Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, News Highlights, Organized Crime, U.S. Relations

Talk of an International Commission Against Organized Crime in El Salvador

El Faro posted a story this morning about a growing movement to create an International Commission Against Organized Crime in El Salvador. This Commission, modeled after the CICIG in Guatemala, would investigate and prosecute cases that the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalia, in Spanish) has not taken on. Though the CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala) has had its troubles over the last few years, its successes and lessons learned could greatly benefit El Salvador.

Momentum for such a commission has grown out of a general frustration with the Fiscalia, which is led by Attorney General Romeo Barahona, for its failure to investigate drug trafficking and organized crime. Though El Salvador has struggled with organized crime throughout its modern history, drug trafficking has taken off in recent years as cartels have increasingly used Central America to transport their products to the United States markets.

One of the complaints against Fiscal Barahona is that under his leadership, the Fiscalia has gone after low-level gang members while staying away from more difficult cases involving higher-level organized crime syndicates.  A related issue is that the Fiscalia attributes many homicides that appear to be political in nature to gang members (“common crime”) or family issues. An example is the 2009 murder of Marcelo Rivera.  Rodolfo Delgado, the prosecutor and lead investigator, called it a crime of passion committed by four gang members. He also attributed the 2004 murder of union organizer Gilberto Soto to a family disagreement and arrested Soto’s mother-in-law. As in many, many other cases, Barahona and his team of prosecutors seem more interested in depoliticizing murders and steering investigations away from organized crime rather than seeking the truth and justice.

Fiscal Barahona, however, believes an international committee is unnecessary.  In response to the idea of creatingsuch a commission, he stated, “We do not believe it is necessary to create a commission to combat crime. It is better that the resources that it would take be invested in strengthening the Fiscalia and the Police.”

Though it seems early in the process, El Faro reports that the Salvadoran government is taking the steps necessary to create the legal foundation for this international authority. Though the Commission would have to work with Fiscal Barahona, those working on the project realize that it would require a significant amount of autonomy. The Commission would have to be led by someone with the character to take on organized crime-a vast network that includes past and present government officials who have maintained the culture of impunity and gotten rich from illicit activities.

The discussion of a commission is becoming public just days before President Obama is scheduled to visit El Salvador, a visit during which he and President Funes are sure to discuss security and the region’s growing struggle with crime and violence. At the end of January, the Economist reported that El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras make up the most violent region in the world, battlefields aside. Everyday there are new reports about the Zetas and other Mexican cartels setting up camp in Central America where the cost of doing business is less, and there are plenty of corruptible government officials at the local and national levels. President Obama and the US ought to support the idea of an International Commission in El Salvador and provide all of the support and training necessary to ensure its success.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime, Politics

$5 Million Dollars and 20 Kilos of Cocaine

Implicated by the Guatemalan Prosecution, Manuel Castillo

Tuesday we posted an article about a report by investigators from the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) that found a parallel “security” structure that operated from within several Guatemalan institutions between 2004 and 2008.   At least a dozen arrest warrants were issued in August of this year, focusing on extra-judicial executions within the Pavón and Boquerón prisons.  The CICIG expected the network to be implicated in at least eight more crimes, including the murders of three Salvadoran PARLACEN diputados.

In February 2007, the Salvadoran diputados, who included William Pichinte, Eduardo d´Aubuisson, and Ramón González, and their driver Gerardo Ramírez were diverted from a highway outside of Guatemala City to the isolated La Parga farm. The delegates were tortured, gunned down and their bodies burned inside their vehicle. A few days after the crime scene was discovered, the Guatemalan Police arrested four of their own for the murders. While being held in a maximum-security prison in Guatemala, witnesses described a specialized unit that forced it’s way into the prison and assassinated the detained officers.

The CICIG investigation determined that the motive for the assassinations of the three diputados was robbery.  William Pichinte, an ARENA diputado, was carrying $5 million dollars and 20 kilos of cocaine in a secret compartment of his vehicle.  The parallel ‘security’ structure in Guatemala had identified the delegation, diverted them to La Parga farm, stripped the vehicle until they found the money and cocaine, and then assassinated the diputados and their driver.

The four Guatemalan police officers were not the only ones involved in the robbery/murder to be killed. The Venezuelan Victor Rivera, aka “Zacarias,” was one of the principles responsible for organizing the robbery. He arrived at La Parga farm, supposedly to confirm the orders to kill the diputados, and he also intervened during the arrests of the four police officers.  Zacarias came to El Salvador in the early 1980’s as a CIA asset to work with former CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles and Lt. Oliver North in the Ilopango Air Base “drug trafficking, kidnapping and training death squads.”(according to former DEA agent Celerino Castillo).  He was later run out of the country for ‘creating and operating irregular structures from within the National Civilian Police,’ and was linked to the 1996 police killing of medical student Adriano Vilanova (published by the human rights office in 1996 ).   Between 1997 and 2000 ‘Zacarias’ continued working with the private security sector in El Salvador and Guatemala, while picking up several public contracts with the Guatemalan government.  He was assassinated in April of 2007.  CICIG has implicated drug cartel kingpin Jorge Arturo Paredes Cordova and Rivera’s personal assistant María del Rosario Melgar for his murder.

The CICIG report also indicates that Rodrigo Ávila, who was the Chief of the Salvadoran Police at the time of the murders and later a presidential candidate in the 2009 elections, knew that Pichinte was carrying a suitcase full of money, but claims that he thought it was for a real estate deal in Guatemala. Ávila also admitted that Victor Rivera, working as the principle advisor to the Guatemalan Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann, had told him on several occasions that Pichinte was a drug trafficker. Despite these claims, he says he never saw any evidence that Pichinte was involved in drug trafficking, and that the police investigations had turned up nothing.

The information in the CICIG report is in direct conflict with the Guatemalan Attorney General’s theory that the 2007 assassinations were motivated by partisan disputes and orchestrated by the Salvadoran ex-diputado Roberto Carlos Silva Pereira and the Guatemalan ex-diputado Manuel de Jesús Castillo.  Various Guatemalan and Salvadoran functionaries have re-iterated their support for the Guatemalan Attorney General’s theory pointing the finger at Silva and Castillo. They include former Vice President of Guatemala Eduardo Stein and Salvadoran diputado Roberto d’Aubuisson, the brother of assassinated Eduardo d’Aubuisson.  This week, in fact, Guatemala’s public prosecutor Edwin Morroquín has put Silva and Castillo on trial for the murders of the Salvadoran diputados, even though Silva is still in jail in Arizona.

With all of the accusations and theories involving the parallel security operation in Guatemala, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone has shared the full truth around these murders. Presenting one theory after another has long been a strategy for ensuring that those guilty of crimes are never punished. In a related example, the investigation of the 1998 assassination of Guatemalan Archbishop Juan Gerardi went on for 9 years, and prosecutors and government officials offered as many as four separate theories as to who was responsible. Finally the government convicted Sergeant Obdulio Villanueva and two others for the murder. Villanueva was decapitated in the Pavón Prison in 2003.

While the CICIG’s determination that the diputados were murdered over the $5 million and 20 kilograms of cocaine they were carrying is more than valid, their mandate limits the scope of their investigation to Guatemala, meaning that they have not been able to answer some very important questions. Where did the $5 million and 20 kilograms of cocaine come from? Why did Victor Rivera (aka Zacarias) go to El Salvador and try to meet with Rodrigo Avila the day that the four police were killed in Boquerón? What, if any, Salvadoran names or networks would CICIG investigators have turned up if they could have expanded their investigation across the border?