President Saca tells how he embezzled more than $300 million

This article originally appeared in English on the website of InsightCrime, translated from the Spanish original at Revista Factum.

By Bryan Avelar

When former El Salvador president Antonio Saca admitted to being behind of one of the most well-known robberies in the country’s history, he knew that there was something good waiting for him.

Seated in the witness chair, Saca described in a strong and clear voice how he and a group of his closest confidants embezzled more than $300 million of public funds during his five years in office.

It’s unusual to recognize that theft brings benefits. But Saca, who was arrested in 2016, had made a deal with the Attorney General’s Office: If he confessed, he would face a lighter sentence.

In a courtroom in San Salvador on August 9, 2018, Saca explained for the first time the plot behind the multimillion-dollar embezzlement scheme that took place between 2004 and 2009. The former president provided details on how he siphoned millions of dollars from the state into his own pockets. He also described overspending public funds through bonuses, travel payments, bribes to journalists and transfers made to the accounts of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista — ARENA) party that he was head of at the time.

Saca described using front companies to purchase property without raising suspicions. Throughout his statement, he spoke of who he collaborated with as well as who advised him on how the money should be stolen.

“One of the ways that money belonging to the presidency arrived in my personal accounts was through advertising agencies. Not directly, but through the accounts of various legal individuals. This is how the deposits were justified and how the illicit activity was concealed,” Saca said.

Initially, Saca assured that his arrest had a political motive and that he had not stolen anything. But 22 months later, he confessed to the contrary in exchange for receiving a reduced sentence for the crimes of embezzlement and money laundering, charges that could have come with a 25 to 30-year prison sentence.

In a sudden agreement after nearly two years of pre-trial proceedings, the Attorney General’s Office announced on August 7 that there had been an unexpected turn in the case. Prosecutors had asked for a shortened trial, or in other words, for a reduced sentence.

Even though prosecutors had already prepared an extrajudicial statement for his appearance on August 9, Saca changed various things at the last minute that were not included in the first draft, something that upset prosecutors in the case.

The Presidential Gang That Brought a Permit to Steal

Weeks before being elected president, Saca, and his closest circle formed a commission. The commission would meet on various occasions with another small group of outgoing public officials who supported then-President Francisco Flores.

Saca met with Flores many times. During these meetings, Flores passed down, according to Saca, the use of the so-called “reserved expenses” item line for accounting, also known as the “secret item.”

According to Saca, Flores showed him a strange document — a set of rules that would give him the power to step around the law and use millions of dollars of public money to his liking without anybody’s control. This document wasn’t a law, it was an executive agreement for the secret use of public money. It was so secret that only the document itself was evidence of its existence. It didn’t need to be published in the official registry. The signature of just one official was enough to give these powers to the president: Saca.

Former President Saca’s house (center), valued at $8 million by the Attorney General’s Office

With the respective modifications, the document was approved the first day Saca took office as the president of El Salvador. Two copies were taken by the incoming private secretary, Élmer Roberto Charlaix, who later became a key player in the embezzlement of public funds and who, according to prosecutors, also stole part of the money himself.

“I delegated Mr. Charlaix to handle reserved expense funds, which meant that he would prepare the request for funds to the Finance Ministry. After they were obtained, [Charlaix] would proceed to disburse said funds in name of the declarant, myself, in his capacity as president. Charlaix was authorized to open bank accounts in his name to deposit funds from the presidency into those accounts,” Saca said.

This policy allowed funds from the main presidency account to be deposited into Charlaix’s accounts and subsequently into the accounts of two employees of the Presidential House, financial manager Francisco Rodríguez Arteaga and accounting assistant Pablo Gómez.

Saca’s strategy, according to his own description of it in his confession, consisted of withdrawing millions of dollars each month that were initially deposited into two accounts managed by Charlaix, who issued false checks in the name of the president and later exchange them for cash. However, nearly a year later, Saca and his cronies realized that they were leaving too much evidence behind that directly linked them to the scheme, so they opened up 16 bank accounts in the names of Rodríguez and Gómez. Jorge Alberto Herrera Castellanos, the treasurer for the presidency at the time, authorized the issuance of these checks.

Once they had the cash in hand, the former president could do what he wanted with it. And nobody, not even the Supreme Court, the body in charge of auditing the use of public money, ever detected it.

“While president, I realized through Charlaix that the investigation just wasn’t done. The person in charge came to see if there was evidence, but he did not do a retroactive investigation,” Saca said.
A Broadcast Man and an Advertising Campaign To Get Rich
Saca has been a broadcast man for 35 years and the owner of a radio emporium that covered the entire country. Before arriving at the presidency, he owned four radio companies that were valued at some $3.2 million in 2007 before he became president.

After becoming president and beginning to exchange millions of dollars from the presidency into cash, part of the money was used for the state intelligence agency in El Salvador and for bribing public officials.

“Because of that, I took the decision to expand the government’s advertising campaign,” Saca said before the tribunal.

The benefits were simple for the advertising agencies. If they accepted the agreement, they would charge two percent of what was set at inflated prices, while the rest would go to the former president’s companies.

Saca increased the income of his companies from $4,000 to $60,000 per month in order for the money embezzled from the presidency to finally make it into his pocket.

After giving a statement that lasted an hour and a half, one of the prosecutors that brought Saca before the court stood to interrogate him. A series of questions followed that the former president managed to answer in a few words. The prosecutor asked a final question.

“Do you accept that you have fraudulently committed the crime of money laundering as you have been charged by the Attorney General’s Office?”

With a firm voice, Saca responded with what the prosecutor wanted to hear.

“Yes, I admit it.”

*This article originally appeared in Factum and was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission at InSight Crime. See Spanish original here.