MIAMI – Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s allies, including his chief of staff, have been included in a list of senior Central American officials deemed corrupt by the US State Department, according to a copy of a report obtained by the ‘Associated Press.
The emergence of the list of five allegedly corrupt officials is likely to heighten tensions with Bukele, who faces intense pressure from the Biden administration over the dismissal of several Supreme Court justices and the Attorney General of El Salvador. The United States has made strengthening democracy a pillar of its policy toward Central America, arguing that rampant corruption is one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
A copy of the report, which was sent to members of the United States Congress on Monday, was provided to The Associated Press by a Democratic staff member on condition of anonymity because it was not made public.
The list was originally included as a classified appendix to a report sent to Congress in April in response to a request for funds last year pushed by Representative Norma Torres, a Democrat from California who chairs the Central American caucus. The larger list contained the names of 12 Honduran and Guatemalan politicians accused of corruption or suspected of having links with drug trafficking organizations.
The list of five Salvadoran officials deemed to have “committed significant acts of corruption” during their tenure was declassified on May 4, according to the new report. Unlike the majority of Guatemalans and Hondurans on the list, none of the Salvadorans have been charged or sanctioned in the United States and their inclusion on the list does not appear to have immediate legal consequences.
It risks, however, further straining relations between the Biden administration and Bukele, which has shown no willingness to give up its consolidation of power that has drawn condemnation from senior US officials and lawmakers on both sides.
Bukele’s new New Ideas party swept the February parliamentary elections in a landslide, seizing control of the unicameral congress and immediately voting this month to remove the high-level anti-corruption prosecutor and several magistrates from the high court that had blocked the president’s agenda.
While Bukele remains extremely popular at home after decades of corrupt rule following the end of the country’s bloody civil war, his critics in the United States say that by concentrating power he is undermining already fragile institutions.
“El Salvador is a sovereign country and President Bukele was democratically elected. He makes his own decisions, ”Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a long press release on Monday. “But the choices he and his allies in the Salvadoran Congress make, which eviscerate El Salvador’s democratic civilian institutions and empower the armed forces, have consequences for US-Salvadoran relations.”
The most prominent official on the list is Bukele’s chief of staff, Carolina Recinos, who has worked alongside the president since entering politics as mayor of a small town for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front established by left guerrillas after the end of the civil war. There were no details of Recinos’ alleged wrongdoing.
He is also named Rogelio Rivas, who was replaced last month as Minister of Security and Justice. The State Department said Rivas allegedly awarded his own construction company several non-competitive and unannounced contracts for the construction of police stations and other buildings that fell within its official capacity, then inflated the cost of materials.
Also included is lawmaker Guillermo Gallegos, founder of the GANA party who broke with El Salvador’s bipartisan system to support Bukele’s presidential race in 2019.
Two former FMLN lawmakers – Sigfrido Reyes and Jose Luis Merino, the latter former deputy foreign minister in the FMLN government that predated Bukele’s administration – are also included. Fourteen members of the United States Congress, Democrats and Republicans, wrote letters to state and treasury departments in 2017 demanding that Merino be investigated and sanctioned for his links to regional criminal groups.
El Salvador’s presidential office did not respond to a request for comment from Bukele and said Recinos was unavailable. Rivas did not respond to a request for comment and it was impossible to locate Merino.
Bukele, who accused the United States of brutality, used irony to dismiss the report, a copy of which circulated on social media earlier Monday. He said he was shocked that El Salvador’s “friends”, after checking their records, couldn’t find a single case of corruption within the conservative ARENA party – one of his favorite targets.
“Maybe they think they’re all holy,” he written on twitter. “That’s why they insist that we put them back in power.”
Reyes, an opponent of Bukele who sought exile in Mexico after being accused in El Salvador for corruption since his time in the legislature, called the accusations “baseless and ridiculous”.
The State Department “often lies to the world to achieve its goals. 18 years ago, they swore that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. They are always looking for them! he said on Twitter.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the non-public report, but said tackling corruption was central to the Biden administration’s approach to so-called Northern Triangle countries in Central America, because corruption inhibits democratic governance, undermines security and stifles economic growth. .
To pursue NBC Latino at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.