by Ana María Méndez Dardón
On Wednesday, July 20, the U.S. State Department released an update of the so-called “Engel List”. The document is a list of “individuals who have knowingly engaged in acts that threaten democratic processes or institutions, engaged in significant corruption, or obstructed investigations of such acts of corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.”
The list sanctions corrupt individuals who undermine democracy or obstruct corruption investigations. It also sanctions those allegedly involved in the following offenses: corruption related to government contracts, bribery and extortion, and the facilitation or transfer of the proceeds of corruption, including through money laundering.
The list just released by the State Department includes three officials close to President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, including the head of the ruling party’s legislative bench, the press secretary, and a senior official of the presidency’s legal secretariat. A former security minister and his wife also appear, as well as a pro-government mayor linked to drug trafficking. From Guatemala, it includes four influential businessmen linked to corruption schemes, justice operators investigated for attempting to illegally interfere in the election of high court officials, and the prosecutor against impunity appointed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras. And in the case of Honduras, the inclusion of four former officials from the government of President Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009), husband of the current president, Xiomara Castro, stands out. One of these officials is currently an advisor to Castro and two others are members of Congress for the Libre Party, which Zelaya leads. There are also former officials of the government of former President Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014). The son of one of them, Fabio Lobo, was convicted in the United States for drug trafficking.
What is the United States pointing at in each country with these recent sanctions?
In El Salvador
A number of developments that have negatively, and increasingly, impacted on the country’s judiciary and on the state of human rights and democracy have been a concern for the United States. The current list of of sanctioned individuals confirms this and illustrates a rejection to:
The lack of judicial independence following the removal of five magistrates from the Constitutional Chamber in May 2021. On this occasion, the State Department sanctions presidential advisor Francisco Javier Argueta Gómez for his direct influence in this event that significantly affected El Salvador’s democracy.
Freedom of expression under attack by the Gang Prohibition Law, which criminalizes the dissemination of messages related to gangs. The United States, which considers the law to potentially promote censorship, is sanctioning Christian Reynaldo Guevara Guadrón, a deputy of the Legislative Assembly and leader of the ruling Nuevas Ideas faction, who promoted and approved the law. Ernesto Sanabria, press secretary of the presidency, was also included in the list.
Kleptocracy, drug trafficking and money laundering committed at the municipal level in the city of San Miguel, the second largest in the country. José Wilfredo Salgado García, the mayor of the city was sanctioned. Likewise, the sanctions reveal a kleptocratic state by linking cases of endemic corruption with money laundering, such as those attributed to the former Minister of Security during the administration of Antonio Saca (2004-2009).
Prior to the official publication of this update, a preliminary list was leaked in which the United States included José Alejandro Zelaya, Minister of Finance, who is close to President Nayib Bukele and his circles of power. According to the leaked document, Zelaya was accused of diverting $497 million in public funds intended for the country’s municipalities to finance essential services in order to obtain support for his political allies, who were contenders in the 2021 legislative and municipal elections. However, Zelaya was excluded, at least publicly. Had the sanction been upheld, it would have had the most political-financial implications. This has to do with the legitimacy and credibility of the government in the eyes of international financial organizations, especially those whose board of directors or actions are linked to U.S. interests, such as the International Monetary Fund, with which El Salvador is still trying to negotiate a loan to meet its debt obligations.
Along with Nicaragua, Guatemala is the country with the highest number of sanctioned individuals, which reflects the level of democratic institutional deterioration that both nations are going through. Some of the profiles of those sanctioned in Guatemala show that corruption and anti-democratic actions are encouraged and carried out not only in the public sphere, but also at the hands of the private sector, especially the business sector. The sanctioned individuals reflect specific U.S. concerns regarding:
The private sector and corruption: individuals linked to companies involved in construction, the energy sector, including companies related to port activities, who have nurtured a kleptocratic and corrupt state by paying bribes to the state to be favored with contracts, are sanctioned. It also reflects that the state-private sector relationship has a complex and harmful root to what some U.S. officials have labeled as a “predatory elite”.
Cooptation and infiltration of the judiciary: The selection processes of judges and magistrates in Guatemala have been influenced by illicit networks that seek to co-opt the country’s justice system to their benefit. Six of the sixteen sanctioned are lawyers, magistrates, and other actors involved in a corruption scheme unearthed by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), called Parallel Commissions, which illegally influenced the selection processes of officials, compromising their impartiality and independence.
Criminalization of justice operators. The list included the current head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Corruption (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad – FECI), Rafael Curruchiche, which confirms that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been dedicated to obstructing justice in large-scale corruption cases and has also become a key actor in the criminalization of independent justice operators. Today, twenty-four of them are in exile.
Sanctions to part of the economic elites could affect them financially in cases where they have accounts, investments, and interests in the United States. The cancellation of visas could result in people like the sanctioned Ramon “Moncho” Campollo Codina, who is a partner in international consortiums, being prohibited from conducting business in the United States. In addition, the credibility of private sector investment in the country is called into question and could harm foreign investment.
Unlike the sanctions against El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, in the case of Guatemala, no person from the circle of power close to President Alejandro Giammattei is named, despite strong indications of corruption around him and his acquiescence in the criminalization and persecution of independent justice operators.
The inclusion of several actors related to both Manuel Zelaya and Xiomara Castro may generate a fissure in bilateral relations between the United States and Honduras, and above all may affect some proposals and initiatives to address structural impunity and endemic corruption.
Doubts about the integrity of some members of the ruling Libre party: The list includes Rasel Antonio Tomé Flores, vice president of Congress, and Congressman Edgardo Antonio Casaña Mejía, both from President Xiomara Castro’s Libre party. Casaña used $5 million of pensions for political purposes, especially to secure votes; although the case was heard by the Honduran justice system, the congressman has been favored by an amnesty.
Corruption in the Government of Manuel Zelaya and rejection of the Amnesty Law: The list includes four officials of former president Manuel Zelaya, implicated in bribery from different State portfolios, such as health and labor. In addition, the appropriation of public funds for political purposes from Zelaya’s administration is pointed out with the sanction of Enrique Alberto Flores Lanza, former minister of the presidency, who was facing corruption charges in the Honduran justice system but benefited from the recent amnesty law.
State looting under Juan Orlando Hernández: Seven of the fifteen sanctioned are people who belonged to Hernández’s government. In the period 2010-2014, $3.5 million was embezzled from various institutions whose purpose was to reduce poverty.
Drug trafficking: With the sanctioning of Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who has been accused by a U.S. federal court of overseeing cocaine shipments on behalf of former President Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother, Washington reaffirms its commitment to the fight against drug trafficking and to dismantling criminal networks in the region.
The situation in Honduras is worrisome: with the inclusion of people close to both Castro and Zelaya, a diplomatic rift could occur that would affect initiatives such as the installation of the International Commission against Impunity (Comisión internacional contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – CICIH). In fact, Castro’s government is beginning to engage in authoritarian practices that call into question its democratic commitment, for example, with the entry into force of the Law of the Nominating Board for the election of Magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, which leaves the door open to infiltration by political-partisan interests.
It is the country with the highest number of sanctioned individuals (23), including judges and prosecutors whose actions have been fundamental to criminalize and persecute political opponents of the Ortega-Murillo regime and those who have been responsible for human rights violations against political prisoners. It highlights:
Lack of impartiality and autonomy of the Public Prosecutor’s Office: The autonomy of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Nicaragua is subordinated to the Ortega-Murillo regime. Prosecutors from different offices have been in charge of initiating criminal investigations under spurious arguments with the objective of frightening and silencing dissident voices.
A judiciary in the hands of the Executive: The list includes thirteen judges who have tried and sentenced various actors who have been dissident voices to the regime. The judiciary has been one of the main perpetrators of violations of due process, the right to defense and other rights recognized in international human rights instruments.
With respect to Nicaragua, given the closure of spaces and the critical situation of political prisoners, the sanctions, although they show that the United States condemns the situation in the country, would only have a positive effect if the economic-financial interests of those implicated in the deterioration of democracy are affected. Recently, in an interview with Univision, Biden’s presidential advisor, Juan González, said they have tried to communicate with the Ortega-Murillo regime. With the sanctions, perhaps a channel of dialogue could be opened for the release of political prisoners, who at this moment are only left with the recourse of amnesty or presidential pardon.
The Engel List is covered by the United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act, which in December 2020 was included as part of the State Department Appropriations, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Act of 2021. Section 353(b) requires the State Department to produce the list and release it to Congress at least twice a year. The main consequence for those listed is that it makes them ineligible for visas to enter the U.S. and opens the possibility of having assets blocked from accounts or property on U.S. soil.
In the first publication of the Engel List issued in July 2021, the State Department listed 14 Salvadorans, 20 Guatemalans and 21 Hondurans, most of them officials and former public officials close to the governments in power and involved in the judicial, legislative, and executive branches. In none of the three countries did the public prosecutors’ offices initiated investigations of these individuals, and the effects of this varied according to the context of each country. Analysts expressed that there was no major impact given that no high levels of power were singled out. Likewise, in September 2021 they issued another list in which they included the current Attorney General of Guatemala, Consuelo Porras and the Secretary General of the Attorney General’s Office, as well as five current magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador.
In addition to the Engel List, the United States has used other tools against Central American governments or individuals. For example, it has applied sanctions through the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which has allowed the freezing of funds and assets of some criminal and corrupt actors in the U.S. financial system. The Justice Department has also undertaken recent investigations of politicians and businessmen linked to drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime. The most exemplary case is that of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, extradited to New York in April on cocaine and arms trafficking charges, and the investigation of two officials close to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele for dealing with the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs.
The Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform Act of 2021 (RENACER) also provides tools for the United States to monitor, report on, and address corruption in President Daniel Ortega’s government and abuses of power under his regime. It adds Nicaragua to the list of Central American countries subject to corruption-related visa restrictions.