MIAMI – Allies of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, including his Cabinet chief, have been included in a list of senior officials in Central America deemed corrupt by the U.S. State Department, according to a copy of a report obtained by The Associated Press.
The emergence of the list of purportedly five corrupt officials is likely to heighten tensions with Bukele, who is facing intense pressure from the Biden administration over the removal of several Supreme Court justices and El Salvador’s attorney general. The U.S. has made strengthening democracy one of the pillars of its policy toward Central America, saying that rampant corruption is one of the root causes of illegal immigration.
A copy of the report, which was sent Monday to members of the U.S. Congress, was provided to The Associated Press by a Democrat staffer on the condition of anonymity because it has not been made public.
The list was originally included as a classified annex of a report sent to Congress in April in response to an appropriations request last year pushed by Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who chairs the Central America caucus. That larger list contained the names of 12 Honduran and Guatemalan politicians accused of corruption or believed to have ties to drug trafficking organizations.
The list of five Salvadoran officials deemed to have “engaged in significant acts of corruption” during their terms in offices was declassified May 4, according to the new report. Unlike the bulk of Guatemalans and Hondurans on the list, none of the Salvadorans have been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S. and their inclusion on the list would appear to have no immediate legal consequences.
It nonetheless is likely to further strain relations between the Biden administration and Bukele, who has shown no willingness to back away from his consolidation of power that has drawn condemnation from senior U.S. officials and lawmakers of both parties.
Bukele’s fledgling New Ideas party swept February legislative elections by a landslide, taking control of the unicameral congress and immediately voting this month to remove the corruption-fighting top prosecutor and several high court magistrates who had blocked the president’s agenda.
While Bukele remains wildly popular at home after decades of corrupt rule that followed the end of the country’s bloody civil war, his critics in the U.S. say that in 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,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Monday in a lengthy statement. “But the choices he and his allies in the Salvadoran Congress make, that are eviscerating El Salvador’s democratic civilian institutions and empowering the armed forces, have consequences for U.S.–Salvadoran relations.”
The most prominent official on the list is Bukele’s Cabinet chief, Carolina Recinos, who has worked alongside the president since his entry into politics as a small town mayor for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front created by leftist guerrillas following the end of the civil war. There were no details of Recinos’ alleged wrongdoing.
Also named is Rogelio Rivas, who last month was replaced as minister of security and justice. The State Department said Rivas allegedly awarded his own construction company several noncompetitive, unadvertised contracts to build police stations and other buildings that fell under his official capacity and then inflated the cost of materials.
Also included is lawmaker Guillermo Gallegos, a founder of the GANA party that broke with El Salvador’s bipartisan system to support Bukele’s presidential run in 2019.
Two former FMLN lawmakers — Sigfrido Reyes and Jose Luis Merino, the latter a former vice minister of foreign relations in the FMLN government that preceded Bukele’s administration — are also included. Fourteen members of the U.S. Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote letters to the State and Treasury departments in 2017 requesting that Merino be investigated and sanctioned for ties to regional criminal groups.
El Salvador's presidential office didn’t respond to a request for comment from Bukele and said Recinos was not available. Rivas didn’t respond to a request for comment and it was impossible to locate Merino.
Bukele, who has accused the U.S. of heavy handedness, used irony to dismiss the report, a copy of which circulated earlier Monday on social media. He said he was shocked that El Salvador's “friends” after checking their archives could not find a single instance of corruption inside the conservative ARENA party — a favorite target of his.
“Maybe they think they are all saints,” he wrote on Twitter. “That’s why they insist we return them to power.”
Reyes, an opponent of Bukele who has sought exile in Mexico after being criminally charged in El Salvador for corruption from his time in the legislature, called the accusations “baseless and ridiculous.”
The State Department “frequently lies to the world to meet its objectives. 18 years ago they swore that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They are still searching for them!” he said on Twitter.
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the non-public report but said that fighting corruption is at the center of the Biden administration’s approach to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America since corruption inhibits democratic governances, undermines security and stifles economic growth.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman
Associated Press writer Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, El Salvador, contributed to this report.