El Salvador gets a new attorney general

El Salvador has a new attorney general.  Douglas Arquímides Meléndez Ruiz was sworn in yesterday after a long process of political negotiation and the vetting of candidates by the National Assembly.   Because the election of an attorney general requires a super majority vote in the legislature, both the FMLN and ARENA have the ability to block any candidate they do not approve of.    The National Assembly had dragged its feet in selecting a new attorney general, leaving the country without an official attorney general since  early December when the term of Luis Martinez expired.   

Douglas Meléndez was the only name to appear on the list of acceptable candidates for all 5 political parties in the National Assembly and was subsequently elected with 83 of 84 possible votes.   In a press conference after being sworn in, the new attorney general emphasized a need for transparency, but would not comment on pending cases until he had a chance to review them.

Meléndez is a career government lawyer.  Most recently he was the legal chief of CEPAL, the port authority in the country.   While in the attorney general's office from 1990 to 2006, his work included heading the anti-corruption and complex crimes units.  

One point of uncertainty  was whether the outgoing Attorney General Luis Martinez would be appointed to a second term.  For months, neither major political party announced whether they would support returning Martinez to the job.   ARENA was the first to announce that it would not back him. The FMLN subsequently announced it would not support Martinez after Nayib Bukele, the mayor of San Salvador, declared he would leave the FMLN if it advocated a second term for Martinez.

During his years in office, Martinez proved to be a controversial figure.  Martinez was always one of the harshest hawks in advocating an iron fist approach to the gang violence problem.   When the gang truce emerged in 2012  during the administration of Mauricio Funes, Martinez said he was opening criminal investigations into the actions of government officials who might have been involved.   He criticized David Munguia Payes, the minister of public security at the time, and prosecuted Spanish priest Father Antonio Rodriguez who long worked with the gangs.  He accused church leaders who advocate dialogue with the gangs of deception.  In 2015, with the support of the Supreme Court he began prosecuting all gang crimes as terrorist acts.

Martinez was also subject to criticism for his handling of the prosecution of former president Francisco Flores.  Recent investigative reporting from the online site Revista Factum alleges that Martinez' actions ensured that drug kingpin "Chepe Diablo" in the Texis cartel in El Salvador would go free.

At a time when the fight against criminal violence and political corruption is crucial in El Salvador, the new attorney general has an important role to play.   Melendez will start his new job with a very full plate of challenges.