El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele is launching a commission to crack down on cases of corruption and impunity among the country’s political and economic elite, but the lack of involvement of agencies responsible for criminal investigations raises serious questions.
On September 6, Bukele, accompanied by an envoy from the Organization of American States (OAS), announced the creation of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador — CICIES).
Without providing much detail, the agreement establishes that the future commission will be tasked with “supporting, strengthening and actively collaborating with institutions … responsible for preventing, investigating and sanctioning acts of corruption.”
On September 24, the OAS named Guatemalan lawyer Ronalth Ochaeta as the commission’s acting spokesperson. His mission for the next few months will be to establish relationships with members of the judicial system and El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office in order to “strengthen” the final agreement.
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The CICIES has already opened its first two cases. The first is related to alleged corruption surrounding the construction of the hydroelectric dam known as El Chaparral during the administration of former president Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), who is currently a fugitive from justice in Nicaragua. The second case is addressing the potential misappropriation of state funds during the construction of SITRAMSS, a public bus service in the capital, San Salvador.
However, there is confusion about the CICIES’ jurisdiction in such cases. President Bukele has not clarified the role the Attorney General’s Office will have alongside the new body. The Attorney General’s Office, for example, has had an ongoing case about El Chaparral since 2016.
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The CICIES announcements, made within the first 100 days of the new presidency, are an attempt to check the box on one of Bukele’s main campaign promises.
Bukele was elected in large part because of his promise to rein in endemic corruption in a country in which three of the last four presidents have been investigated for the misappropriation of public funds.
But neither Bukele nor his officials have responded to the most important question surrounding the CICIES: how will the new commission co-exist with the Attorney General’s Office, the only agency constitutionally mandated to carry out criminal investigations and prosecutions?
While there has been at least one meeting between Bukele’s representatives and the Attorney General’s Office about the CICIES, days after the commission was set up, Attorney General Raúl Melara declared that his office “is the only entity that can investigate and prosecute crimes in the country.”
The participation of public prosecutors has been crucial in other instances of such anti-corruption commissions in Central America’s Northern Triangle, including the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG) and the Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras — MACCIH).
In the case of the CICIG, an agreement between the United Nations and the presidency gave the commission independence in its investigations and accompanied Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office in prosecutions. But public prosecutors remained in charge of criminal prosecution.
The MACCIH, also supported by the OAS, can also support Honduran prosecutors with criminal litigation, but does not have the independence to decide which cases to investigate.
Therefore, a CICIES without the participation of the Attorney General’s Office does not seem to make much sense.
In addition to this lack of clarity, another factor calls the CICIES’ efficiency into doubt as long as it remains under the supervision of the executive branch. President Bukele is facing corruption allegations of his own.
While Bukele has enjoyed a rapid rise to the top, his short political resume already has several potential blemishes. The most recent was the discovery that he personally received $1.9 million from Alba Petróleos, which receives funds coming from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). He was in turn investigated for potential money laundering in El Salvador and the United States.
In 2018, El Salvador’s Supreme Court found indications that Bukele received illicit funds. This included close to $850,000 given as a donation by a family business that also worked as a government contractor, on which he also did not pay taxes. The Supreme Court decided not to indict him but did order an investigation into tax evasion and handed the case over to the Finance Ministry. However, it is unlikely that the case will be pursued as Bukele is the chief of the ministry.
Questions about the CICIES extend beyond El Salvador’s borders.
In early October, a UN mission visited the country’s capital and met with the president to discuss the CICIES. Little came out of this visit and an international official with knowledge of what was discussed in that meeting told InSight Crime that it’s still unclear if the UN will participate in the creation of the future Salvadoran commission.
In Washington DC, four Democratic members of Congress, led by Norma Torres, released a statement in which they expressed support for the idea of the CICIES, but insisted on the importance of its independence from the Executive Branch. “It is critical that CICIES be politically independent but with strong oversight, preferably from multilateral institutions,” the statement read.
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