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El Salvador’s Most Wanted: Ex-President Francisco Flores Accused Of Corruption

June 26, 2014

El Salvador’s upcoming leadership change is being overshadowed by an unfolding corruption case involving one of the nation’s previous presidents, Francisco Flores (1999-2004), who has been “missing” since late January.

Percolating since last October, the Flores corruption scandal took a show-stopping turn on May 6 when a judge in San Salvador issued a warrant for the ex-president’s arrest. The judge, Marta Rosales, also ordered the seizure of Flores’ assets, which reportedly include several residences, automobiles and boats.

Rosales made the decision just days after the Fiscalía General de la República (FGR), El Salvador’s attorney general’s office, filed criminal charges against Flores for embezzlement and illicit enrichment involving roughly US$15 million donated during his presidency by the government in Taiwan.

Prosecutors also charged Flores with disobedience based on his failure to appear before an Asamblea Legislativa (AL) panel investigating the corruption claims. The AL is El Salvador’s unicameral legislature. The former president met twice with the panel – on Jan. 7 and again on Jan. 28 – but was a no-show on Jan. 29, when the inquiry was scheduled to continue. The next day police went to Flores’ San Salvador home to retrieve him but found the residence empty. The ex-president has not been seen in public since.

Rumor now has it that Flores is hiding out in nearby Panama. Earlier this month, Panamanian opposition leader Mitchell Doens of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) told La Estrella de Panama that Flores had been spotted on a yacht owned by former Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004). Doens went on to suggest that Moscoso may be conspiring with Panama’s current president, Ricardo Martinelli, to grant Flores political asylum.

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes responded to the media reports by calling on Martinelli to “think it through.” Funes reminded his Panamanian counterpart that Flores is being pursued not for political reasons, as some on the right have suggested, but because of alleged “crimes he committed while he was president of the Republic.”

Funes and Martinelli are both at the tail ends of their respective terms in office. Funes, of the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), steps down June 1. He will be replaced by Salvador Sánchez Cerén, also of the FMLN, who narrowly won a March runoff against opposition challenger Norman Quijano of the far-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party (NotiCen, March 20, 2014). Sánchez Cerén, a guerilla commander during El Salvador’s dozen-year civil war (1980-1992), served as Funes’ vice president and education minister.

Martinelli, who leaves office on July 1, will be succeeded by his vice president as well. The Panamanian president-elect, Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez, finished ahead of Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias – Martinelli’s preferred candidate – in a seven-person contest held May 3.

Private plane to Panama?

The case against Flores now moves to what is known as the “instruction” phase, during which prosecutors will have an opportunity to continue their investigation and collect further evidence of wrongdoing. A judge will then determine whether or not to send the case to trial. The process is expected to take several months.

In the meantime, authorities will have to locate the missing ex-president and – assuming he has left El Salvador – negotiate his return. Panama has no record of Flores entering the country, at least legally. Panama’s foreign minister says there is no indication the fugitive is seeking political asylum there. And Mireya Moscoso, the former Panamanian leader on whose yacht Flores was supposedly seen, refutes claims that she is harboring him. She did tell reporters, however, that Flores is “a personal friend” and that she “would be glad to help him” in any way she could.

Authorities in El Salvador, nevertheless, seem fairly convinced Flores did made the trip south into Panama. Justice and Public Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo suspects the ex-president traveled either by boat or by private plane, and without passing through either Salvadoran or Panamanian immigration controls. Sigfrido Reyes, the president of the AL, subscribes to the Panama theory as well. “[Flores] has been in that country for several weeks,” Reyes, a deputy with the FMLN, explained in a May 1 press conference. “He’s being protected by an ex-president of that country.”

Some observers question whether Flores is also being protected in subtle ways by the very institution responsible for the charges against him, the FGR, whose head, Attorney General Luis Martínez, had a close working relationship with the ex-president for years. The online news portal El Faro published a story in February noting numerous instances when Flores – or members of his family – contracted Martínez (an attorney and notary) to help process various business deals. Martínez also worked for a time with the ex-president’s wife, Lourdes Rodríguez de Flores, with whom he co-administered a furniture and fabric company.

“We’re concerned that the FGR delayed the investigation [of Flores] on purpose. There is journalistic evidence indicating that the attorney general has conflicts of interest in this case,” Ramón Villalta, spokesperson for a non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Iniciativa Social para la Democracia (ISD), told reporters May 6. The ISD and another NGO called the Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho (FESPAD) plan to file a complementary suit against Flores once the instruction phase has officially begun.

“Democratic conquest”

President Funes and his allies are hailing the recent developments as a long overdue challenge to the impunity corrupt politicians traditionally enjoy in El Salvador. Thanks to an amnesty law pushed through by former President Alfredo Christiani (1989-1994) – who gave Flores his political start – impunity has also been the rule of thumb regarding human rights cases. “For me, that fact that this case is now going through legal channels is a democratic conquest without precedent,” said Funes.

The outgoing president has played a leading role in the corruption saga throughout, starting last October, when he revealed the existence of sensitive US Treasury Department documents apparently linking Flores to the missing millions from Taiwan. “I have knowledge, from reliable sources, of the request from the US IRS for an investigation into the crime of tax fraud, or tax evasion, and probable money laundering, and that it involves known former officials of previous governments and a former President of the Republic,” Funes said Oct. 5 during his weekly radio show.

Critics on the right accused the president of engaging in dirty politics. At the time, El Salvador was in the midst of a tight presidential race in which Flores – Norman Quijano’s campaign manager – played an important role. Quijano finished second in two rounds of voting, losing the runoff by fewer than 7,000 votes.

The accusations eventually cost Flores his campaign job. They also prompted the AL to form a special committee to investigate the matter. Flores made two appearances before the legislature’s investigative panel before going on the lam. During his first appearance, on Jan. 7, the ex-president admitted he had received various checks from Taiwan (totaling millions of dollars) but insisted that the money – which was given as donations for earthquake relief and crime fighting – was used as intended. “I would like to say that I have never deposited a check from Taiwan’s government in any account; that is key for me, to make clear that I have never deposited a check from Taiwan’s government in any account,” he said.

The AL committee followed up by questioning the various government officials to whom Flores should have given those funds. The officials claimed no knowledge of the money in question. In a follow up hearing on Jan. 28, panel members asked Flores to explain the discrepancies between his testimony and the information provided by his subordinates. The ex-president balked, refusing to ratify his earlier claims and dismissing the AN panel as “illegal and unconstitutional.”

“The committee, besides being illegal, is trying to conduct a political trial and attack me because I’m part of the campaign team of Norman Quijano,” Flores said at one point. “This is a completely undemocratic exercise.”

(This article originally appeared May 15, 2014 in LADB)

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