Echoes of the past
It's politically expedient to attack the corruption of a prior government. The tough part is making sure that your friends and allies don't engage in the same activities now that they are in power.
This sounds like something I would write today in El Salvador Perspectives. But in fact, this was a quote from a post I wrote in June 2009. Mauricio Funes had just taken office as the first leftist president in El Salvador's history to much hope and fanfare and had just announced the formation of a commission to investigate acts of corruption in the government of his predecessor, Antonio Saca. The commission was to be led by the Treasury Minister, Carlos Cáceres.
Despite the announcement of an anti-corruption commission, the endemic practice of Salvadoran politicians enriching themselves at the public trough did not end. In fact, we learned that Mauricio Funes found out from his predecessor Saca how secret slush funds controlled by the president's office in El Salvador could be used to pay himself, other public officials and friends and relatives.
Subsequently, through the work of investigative journalists:
* The Salvadoran public learned of the practice of "sobresueldos" or payments to public officials in cash, off-the-books, to supplement their official salaries established by law.
* The public also read how cars sent by Mauricio Funes would collect garbage bags full of cash from a Salvadoran bank.
* They learned that the major political parties had paid off the gangs for votes leading up to the 2014 presidential election.
* The public got to know that a phantom non-profit organization nominally run by the wife of GANA politician Guillermo Gallegos received a half million dollars from the Legislative Assembly when Gallegos was president of the Assembly.
* And much more (just search the "corruption" tag on stories at El Salvador Perspectives)
Despite the publication of these disclosures about public corruption in El Salvador, little was done outside of the prosecutions of the three presidents: Francisco Flores, Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes. In fact, branches of the Salvadoran government did nothing, or made getting away with corruption even easier. For example, El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court's "Probidad" or Integrity Section has been incapable of completing investigations of public officials in a timely manner and the high court then issued a ruling that any illicit enrichment by a public official more than 10 years earlier could not be pursued. The Legislative Assembly approved legislation to make it more difficult to prove an official had enriched themselves from public funds. It passed a law to make it harder to seize the assets of corrupt politicians.
The Attorney General's office would announce investigations only when forced to do so by the disclosures of investigative journalism, but nothing would emerge from those investigations.
Thus when Nayib Bukele comes into office denouncing a culture of previous corruption, where public criminals have not faced justice, he is not wrong. In an editorial in 2017, the UCA denounced the same thing, what it labelled a "festival of corruption," as it denounced the practice of sobresueldos and other manners of getting rich off the public's money.
El Salvador's Legislative Assembly controlled by Nayib Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party is now holding hearings about the festival of corruption in past governments controlled by the FMLN and ARENA. They are generating a list of names, and then new Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, whom they thrust into office after getting control of the congress, is dutifully charging those named with corruption and money laundering and putting people in jail. Those formally charged so far include Bukele's immediate predecessor, Salvador Sánchez Cerén; Carlos Cáceres, former Minister of Treasury; Calixto Mejía, former vice minister of labor; Hugo Flores, former vice minister of agriculture; Violeta Menjívar, former Minister of Health; Lina Pohl, former Vice Minister of the Environment; Guillermo López Suárez, former Minister of Agriculture and former President of CEPA; Gerson Martínez, former minister of public works; Manuel Melgar, former minister of public security and Erlinda Handal, former vice minister of education, science and technology. These former officials under the FMLN government of Funes are accused by prosecutors of illegally appropriating $2.4 million in sobresueldos.
One of the people the new Attorney General has put in jail is Carlos Cáceres. He was the Treasury Minister in charge of the anti-corruption commission established by Mauricio Funes which started this article. After being placed in that position, he had a key role in the secret slush funds which would enable much of Funes' embezzlement. The challenge for El Salvador today is that history has a habit of repeating itself.
And so I will end with the same quote where I started:
It's politically expedient to attack the corruption of a prior government. The tough part is making sure that your friends and allies don't engage in the same activities now that they are in power.Only the naïve would assume that suddenly Salvadoran politicians, even with new faces, new ideas, and a millennial president, have suddenly become immune to the temptations of power and corruption.
And if you are not naïve, you should support investigative journalists, should advocate for greater transparency in government affairs, and should support prosecutors and courts which are independent of the other branches of government where corruption is prone to occur.