Ex-president Funes targeted in corruption case as Attorney General bids for re-election
On June 8, upon the request of Attorney General Douglas Meléndez, a judge in El Salvador issued warrants for the arrest of former President Mauricio Funes and approximately thirty others for alleged corruption and money laundering during his administration (2009-2014). Among the accused are business owners and former presidential employees, as well as several of Funes’ former and current romantic partners, including his ex-wife, former First Lady Vanda Pignato. The Attorney General’s office has been under enormous pressure from the United States government, which is funding a special anti-corruption unit, to produce dramatic anti-corruption results, and Meléndez, who is seeking re-election by the right-wing dominated legislature that began its new term on May 1, has opted to pursue enemies of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party like former presidents Tony Saca and Mauricio Funes rather than delve into the myriad, well-documented cases of corruption under past ARENA administrations that would directly impact the right-wing party. The Attorney General’s actions have drawn criticism from social movement and civil society organizations, who have repeatedly questioned the Attorney General’s even-handedness.
The Sánchez Cerén administration responded about Funes with a public statement, saying that they “neither accuse nor defend anyone” but “reject any act of corruption, wherever it comes from, and will support all necessary actions to defend public resources.” The government called on the Attorney General to “substantiate the charges and present fitting judicial proof” and on the judges to “act with absolute impartiality, independence and without pressures of any kind.”
Meanwhile, The Attorney General’s charges describe the movement of $351 million in public funds into a variety of personal accounts of a close network of the ex-president. According to La Prensa Gráfica, Funes and associates are accused of using the president’s Reserve Fund as a cash account to finance “luxuries of the ex-president, friends and families, including trips, clothes, sporting goods, cosmetic surgery, luxury homes, among others,” as well as to purchase properties and businesses.
On June 10, a judge in San Salvador held the first hearing against six of the accused; the Attorney General blocked the media from being present. A number of people have been detained, including José Miguel Menéndez, nicknamed “Mecafé” after his coffee business, who headed up Funes’ 2009 presidential campaign, Manuel Rivera Castro, the former president of Banco Hipotecario, one of the last remaining public banks in El Salvador, and Rigoberto Palacios, former presidential accountant.
The arrest that has prompted the strongest reaction is that of Funes’ ex-wife, Vanda Pignato, currently El Salvador’s Minister of Social Inclusion. After her divorce from Funes in 2014, Pignato, who is originally from Brazil, remained in El Salvador, where she has been an outspoken advocate for women and for reducing social inequality.
Women’s organizations have called for her release, especially in light of her recent treatment for breast cancer. Carrying signs that read “Vanda, you are not alone,” crowds gathered outside the prison where she is being held, calling for the “hostility” against her to cease. As Daysi Jandre, one of the hundreds of thousands of women who have benefited from the pioneering Women’s City service centers that Pignato directs told the DiarioColatino, “We women are out here in the street to defend Vanda Pignato [because] she came to see our reality as poor women with no opportunities. She is the one who gave us tools to defend out rights and we will always be grateful to her as participants in the Women’s City.”
As the Professionals for the Transformation of El Salvador (PROES) pointed out in a recent declaration, “Instead of pursuing and punishing those responsible for feminicides and perpetrators of sexual violence against women and children, [the Attorney General is dedicating his time] to accusing a number of people of acts of corruption and money laundering, without any more proof than the words of a ‘qualified witness,’” noting that Dr. Pignato was already absolved of charges of illicit enrichment in 2017.
In the midst of the expected media hubbub regarding the arrests, one of the primary questions that has been raised regards the evidence – or lack thereof – against the accused. Funes, currently exiled in Nicaragua, claims that the Attorney General has no evidence against him, information that was recently confirmed by Jorge Cortez, the head of the Specialized Unit against Money Laundering of the Attorney General’s office. As Cortez told the Diario CoLatino, Funes is “absolutely right” that there is no direct evidence against him but claims that “as in the movies,” he is at the center of a complex web designed to keep his name in the clear.
Meanwhile, Funes has also told the media that Miguel Menéndez informed him that he had received visits from representatives of the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government agencies, pressuring him to testify against Funes.
Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has tried to make a name for himself as an independent prosecutor willing to go after those at the top, in part by creating major media spectacles around several high-profile investigations, for example, live Tweeting a search of Funes’ home in 2016, despite the fact that no charges had been brought against Funes at that point.
The Institute for Social Democracy has criticized how the Attorney General is handling the current case, stating in a recent press conference, “The institutional media manipulation regarding this investigation, the raids and the presentation of the results are lamentable and jeopardize the seriousness and forcefulness that this case deserves. We hope that [these actions] don’t correspond to personal interests.”
According to Armando Sánchez, president of the Community council in Rutilio Grande, who joined a protest to defend Vanda Pignato, the Attorney General is committing “injustices” by casting sweeping accusations without sufficient proof, trying them in the media rather than the courtroom. “What we’re seeing is a lack of professionalism. The Attorney General is clearly playing a dirty game,” he said.
Throughout Meléndez’ three-year term social movement organizations have repeatedly decried his unwillingness to pursue charges against ARENA party members. As Sánchez asked, “Why not try Ana Vilma de Escobar? Why not try those who robbed money from social security?” referring to the massive profits made following the privatization of social security in 1998 under ARENA.
In 2011, Minister of Public Works Gerson Martínez and Minister of Labor Humberto Centeno presented over 150 cases of corruption from various ARENA administrations that had been discovered after the FMLN came into office in 2009. The FMLN estimates these cases represent over $4 billion in money stolen from public funds. But the Attorney General’s office has not investigated any of these cases, prompting social movement organizations like the Alliance for Justice and Governability (ASGOJU) to question the Attorney General’s motivations. “We need to see action [on the fiscal’s part]. There are various cases that are going to reach the statutes of limitation,” said Leonel Herrera of ASGOJU in 2016. “It would be logical for the Attorney General’s office to orient their efforts to those cases which, if they aren’t investigated now, could expire and then remain in impunity.”
In El Salvador, the Attorney General’s position is elected by the Legislative Assembly. Meléndez is up for re-election in 2018 and needs ARENA’s votes to win, suggesting a possible motivation for the timing of the so called “public looting” case. El Salvador’s presidential elections are scheduled for February 3, 2019 and news of a major corruption scandal could have a hugely negative impact on the incumbent FMLN party.
Social movement organizations have also noted that the case broke in the news just days after right-wing parties in the Legislative Assembly’s Environmental and Climate Change Commission started working on approving articles of a wildly unpopular bill that would open the door to the privatization of water. Environmental, student, religious and community organizations have been mobilizing constant marches and protests that have spread around the country to defend water as a human right and put a halt to the right-wing’s privatization agenda.