Major Corruption Cases Pile Up in El Salvador

A water truck makes deliveries in a locked-down village in rural El Salvador. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — Bond hearings were held Thursday for five powerful men accused of arms trafficking in El Salvador, with the court agreeing to release the defendants without conditions before trial.

Two were former defense ministers and one a former colonel. One, Gustavo Lopez Davidson, was the former head of the right-wing party ARENA, which governed the country from 1989-2009.

One of the former defense ministers, ex-General Atilio Benitez, has long been suspected of selling military weapons on the black market. Despite the suspicions, he has served as ambassador to Spain and Germany.

The other, David Munguia Payes, is currently in prison awaiting trial for giving money to gang leaders in exchange for slowing murders during the 2014 presidential campaign to favor the FMLN campaign for reelection.

The current case involves the disappearance of 23,000 military-grade machine guns which, according to press reports, were provided by the leaders of the armed forces to the Salvadoran gang M-13, which in turn provided many of them to the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico. 

To make matters worse, the Salvadoran gang was given training in sniper weapons on Salvadoran military installations by Salvadoran military instructors at a cost to the gang of $300 an hour, according to El Faro, a digital investigative news site in San Salvador.

At the bond hearings Thursday, defense attorneys persuaded the court to release all of the men without any bond or conditions, except to report once a month to a court clerk. No passports were confiscated, nor was home detention ordered.

President Nayib Bukele went on television and on social media to denounce the decision of the court and the corruption it implies.

In a separate case involving embezzlement of at least $40 million from a construction project, another former defense minister also was released without bond or conditions. This case involves a man who also was charged with giving thousands of dollars to gangs to persuade them to slow down the killings during the campaign for the presidency in 2014.

In the gang collusion case, the former military official was released under bond so he could care for his elderly mother.

A third case of corruption Thursday involved tax evasion of more than $5 million involving a textile factory owned by the family of Javier Siman, the president of National Association of Private Enterprise, the major association of the country’s right wing-companies, many of whom have not paid taxes for 30 years, according to the attorney general.

Javier Siman owns a chain of high-end department stores and ran in the primary for president in the 2019 election for the ARENA party but lost.

In the tax evasion case, the judge imposed a $500,000 bond because the defendant, Miguel Ernesto Daura Mijango, the legal representative of the Siman company, Intratext, allegedly was preparing to flee the country when he was arrested.

The money was swiftly deposited and the defendant was released. No questions were asked about where the cash had come from.

El Salvador has a representative government with a weak executive and an all-powerful legislature that controls the appointment of the attorney general and the supreme court as well as all judicial posts. This has led to a system of cronyism where the influential are rarely held to account for crimes but the poor are aggressively prosecuted and inhumanely imprisoned for even minor thefts.

In his TV appearance Thursday, President Bukele reminded viewers of what is known as F28, the date of national elections next February when his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) is expected to take control of the legislature and the majority of the 262 municipalities.

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