Former President Saca Sentenced Ten Years in Prison while ARENA Leaders Continue to Evade Charges
On the surface it would appear that El Salvador’s Attorney General Douglas Meléndez has dealt a heavy blow to the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, having achieved a ten-year prison sentence against former ARENA president Antonio ´Tony´ Saca, who confessed to stealing $300 million in public funds during his administration (2004-2009). But social movement activists and leaders from the governing leftist FMLN party have decried the sentence as a slap on the wrist and called for current leaders of the ARENA party to be investigated, as well.
Social movement organizations, including the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU), have been urging the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to revoke ARENA’s status as a political party for repeated acts of illicit enrichment, of which the Saca case is only the most recent example that has come to light, and suspicious campaign finance.
The case against former President Saca developed when the Probity Section of the Supreme Court discovered that Elmer Charlaix, the presidential secretary during Saca’s presidency, had personally received $15.8 million dollars from a presidential fund. Following this discovery, Attorney General Meléndez brought charges against Saca in 2016, accusing him of embezzling $246 million dollars during his administration. Since then, Saca had been serving time in prison awaiting trial.
On August 10, 2018, in a surprising turn of events, Saca confessed to embezzling $300 million from a presidential discretionary fund and redirecting the funds to various associates, including his former party, ARENA. In exchange for his confession, the Attorney General negotiated a sentence of 10 years for money laundering and embezzlement. The former president will also be required to return $260 million in funds; others who were sentenced in the case will be required to pay amounts between $887,000 and $15 million.
While a former president of El Salvador serving jail time for corruption is a historic first, it is significant that such a major case appears to have ended without further consequences for ARENA's current leadership. Despite evidence, and Saca’s own confession, that embezzled funds were directed to ARENA for campaign finance and that the mechanisms he used were inherited from his predecessor, the majority of ARENA functionaries and the party itself have been left almost entirely untouched.
Saca had an ugly departure from ARENA following their 2009 presidential defeat and is now considered an enemy and rival. So while the case is being presented in the media as evidence that Attorney General Meléndez is persecuting corruption on all ends of the political spectrum, Saca was actually quite a safe choice for Meléndez to target, given the tremendous political, economic and media power that ARENA continues to wield, including holding the key to his pending re-election in the Legislative Assembly.
U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes applauded the outcome, saying, “When the system is functioning and can pursue cases, including the highest functionaries in the country, it is a good day for El Salvador, because it sends a clear message that no one is above the law.” Notably, however, Manes and her predecessors have remained silent when cases have implicated ARENA mayors, ARENA cabinet ministers or ARENA legislators.
Far from praising the Attorney General, however, the popular social movement has been vocal in its outrage. ASGOJU denounced the Attorney General´s decision to pursue an abbreviated trial for Saca, saying that the purpose was "to protect businessmen, owners of media, ex-functionaries and ARENA politicians who participated in the scandalous plot of corruption and received embezzled funds from the Presidency.” According to Leonel Herrera, “If this conspiracy between ARENA and the Attorney General is allowed to move forward, the major corruption crime of the last ARENA government will remain in impunity. Many people who received [funds] will not be processed and the country will not recuperate the stolen money."
The FMLN’s 2019 presidential candidate Hugo Martínez also blasted Meléndez for seeking a reduced sentence for the former president instead of the maximum sentence of twenty to twenty-five years and called on ARENA to return all of the public money it illegally received from Saca’s embezzlement and money laundering. “As a citizen and aspirant for the presidency, I urge whichever political party that has received public funds illicitly to return them immediately,” he said.
Despite ARENA’s distance from Saca, it is possible that such a high-profile confession will still do damage to ARENA, especially with only five months remaining before February's presidential elections. In response to the backlash, ARENA is scrambling to do damage control, saying the party has changed since Saca was expelled from its ranks.
Similarly GANA, the political party that Saca helped to form following his break with ARENA, has also been trying to wipe its hands clean to protect their new presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, who they will be running for the presidency in coalition.