In the U.S we’ve heard a lot about whistle blowers and how they’re being dealt with. Heroes or traitors? Here is El Salvador’s version of the Edward Snowden affair.
Diagnosing El Salvador’s Snowden Syndrome
This is a story about El Salvador‘s Edward Snowdens, a group of police officers under investigation for leaking confidential documents, even as authorities refuse to investigate the head of the country’s powerful Texis Cartel.
Recently, journalists from two Salvadoran media outlets had access to a judicial proceeding for which the Attorney General had requested absolute confidentiality. The two outlets — El Diario de Hoy and Diario 1 — published details about the leaked case: criminal accusations against four police officers, former agents of the Police Intelligence Center (CIP) that Attorney General Luis Martinez accused of “disclosure of facts, actions, or secret documents by an official employee.”
This is a story of how the Attorney General chose to prosecute police who investigated members of the Texis Cartel, a Salvadoran drug trafficking organization, before prosecuting the head of this criminal group, businessman Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo.” For the policemen, the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has asked for prison sentences. For Chepe Diablo — who the Obama administration designated an international drug kingpin in 2014 — freedom and exoneration. Something similar happened with Edward Snowden, the former employee of the US National Security Agency who leaked information about that agency’s abuses. In that case, Washington initially decided to pursue him before those officials that were responsible for, among other things, spying on their fellow citizens.
This story was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission from Revista Factum. See the original Spanish version here.
Last August, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office rejected the idea of prosecuting Chepe Diablo for money laundering. “After performing an analysis of the available information in reference to the document 22-UIF-2015, the resolution was issued ordering the file to be closed…” reads a letter signed on August 24 by Tovias Armando Menjivar, head of the FGR’s Financial Investigation Unit.
Tovias and the FGR made the decision after asking Salvadoran financial institutions about Salazar Umaña, Wilfredo Guerra Umaña, and the business Gumarsal, who have all been linked to the Texis Cartel by journalistic investigations.
Eleven months before Tovias Menjivar signed the letter of exoneration, one of his subordinates, Mario Antonio Huezo Cortez, signed an order to open investigations into Salazar Umaña in order “to determine the existence of the crime of money laundering,” according to a document dated September 23, 2014 and annexed to the file 47-2014-1/EGU, which was opened by the Tenth Court of Instruction of San Salvador.
In that memo, prosecutor Huezo Cortez states the case of Salazar Umaña has “facts that infer the occurrence of activities related to money laundering.”
Moreover, in annexes to criminal proceeding 47-2014-1/EGU, in September 2014 prosecutors assure that, “thanks to the audits conducted, it was identified they moved via bank accounts or accounting records large amounts of money whose origins were unjustified. That is, we have capital from unknown sources… The explanations provided by the audited persons are illogical, for the unreasonable or unlawful purposes of the operations of those mentioned, which were distorted by tax authorities.” (In addition to Guerra Umaña and Gumarsal, the other person audited is the mayor of the municipality of Metapan, Juan Samayoa.)
Curiously, Huezo Cortez and the other prosecutors concluded there was sufficient merit to discuss money laundering charges “after reviewing” the financial accounts of Salazar Umaña. However, the conclusion reached by Tovias Menjivar, head of the UIF, after reviewing the same accounts a year later is that there are no signs of money laundering.
In July 2014, the US newspaper El Nuevo Herald published an investigation that cited “high level sources” from the Superintendent of the Salvadoran Financial System. It asserted Salazar Umaña had infiltrated this state institution to conceal his financial transactions through credit unions.
On September 17, 2015, six days before Huezo Cortez asked to definitively dismiss the money laundering case against “Chepe Diablo,” his boss, Attorney General Luis Martinez, replied evasively to questions from Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica about the Salazar Umaña case. Martinez hinted that it was an open case against Salazar Umaña for money laundering. Yet the UIF’s chief called for the dismissal of the investigation a few days after the attorney general’s conversation with the newspaper.
Factum magazine asked the attorney general’s press office for an interview with Tovias Menjivar to explain the decision. (See tweet below) There was no response.
This chronicle of double standards, misleading statements, and truncated investigations is, however, only part of this story. The Texis Cartel, Chepe Diablo, Attorney General Martinez and his prosecutors are also protagonists in another chapter. That chapter has to do with the police who opened the criminal prosecution against the drug trafficking organization.
The Investigation Begins
(The following paragraphs are adapted from a story written by the author in November 2012 about the first capture of Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, a member of the Texis Cartel, in February 2011.)
“Take care of the boy and sell everything we have,” the man said to his spouse via cell phone. It was the voice of a “scared” and “resigned” man, an agent assigned to the Police Intelligence Center told me on February 17, 2011. It was after 3:30pm on that day when Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias “El Burro,” grabbed the phone to alert his wife that he was under arrest, and that the police were taking digital fingerprints to confirm he was the same person wanted by the FBI for various crimes related to the theft of vehicles and their illegal sale in California and Texas.
The operation had begun in one of Herrera Hernandez’s houses in western El Salvador with a monitoring unit that had located the green Toyota pick-up truck with plates P235-804, property of El Burro, parked in front of a building with a white façade, red doors, and exposed brick. Four police intelligence agents were waiting around 50 meters from the building.
The operation lasted nearly the entire morning. The CIP agents detained El Burro in a side street near Zapotitan. They told him they had to bring him to the PNC laboratory to confirm his fingerprints.
Herrera Hernandez had been a fugitive from US law enforcement since June 19, 2003, when prosecutors in Texas accused him of heading a criminal group that moved stolen cars between Texas and California. In 2005, El Burro was convicted in absentia on eight charges of interstate automobile theft. According to one of the witnesses in this trial (criminal proceeding 4:03-cr-00230-1), Herrera was “the leader of the organization.” It was because of this arrest warrant issued by the court for the southern district of Texas on July 14, 2003 that the CIP detained El Burro in Zapotitan.
Just before 3:00pm on February 17, 2011, the CIP police received from US police a document with the fingerprints of the man the Texas court wanted. The prints were the same. But, in the end, the arrest warrant, according to US agents, was not legally valid. El Burro was free.
The brief capture was registered in at least two of the proceedings police intelligence have for Roberto Herrera Hernandez since 2008, when the director of the National Civil Police (PNC) was Commissioner Jose Luis Tobar Prieto.
Texis Cartel and Persecution (Against the Police)
On May 16, 2011, digital newspaper El Faro published a thorough investigation that cites three intelligence reports from high-level officials from the PNC and the administration of former President Mauricio Funes revealing the existence of the Texis Cartel, of which Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez and Jose Adan Salazar Umaña were alleged members.
While inaugurating a journalist forum organized by El Faro, Funes confirmed his administration investigated this drug trafficking structure in the northwest of the country, and that these and other drug traffickers had infiltrated the Salvadoran government.
In a report published in 2012, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said two important drug trafficking structures exist in El Salvador: the Texis Cartel in the northwest, and Los Perrones in the east. The report says both structures have state protection, echoing what Funes had said.
Various police chiefs, judges, congressmen, and lawyers are named in El Faro’s report. This includes Police Commissioners Douglas Omar Garcia Funes and Victor Rodriguez Peraza, and Congressman Reynaldo Cardoza (who was investigated for money laundering after a publication on the excessive growth of his assets). Other journalistic investigations have added more names, like Commissioner Hector Raymundo Mendoza Cordero and Congressman Cordero Rivera Wilver Monge, also arrested and currently on trial for laundering drug money.
Attorney General Luis Martinez ordered the arrest of Roberto Herrera for trafficking vehicles between El Salvador and Guatemala. But he never went after Chepe Diablo, the man that assistant prosecutors say they had sufficient evidence for money laundering. He is also the man the UN described as the leader of the Texis Cartel, and who the White House designated an international drug kingpin.
SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel News and Profile
Instead, Luis Martinez went after some of the officers involved in the 2011 operation, when the Salvadoran police first captured El Burro and began untangling the web of the Texis Cartel’s operations. These police officers were not accused of corruption, but leaking classified information.
On October 15, prior to the preliminary hearing against the police officers scheduled for the end of the month, El Diario de Hoy entitled an article: “Four Officers Tried for Manipulating Information,” even though the charge is for leaking documents.
Based on the testimonies of unidentified agents, the article states that the CIP wrote up a document that mentions Burro Herrera, Misael Cisneros (alias “Medio Million,” also linked to the Texis Cartel), and unidentified police chiefs.
The article — which has several sections citing the court documents that were supposed to be sealed — concludes: “Public security authorities have taken no punitive action against any of the four accused officers, although the prosecution has presented a range of evidence implicating them, sources consulted by El Diario de Hoy explained.”
That is to say, El Diario de Hoy wrote an article about police officers accused of leaking information — not manipulating, this crime does not exist — to an “electronic news outlet” that was not identified by name. And to create this article the newspaper relies on a document a judge had ordered sealed, implying it was leaked to journalists, and also quotes unidentified police sources. Similar articles appeared in La Pagina and Diario 1. But these publications said little to nothing about the legal accusations against the Texis Cartel.
The electronic media outlet that published the first and most comprehensive investigation into the Texis Cartel is El Faro. Revista Factum contacted Oscar Martinez, editor of El Faro’s Sala Negra section, when the text was published to discuss their research.
The article by El Diario de Hoy mentions El Faro without naming it, and by doing so questions the investigation into the Texis Cartel. I’m not interested in learning about your sources, just to hear your comments on the investigative process…
The investigation was a four-month process that involved three full-time reporters. This is not the first time a subject has given rise to a discussion about whether or not it was merely a leak by people within police intelligence. I think that interested parties often assess the text without reading it thoroughly. This text is based on three different reports, and I must say that not all come from the police. The first is from the year 2000, and the reports were produced during three different administrations and under five different police chiefs.
Apart from that there are active sources, including one linked to the police, that talk about how they protected shipments on orders from people whose names they do give. The investigation into the Texis Cartel was not just based on reports, although these were a cornerstone of the investigation. Following up, because several materials were published after, there are several actors speaking “on the record” regarding the publication, as former Interior Minister Rene Figueroa eventually did. It is an investigation that strongly demonstrates something that later convictions confirmed: the state has believed, for over 15 years, that a group exists which dominates the route called El Caminito to conduct various crimes, mostly related to drug trafficking and money laundering. They — and three administrations — have believed this, but have been unable to arrest those who are considered to be the leaders of this criminal group.
I’ll add something else. Journalists constantly receive leaks. Our job is to sort through them and try to determine what is true and what isn’t. That is what we did with the Texis Cartel.
What do you think of the case against the CIP policemen? To pursue investigators and not Chepe Diablo?
Regarding the proceedings against the police, which I’ve kept tabs on via the media, it seems to me some people within the police and Attorney General’s Office have an interest in conducting a witch hunt for those responsible for the leaks. To me this makes little sense. And I get the impression they did not put the same zeal into pursuing those the state has believed for over a decade are directing a criminal group that has managed to infiltrate the police at a very high level. As well as [infiltration in] the political realm, mainly in the western part of the country but also on a national level.
And what of news reports on the subject?
I do not quite understand what the indictment is, because the articles are very simple and do not explain what is happening. I understand that total discretion regarding the process is intended to impede the press from fully documenting what is happening in this case against the policemen, who they believe leaked some information. I suppose they refer to our investigation into the Texis Cartel, but I infer this because the articles do not say.
In July of last year, an official from the US Department of Justice that has closely followed the investigations into the Texis Cartel said: “There is still a lot of money he [Salazar Umaña] cannot justify. That is the most important [aspect of] this investigation.” Attorney General Luis Martinez does not think the same. For the attorney general, it is more important to investigate those who investigated the Texis Cartel: a kind of tropical Edward Snowden syndrome.
**Hector Silva Avalos is a Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the editor of Revista Factum, an online media outlet that focuses on El Salvador.