Salvadoran presidents and their corrupt secret piggy bank

The corruption trial of the former president of El Salvador, Antonio Saca, is drawing to a close.   Saca has already confessed to diverting more than $300 million in public funds.   Now he and his co-defendants will wait and learn their fate.

The periodical El Faro has been reporting on the financial accounts which made this possible.

Essentially, the Executive branch in El Salvador has been given a budget of funds by El Salvador's legislature which is treated as "under reserve" or secret.   These are discretionary funds where the president is supposed to decide where they should best be spent.    Presidents from both parties have treated these funds not only as discretionary, but as one for which they need not be accountable to anyone.   Government auditors are not granted access to the account spending.   No disclosure is made of how the money is used.   Presidential spokesmen refuse to answer questions from the press about the funds.

Tony Saca, who led a conservative ARENA government from 2004-2009 has admitted to diverting $310 million from these accounts.   His successor, Mauricio Funes, is in exile in Nicaragua and accused by the attorney general of diverting $351 million in the same fashion for such things as luxury properties, travel for relatives and cosmetic surgery in Hollywood for his mistress.

El Faro is also reporting that the administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén has also been an eager user of the secret presidential accounts.   According to El Faro, even though the National Assembly only allocated $107 million to those accounts over the past four years, Sánchez Cerén re-directed another $41 million in funds allocated to other parts of the government into the secret accounts.   At this point, it has not been reported if those funds have been spent on non-governmental purposes, but I think we can safely assume that at least some portion were.   

It is just a basic principle of good government: transparency produces accountability, lack of transparency produces fraud and corruption.   By putting hundreds of millions of dollars into secret, discretionary accounts, the government of El Salvador has created a temptation which its presidents have been unable to resist.

In a promising sign, at least one presidential candidate, Nayib Bukele, has stated that, if elected, he would abolish the practice of having secret accounts for the executive branch.