“Carolina Recinos, current Chief of Cabinet in President Nayib Bukele’s administration, engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office.” Those are the words of the U.S. State Department regarding one of El Salvador’s most influential public officials, a member of the president’s tiny inner circle of trust since he launched his political career nine years ago as mayor of the small town outside the capital, Nuevo Cuscatlán.
Recinos appears alongside four other people in a State Department report on former and current Salvadoran officials which it deems credibly suspected of engaging in corruption, sent to the U.S. Congress on Monday, May 17. Next on the list, in order, appear José Luis Merino, a former leader of both the political party FMLN and Alba Petróleos, a petroleum company funded by the Venezuelan government and FMLN mayor’s offices; Bukele’s former minister of security, Rogelio Rivas; former Assembly president and GANA deputy Guillermo Gallegos; and Sigfrido Reyes, former Assembly president and leader of the FMLN.
Of the five, the U.S. government had previously singled out only Merino. In 2017, the U.S. Congress accused Merino of money laundering. In 2019, the U.S. Treasury imposed financial sanctions on the firm he managed, Alba. On June 1, 2019, Salvadoran prosecutors raided Merino’s offices at Alba to gather evidence on money laundering.
At the end of this newsletter, you’ll find a selection of El Faro’s many investigations into the very Salvadoran actors now mentioned by the State Department.
This list has no legal implications for those named, but the fact that the section on El Salvador was declassified sends a clear political message at a time of tense relations between the Bukele and Biden administrations. The inclusion of Recinos and Rivas on the list isn’t the only political bruise for Bukele: Guillermo Gallegos, who started his career in 2000 with the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and would later support both FMLN governments after defecting to GANA, was since 2019 the Bukele administration’s most stalwart ally in the legislature prior to the new Assembly. His party also served as the launching pad for Bukele’s presidential run.
Judicial sources in El Salvador and the U.S. Department of Justice believe, furthermore, that José Luis Merino, who still has clout in the FMLN, is behind the scenes a key political ally of the Bukele administration.
The names are part of a longer list sent on April 7 to the office of Congresswoman Norma Torres (D-Calif.), which also includes officials from Honduras and Guatemala. “The President in El Salvador campaigned on anti-corruption while surrounding himself with corrupt actors,” Torres said this morning in a press release.
“If we know someone is corrupt, I expect our government to use all levers at our disposal, including sanctions, visa restrictions, withholding support to deter future acts of corruption, and dismantling the systems that allow corruption to occur,” she continued, in reference to U.S. policy toward northern Central America. “I look forward to working with State and Treasury to ensure we leverage these tools for strong actions.”
It’s important to avoid conflating this report with the forthcoming Engel List, set to be released in June, which will carry with it immediate sanctions on the individuals it names.
The State Department classified this El Salvador’s list in the first version of the document in April, impeding their release. Torres directly lobbied the Biden administration in the ensuing weeks to declassify the contents of the report.
The State Department agreed to declassify the section dedicated to El Salvador on May 4, just three days after the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, under the absolute control of Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, illegally removed from office five magistrates of the Supreme Court and the attorney general. The destitution of the magistrates has been widely condemned internationally as a technical coup d’état, and the United States has unsuccessfully lobbied the Bukele administration for the reinstatement of those removed on May 1.
President Bukele, who last week on Twitter said that “the changes we’re making are IRREVERSIBLE,” pivoted yesterday after the list’s release to mockery: “Our ‘friends’ say they double-checked all of their files and information, and that there is no corruption in Arena,” he mocked, in reference to what has traditionally been a close relationship between Salvadoran administrations and the United States.
Later, around midnight Eastern Time, Bukele insisted on dismissing the list: “Look at the names they publish, who is promoting it, the media outlets publishing it, those sharing it. They’re the henchmen of George Soros. We already know their playbook and we know how to beat it,” he tweeted.
La agenda está clara:
No les funcionó lo de “Dictador”, al contrario, a la gente le dio risa esa idea tan absurda.
Ahora vienen con otra agenda, pero cometen el GRAVÍSIMO ERROR de proteger a los que todo el pueblo sabe que son los mayores corruptos de nuestra historia.
— Nayib Bukele ?? (@nayibbukele) May 18, 2021
On Tuesday morning, the names of officials from Honduras and Guatemala circulated online. Each of the names involve current or former congressmen, many of whom had already been accused in public of corruption or gone to trial. The report, notably, did not touch the inner circles of Presidents Hernández or Giammattei, as the State Department did in El Salvador.
#efBREAKING | In @StateDept's list of northern #CentAm officials it found credibly involved in corruption or drug trafficking, the names for #Honduras & #Guatemala don't touch the inner circles of presidents Hernández or Giammattei & many are already public domain or in court. pic.twitter.com/uTgZtLvE38
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 18, 2021
The Biden administration has repeatedly stated that anti-corruption policy in Central America is part of a bipartisan agenda with not only the commitment of the White House, but also of Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. In the past year, members of Congress from both parties have published letters or resolutions voicing concern for the authoritarian tendencies of the Bukele administration.
"Gratuitous actions that undermine the independence of the judiciary [and] negatively impact our longstanding partnership." U.S. Congressional Republicans have now broken silence on this weekend's moves by the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. ? https://t.co/mzOa9yeSWF
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 4, 2021
Levels of support for the Republican opposition for Biden’s policy in Central America, though, are still unclear, especially amid the sharp political crisis in which migration to the United States’ southern border has become a source of attacks against the administration. Sources in the Biden administration and Congress admit that numerous Republican senators and congresspeople see Bukele as an ally against the Maduro regime in Venezuela.
Bukele nurtured a close relationship with the Trump administration on that front. Among his main political strategists are Venezuelan citizens close to opposition figures Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López.
State Department officials told El Faro, though, that the rise in corruption cases under the current Salvadoran administration, as well as its rapprochement with China, could weaken support among Republicans. Bukele made a state visit to Beijing in December of 2019 and, in lockstep with his deteriorating relationship with Washington, has increasingly publicly branded himself as close to China.
Hours after El Faro published the State Department report on Monday, Bukele announced that a new shipment of Chinese vaccines was scheduled to arrive Tuesday. “These vaccines were acquired by the government of El Salvador, but it wouldn’t have been possible for them to prioritize us without the efforts of President Xi Jinping.”
Ya en camino hacia nuestro país.
Estas vacunas fueron adquiridas por el Gobierno de El Salvador, pero no hubiera sido posible que nos priorizarán, sin las gestiones del Presidente Xi Jinping.
— Nayib Bukele ?? (@nayibbukele) May 18, 2021
Meanwhile, Vice President Kamala Harris met on Monday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to analyze potential plans of action in northern Central America. This week she will meet with former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges who fled the country due to threats and legal persecution, as part of her preparation for a visit she has planned for the beginning of June. For now, her itinerary only includes Guatemala.
On Monday, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee which regulates the congressional budget and international aid, also published a long, unsparing statement analyzing the political situation in El Salvador.
“President Bukele knows that his dictatorial actions are a direct challenge to the United States, and to the Biden Administration’s emphasis on democracy, human rights, and combating corruption in the region,” he wrote.
“El Salvador is a sovereign country and President Bukele was democratically elected. He makes his own decisions. But the choices he and his allies in the Salvadoran Congress make, that are eviscerating El Salvador’s democratic civilian institutions and empowering the armed forces, have consequences for U.S.–Salvadoran relations. They have consequences for our aid programs, and for our support for financing for El Salvador from the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank. And for our trade relations. And for visas,” he concluded.
On Wednesday, May 19, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will vote on a proposed resolution on El Salvador which, while acknowledging the reduction in homicides under the Bukele administration and applauding the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador, condemns the removals of the Supreme Court magistrates, demands guarantees of the independence of the Human Rights Ombudsman, Court of Accounts, and Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and expresses hope that prosecutors will continue ongoing corruption investigations of officials in the Bukele administration.
Sources from the House of Representatives claim that, this time, the resolution will receive bipartisan support.
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We published a more in-depth list of additional readings, in Spanish, on Twitter.