Social Movement Leaders Denounce Supreme Court and Attorney General Actions that “Promote Corruption and Impunity”
Representatives from the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU), a civil society organization that represents more than thirty organizations and social movements nationwide, held a press conference on April 5 to denounce actions taken by magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice and by El Salvador’s new Attorney General, Raul Melara, that, according to ASGOJU, “promote corruption and impunity.” Among the actions cited was a recent Supreme Court ruling to halt open embezzlement investigations if ten years had passed since the official’s time in office, functionally granting immunity to any former right-wing ARENA government official. This decision, along with the exoneration of former Vice-President Ana Vilma de Escobar, who served during the last ARENA administration (2004-2009) and the plea deal that the Attorney General’s office struck with former First Lady during the same administration, Ana Ligia de Saca, who confessed to laundering $17 million dollars in public funds in exchange for probation, demonstrates an uneven application of the law when it comes to “white collar” crimes.
On January 31, the Supreme Court, with eleven of fifteen votes in favor, instructed the Probity Section of the Court to abandon investigation or prosecution of any functionary accused of illicit enrichment in cases where ten years had lapsed since the accused left their government post. The Supreme Court’s resolution now makes it nearly impossible to bring to trial over 150 documented cases of right-wing corruption carried out under twenty years of ARENA governance that have been presented to the Attorney General’s office but have yet to be investigated. For example, in 1990, the Legislative Assembly forgave the $705 million debt of several businessmen that was owed to state-owned banks. That same year, the Assembly also privatized those banks which were promptly bought by the businessmen that drove them into financial ruin. Over a decade later, the businessmen sold those same banks to foreign investors for an even greater profit. No person has ever been tried for this open robbery of the Treasury.
Magistrates based their decision on Article 240 of the Constitution, which sets a ten-year limit or “expiration date” for presenting charges. However, the decision contradicts a prior Supreme Court interpretation of the law. In 2015, the Supreme Court initiated investigations into the finances of former presidents Francisco Flores (1999-2004), Armando Caldron Sol (1994-1999), and Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994). While outrageous, the decision comes as no surprise given the close ties among the new magistrates of the Supreme Court, who were confirmed at the end of 2018 by a Legislative Assembly dominated by a political and economic Right.
In November, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, with a right-wing supermajority, elected ten new judges to sit on the Supreme Court, several of which have been implicated in corruption scandals. For instance, during her time at the National Council of the Judiciary from 2011 to 2016, new Constitutional Chamber magistrate de Torrento was implicated and investigated for illegal enrichment although she was later exonerated by the Supreme Court and her case subsequently sealed. Similarly, Carlos Escobar, formerly a substitute magistrate in the Civil Chamber and now confirmed Constitutional Chamber magistrate, has also been a friend to corruption. During his time in the Civil Chamber, Escobar was responsible for absolving a National Coalition Party (PCN) legislator, Reynaldo López, from charges brought against him for embezzling public funds during his time in the Legislative Assembly.
In comparison, Sonia Cortez De Madriz was proposed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) legislative faction and would have been the only progressive voice represented in the court. Opponents to her confirmation from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and PCN vociferously argued that de Madriz was “not qualified to perform the role.” Subchair of the FMLN legislative fraction Jorge Schafik Handal (son of deceased political and guerilla leader, Schafik Handal) countered this by stating that Sonia de Madrid was being disqualified so that ARENA could secure seats for special interests in the Constitutional Chamber. “By the way, media reports say that large legal firms have interests in having their representatives [in the chamber] and apparently ARENA is guaranteeing this” said Handal in a televised interview.
Sure enough, on March 26 nine magistrates of the Probity Section of the Supreme Court announced the exoneration of former ARENA Vice-President Ana Vilma de Escobar, who is accused of embezzling upwards of $50 million in public funds from the Salvadoran Institute of Social Services and the Special Trust for the Creation of Jobs in Strategic Productive Sectors. Escobar, who is also named in the 150 cases of well-documented corruption, was relieved of all charges after having “demonstrated” through unverified documents that the $1.4-million increase in her accounts came from “legal” means.
Social movement organizations have decried not only ARENA’s influence over the Supreme Court but also over Raúl Melara, El Salvador’s new Attorney General. Melara, who previously served as director of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), El Salvador’s big-business lobby, and is a long-time donor of ARENA, was elected by the right-wing majority legislature in December 2018. His close ties to the country’s largest party prompted appeals to the Supreme Court to overturn his election. In response, on February 19, the new Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declined to open an investigation into Attorney General Melara’s affiliations to the ARENA party, even after news surfaced that he had been a campaign advisor for the ex-presidential candidate Carlos Calleja.
On April 1, Melara confirmed his affiliations when he announced that former First Lady Ana Ligia de Saca would be sentenced to three years of community service after she confessed to having laundered $17 million in public funds during Saca’s five-year tenure as president, despite the minimum sentence for money laundering being five years in prison.
Leonel Herrera, representative of ASGOJU and member of the Water Forum highlighted the vast injustice of El Salvador’s legal system. “Contrast [this sentence] with the severity with which the state prosecution acts in other cases against people who commit minor crimes, crimes that do not affect the public treasury. Or contrast it with the rigor, forcefulness, and vehemence with which the State acts against women who have miscarriages, asking to condemn them to forty years in prison for murder,” he said. “This same state prosecution, which acts terribly hard in other cases, here favors a civil servant who confessed to stealing $17 million.”
“What is happening here is too suspicious,” said Carlos Flores, another representative of ASGOJU. “It is being taken for granted that one can steal millions in El Salvador, having a grip on power. Having the votes in the Legislative Assembly, one can steal millions, and go free, and the state protects them. But poor people face the full force of the state when they have an economic problem or are engaged in delinquency.”
The ASGOJU has called on the public to speak out against these rulings and plans to call on the Legislative Assembly to remove the constitutional immunity granted to Attorney General Melara and to the Supreme Court magistrates in order to investigate whether they are using their government posts to protect corruption officials. If this fails, they have pledged to appeal to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.