14 Jul 2021 – 12:35 a. m.
The US government released the first Engel List, singling out 55 officials or former officials from the Northern Triangle countries for acts of “significant corruption”, obstruction of justice or for undermining democracy. But among the people included are not such obvious characters as the presidents of El Salvador or Honduras.
On July 1, the US government released the first Engel List, pointing to 55 officials or former officials from the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle – El Salvador (14), Honduras (21) and Guatemala (20) – for acts of “corruption significant ”, obstruction of Justice or undermining democracy. However, among the people included – who will be sanctioned, among other measures, with the immediate cancellation of their visas and the freezing of their assets in the United States – there are not such obvious characters as the presidents of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, or Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández.
The goal of the Biden administration
The Biden administration, which inaugurated the list created from an Act of Congress approved in 2020, attributes to corruption in the Central American Northern Triangle much of the conditions that motivate irregular migration to the United States, which for some years has caused a crisis recurring humanitarian aid. According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, “Corruption undermines democracy and public trust. Better governance means a better future ”.
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In all three countries there were praises and criticisms of this first list that must be updated every six months. On the one hand, it is considered to be a first step to start “cleaning the house”, something for which the assistance of a foreign country should not be needed, which only highlights the impunity and complicity of the courts in the three countries. But on the other hand, it has been criticized because it leaves out numerous renowned corrupt.
Washington’s fear of losing influence
The omissions of senior Honduran officials in the list are due, according to lawyer and political analyst Raúl Pineda, in statements to the newspaper El Libertador, to Washington’s fear of losing influence in the region. According to Pineda, the most important thing for the United States is to maintain a relationship with the last two countries that are still loyal to it: Honduras and Guatemala, even if it means supporting impunity.
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No high-level official close to President Juan Orlando Hernández appears on the list, nor have personalities from the business community, the Catholic and Evangelical churches, the military or NGOs been included, despite the fact that the State Department had announced the inclusion of people related to these sectors. In fact, not a single person from the president’s environment is included, despite the numerous accusations against some of them, and Hernández himself, for drug trafficking, a crime for which his own brother is on trial in the United States.
Absences in Guatemala
In Guatemala the absences are also notorious. In corruption structures there are two lines of participation: those who accepted bribes and high-level businessmen who bribe. Of the latter, not one has been included in the list. Among the large companies identified for corruption are Claro and Tigo, as well as Aceros de Guatemala. About them and their partners, no one has acted. The companies simply changed the legal representatives and moved on. Its shareholders have not even been mentioned.
The Engel List also includes in Guatemala the congressman Boris Roberto España Cáceres, the former first secretary of the National Congress, Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, the former chief of staff of President Álvaro Colom (2008-2012), Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cámbara and the former presidential candidate , sentenced by a New York court to 15 years in prison, Mario Amílcar Estrada.
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But the most striking characters are Nester Vásquez, recently sworn in as a magistrate of the Constitutional Court, an institution that is above the Supreme Court of Justice and is fundamental to solve constitutional and political issues, and Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, member of the very questioned Fundación Contra el Terrorismo, which according to the list is pointed out for “obstructing criminal proceedings against former military officials who had committed acts of violence, harassment or intimidation against those who investigate acts of corruption in the governmental and non-governmental sectors.”
The case of El Salvador
In El Salvador, unlike the first two countries, the list, while obviously not including the president despite his abuses of democracy, does include people around him. One of the most relevant accusations is that of the Chief of Staff, Carolina Recinos, for having incurred in “significant corruption through the embezzlement of public funds for personal gain” and for participating in an asset laundering scheme.
Another of those cited from Bukele’s environment is his current legal adviser, Conan Castro, for undermining “democratic processes or institutions by collaborating in the inappropriate removal of five Supreme Court magistrates and the attorney general.” While the current Deputy Minister of Security and director of Penal Centers, Osiris Luna, is singled out for “important acts of corruption related to government contracts and bribes.”
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The Salvadoran list, the shortest of the three, also includes the current Supreme Electoral Court magistrate, Luis Wellman, accused of altering results “for his personal benefit” and “allowing the evil influence of China during the Salvadoran elections.” These accusations show that the White House intends to surround – without drowning – President Bukele, the only wayward of the three leaders of the Northern Triangle, and that it takes advantage of any situation, however ridiculous it may seem, to further its own geopolitical interests.
In conclusion, the main aspect of the Engel List to be highlighted is the notorious omissions in the three countries, especially in the cases of Guatemala and Honduras. We will have to wait for the second list, in six months, to see if the Biden administration is serious when it comes to fighting corruption and defending democracy or if it will continue to use the List as a tool to condition eventual insubordinations.
Dardo Justino Rodríguez is an analyst, communicator and independent consultant for international organizations and agencies. National Director of Presagio Consulting Honduras.