This week El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s office of El Salvador issued an arrest warrant for Miguel Tomás López Iraheta, former president of the Salvadoran Institute for Agrarian Transformation (ISTA), as well as Armando Zepeda Valle and Magdaleno Guzmán, also former presidents of the Institute. Each of the men is charged with abusing their power and dereliction of duty. Authorities believe López is out of the country and forwarded his arrest warrant to Interpol.
ISTA is the state controlled land reform institute that is charged in part with implementing land reforms passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The charges allege that López Iraheta gifted state-controlled land to his political allies, personal security personnel, and even his driver. They also allege that plots of farmland were distributed to ISTA employees, which is a violation of the laws governing ISTA that prohibit the distribution of land to government employees. The prosecuting attorney is also seeking the dismissal of eight other ISTA officials for their roles in signing off on the allegedly illegal gifts.
Karla Albanez took over ISTA in 2009 when the current administration of President Mauricio Funes took office. When she took over ISTA she uncovered documents that recorded the distribution of Grade 1 and Grade 2 lands to employees of ISTA, as well as the Presidential House and the Ministry of the Interior during the Administration of President Tony Saca.
Albanez recently commented that “the ISTA law is very clear: the lands distributed by ISTA are for campesinos without land, not for public employees, and the Court of Auditors has made that clear to directors of ISTA.” She also states her belief that both López Iraheta and Magdaleno Guzmán appear to have violated this law. The documentation her office provided to the Attorney General’s office contains sufficient evidence to establish that there was indeed corruption and dereliction of duty. She specifically cites the existence of a list of ARENA party members and activists who were given land by ISTA, noting also that López Iraheta was a member of the National Executive Council of ARENA.
Almost exactly four years before the arrest warrant was issued, López Iraheta resigned from ISTA to dedicate himself fulltime to party activities. He was also accused at the time of authorizing the distribution of part of the La Hoya and Tehuacán-Léon de Piedra nature preserves in the province of San Vincinte as a favor to his unlce Luis Rolando López Fortiz and other ARENA party members.
This case comes less than two months after Salvadoran police arrested former Minister of Health José Guillermo Maza Brizuela on corruption charges stemming from the reconstruction of hospitals in El Salvador. While these arrests are important first steps, the Attorney General has a lot of hard work ahead of them in prosecuting these cases and securing convictions. Government prosecutors do not have a good track record when it comes to tough political cases, and the arrest of former Presidents of ISTA and the former Minister of Health are as about as political as they come.