the government, according to a report in El Faro.
The government’s proposition is that El Salvador has a strong enough judicial system to take care of its own problems, and it is beginning to look like they might be right. In the past few weeks, the new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez – elected by the Assembly as a compromise candidate earlier this year, and probably not expected to ruffle many feathers – has begun to prosecute an unprecedented number of high-profile cases, including:
- Operación Jaque – the arrest of dozens of individuals involved in the financial network of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang (See post for Aug. 12)
- The Court of Accounts, El Salvador’s primary auditing body that has long been held by individuals close to the conservative PCN party, was investigated by the Attorney General, bringing to light 48 case files that were never acted upon and that would have resulted in $2.2 million in fines that could have benefited the state’s coffers, according to El Faro.
But the news does not stop there.
On Monday night, Melendez’s immediate predecessor as Attorney General – Luis Martinez – presented himself to the Attorney General’s office, only to be taken into police custody and charged with procedural fraud and "omission" in various cases related to Enrique Rais, a wealthy businessman who has deep connections to one of the strongmen of the ruling FMLN party, Jose Luis Merino (who is also the highest ranking FMLN representative in the Venezuelan-funded Alba Petroleos.) Rais, his nephew, his lawyer and a former prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office were also taken into custody, while another 10 persons were the subject of arrest warrants.
Stories in El Faro and Revista Factum provide extensive details and background, and both have long covered these cases. For example, both have documented numerous trips whereby Martinez traveled abroad on Rais’ personal planes, which have been under investigation in the US by the DEA for involvement in drug trafficking. In July, the usually quiet Government Ethics Tribunal fined Martinez $9000, noting that Martinez had buried cases brought against Rais, but prosecuted others wherein he was the victim, and encouraged the Fiscalia to investigate. The crime of “failure to investigate” carries a potential jail term of five years. Hector Silva Avalos, from Factum, is currently being sued by Rais for defamation for reporting on Rais’ links to drug trafficking.
An even bigger case is in the making, however, as the Attorney General began to execute search warrants at numerous properties linked to former President Mauricio Funes, as well as his close colleagues Miguel Menendez (known as “Mecafe”) and Fune’s former Agriculture Minister, Pablo Ochoa. Funes was already the subject of a civil suit for “illicit enrichment”, but these moves indicate the AG is building a criminal case as well. El Farohas all the details.
Attorney General Melendez justified these moves based on indications that Funes was preparing to apply for political asylum in Nicaragua. (Tweeting from Nicaragua, Funes says that is not the case, but has given contradictory information about his reason for being there – tourism or business? – according to a report in Confidencial, which also noted that a Guatemalan congressman under investigation for corruption in his country is also currently in Nicaragua.) Menendez and Ochoa were originally part of the “friends of Mauricio” who supported his candidacy in 2009, and Menendez in particular benefited from numerous, uncompetitive contracts for private security services with the Funes administration, and was named head of the government-run International Convention Center (CIFCO).
Taken together, these cases alone demonstrate a more functional prosecutorial power than El Salvador has seen for many years. Of course, the real test will depend on whether those prosecutions will ultimately be successful. And we can expect pushback from very powerful political and economic elites should these kind of cases continue to move forward.
Additionally, the Attorney General would do well to be more aggressive in prosecuting cases of police abuses (including extrajudicial executions) as well as support transitional justice cases moving forward (such as the Mozote massacre), given the recent overturning of the amnesty law.
In the meantime, it certainly raises the bar of expectations for future prosecutions.
Colombian government and FARC announce final deal
The fighting has cost over 220,000 lives -- most of them civilians -- and displaced millions. The agreement effectively ends the region's last guerrilla conflict, reports the New York Times.
"Once this accord is implemented, for the first time in most Colombians’ lives, much of this activity will end, and Latin America’s third most-populous country will no longer face an armed group capable of generating violence on a national scale," celebrated WOLA yesterday.
President Juan Manuel Santos said the project will be sent to the Colombian congress today, which in turn will convoke a plebiscite on the accord for Oct. 2, reports the Miami Herald. A citizen ratification is necessary for the implementation of the agreement to move forward.
An emotional crowd of about 400 people gathered in a Bogotá plaza to watch the Havana announcement on a large screen, reports the Associated Press. The agreement sparked celebrations around the city, reports Reuters.
The final touches on the many partial agreements included a commitment to expanding state presence in the poor countryside, reports the Wall Street Journal.
The agreements basically focus on five points: significant investment in neglected rural areas, political reforms that will allow the FARC to transition from a fighting force into a political movement, a new approach to eliminating illicit coca cultivation focused on FARC assisted subsidies and alternatives to forced eradication, a truth commission for war crimes and transitional justice that will permit alternative punishments to those who confess war crimes, disarmament and reintegration into society of FARC fighters.
Check out Silla Vacía for full details on the accords.
The deal will incorporate three former fighters into each chamber of Congress in a non-voting capacity to monitor the pacts implementation. And in the 2018 congressional elections, the FARC would be guaranteed at least five seats in the house and five in the senate, for two legislative periods. As of 2026 the still-unnamed force will have to fight for seats in elections.
The concessions are widely resisted among Colombians, and are called "toads" (sapos) by Santos and negotiators. La Silla Vacía reviews the specifics, noting that while they have justifications, they're still hard to "swallow." Guaranteed seats in Congress, for example, might well be ratified by voters, and are a relatively common concession in peace negotiations. More polemic is the guaranteed 20 percent of what the state gives to political parties, and special financing for the FARC's Senate candidates.
While other leftist insurgents in the region have successfully become political forces -- like the FMLN in El Salvador -- the FARC will have less popular support and will have to effectively organize in its power base rural areas and among urban leftists, according to Reuters.
Already the peace negotiations have driven violence down to its lowest levels since fighting began, notes the Associated Press. And once the accords are signed, FARC fighters will begin to demobilize and hand over weapons to U.N. monitors, which will turn them into three monuments.
While most Colombians say they want peace, many oppose amnesty for FARC fighters and their inclusion in politics. The campaign against the deal led by former President Álvaro Uribe makes the case that the deal cedes too much to terrorists.
Human Rights Watch said today that the issue of transitional justice in particular risks undermining the very peace the agreement aims to bring about. “FARC’s commitment to demobilize and disarm should end a tragic and bloody chapter of Colombian history and help bring relief after years of violence and abuse,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “But the negotiating parties seriously undermined this opportunity for a sustainable and just peace with a so-called victims’ agreement that fails to fulfill the rights of those who suffered some of the worst atrocities.”
HRW emphasizes that the deal not only lets FARC fighters off the hook, but also members of the armed forces who committed human rights abuses like the "false positives" extrajudicial killings.
But in many cases the victims groups have been defenders of the peace deal.
The agreements promise transformation for Colombia, but also entail risks, warns La Silla Vacía's Juanita León.
The human toll has been astronomical: More than 220,000 people —over 80 percent of whom were civilians— were killed, more than 6 million Colombians were forcibly displaced and more than 45,000 were disappeared, details the Latin America Working Group (LAWG).Rural, impoverished, and marginalized communities —including Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and women— were disproportionately affected by the violence. These groups have taken the lead in defending the rights of their communities at home and at the peace table.
LAWG also calls on the U.S. to support what promises to be an expensive, long-term peace process.
The Santos administration is pushing an ambitious tax reform through Congress in order to finance the implementation of the accords, and a failure to gain Congressional approval could trigger a downgrade in the country's credit rating, according to the WSJ.
The deal is expected to boost the country's growing economy, which has been hindered by the ongoing conflict, according to the NYTimes.
The deal must be approved by voters in order to be implemented -- polls have indicated a tight race and it's not clear that it will pass. FARC fighters must also accept the pact, while they are expected to do so, there are some factions that have expressed dissent, notes the Miami Herald.
And the process is just beginning. "Once these steps are finished, Colombia will face serious challenges in the post-accord period. The FARC’s exit from the drug trade will not mean the end of the drug trade or the powerful, violent organized crime groups that participate in it. The 2,000-member, 52-year-old National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group remains active in some regions and has not yet begun formal peace talks. And strong doubts surround the Colombian government’s ability to fill the security vacuum and implement accords in at least 281 of the most poorly governed of the country’s 1,100 counties," warns WOLA.
The Associated Press has a timeline of the conflict starting with the FARCs founding in 1964. And a separate Associated Press piece looks at the historical development of the conflict.
- "Venezuela has significantly contributed to the peace negotiations and has good reasons to continue to do so," write David Smilde and Dimitris Pantoulas. "Nevertheless, a worsening crisis of governance in Venezuela could complicate attempts to consolidate peace," they warn in a piece for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center.
- Haitian politicians kicked off the campaign for October's presidential election re-do. Authorities called on candidates to play fair and avoid electoral violence. The Haitian government will be paying the $55 million bill for elections -- cobbling together most of that with funds from public agencies, including the port and the central bank, reports the Miami Herald. The U.S. said it would not provide funding and demanded the return of $2 million which remained unspent from $33 million in financing for last year's botched elections.
- The Brazilian Senate began the final phase of the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff today, with a final vote that is widely expected to oust her to take place next week, reports the Wall Street Journal. Senators will hear the testimony of eight witnesses in the case which accuses Rousseff of budgetary manipulation. She is expected to speak in her own defense on Monday, notes the Wall Street Journal in a separate piece.
- Debate over boar hunting in Argentina -- where proponents have tradition and even ecological arguments on their side, pitted against a growing vision of animal rights that has been backed by politicians and the judiciary -- mirrors cases around the world as activists increasingly oppose traditional hunts, reports the New York Times.