Venezuelan Opposition Figure Served as Bukele’s Anti-Corruption Advisor
A Venezuelan opposition lawyer tasked by Juan Guaidó with tracking down wealth that fled the country during the Chávez regime worked for El Salvador’s Casa Presidencial for over a year as an anti-corruption commissioner. According to multiple sources consulted by El Faro, the advisor eventually quit his position with the Bukele administration over disagreements concerning the direction of the government.
El Salvador’s Casa Presidencial appointed an anti-corruption advisor who worked for approximately one year as a liaison between the Bukele administration and government oversight agencies such as the Court of Accounts (CCR) and the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The advisor, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, was part of a group of Venezuelan opposition activists working on behalf of the Bukele government and El Salvador’s ruling party, Nuevas Ideas.
Neither Gutiérrez’s appointment, his departure, nor the outcome of his work have been made public, despite the fact that hiring Gutiérrez is the closest Bukele has come to fulfilling his promise of appointing an anti-corruption commissioner from the opposition. The only “opposition” Gutiérrez has been involved in, though, is the Velezuelan one, and the Bukele administration has treated his presence in El Salvador as a government secret.
On March 31, Gutiérrez confirmed to El Faro via a message on Linkedin that he had worked for the Salvadoran government, providing “consulting on anti-corruption and anti-impunity policy for the Casa Presidencial.” Gutiérrez said that among his various functions was “issuing multiple recommendations on issues of transparency and the implementation of international anti-corruption agreements.”
On April 8, Gutiérrez wrote another message clarifying his relationship with the Salvadoran government, in a statement that contradicts the way he has been presented at international events. “I was never [El Salvador’s] presidential anti-corruption commissioner,” he wrote. “There was no such designation. I am also the legal representative for President Guaidó and his family in cases involving international human rights bodies.” The clarification was prompted by the fact that on February 17, 2020, Gutiérrez conducted a seminar at Carlos III University in Madrid, entitled “Seminar on International Instruments to Combat Corruption.” A public announcement for the event published on the university’s website presented Gutiérrez as “El Salvador’s Presidential Anti-Corruption Commissioner.” Gutiérrez admits that he worked with the Bukele government on anti-corruption and transparency issues, and that he participated in the creation of the CICIES, but he shuns the term “commissioner.”
Gutiérrez says the way his position with the Salvadoran government was presented in Madrid was a mistake: “It was an error in the announcement of the presentation, and by that time I was also no longer working as a consultant for the Venezuelan chapter of Transparency International. Neither inaccuracy is the fault of Carlos III University.” On April 9, in response to questions regarding the way Gutiérrez’s position was presented in Madrid, the university said that he had been invited as an expert lawyer: “Common practice is that when inviting a person from outside the university, a résumé or curriculum vitae is requested. I expect Dr. Gutiérrez would have included any such reference on his CV or résumé.”
In the Court of Accounts, among civil society, and at the CICIES, Gutiérrez was known as a consultant charged with the duties of an anti-corruption commissioner, according to officials from each of these institutions who spoke with El Faro.
One of Nayib Bukele’s key campaign promises was to appoint a commissioner tasked with fighting corruption and impunity. “We’re going to create a CICIES and I will appoint an anti-corruption and anti-impunity commissioner from the opposition,” Bukele said on January 13, 2019 during a presentation for the launch of his campaign platform, “Plan Cuscatlán.” Gutiérrez would help Bukele realize both of these promises.
On September 6, 2019, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Office of the President announced the official launch of the CICIES as well as the creation of the special unit within the National Civil Police (PNC), tasked with combating corruption. “The CICIES shall establish relationships with Executive Branch agencies such as the National Civil Police, which will house a new Special Anti-Corruption Unit, which will be linked to the CICIES,” the OAS statement reads.
“I participated in the efforts to create both the CICIES and an anti-corruption investigative division within the National Civil Police, without intervening in their operations,” Gutiérrez said. “For ethical and legal reasons, of which you are aware, I cannot provide more information.”
Sources consulted by El Faro maintain that Gutiérrez’s departure took place between March and April 2020, after the Salvadoran Army’s occupation of the Legislative Assembly on February 9, and one month after the Executive would make its first multi-million dollar purchases under the special budget created to address the pandemic-related purchases plagued by irregularities that began to come to light in July. An individual who worked with Gutiérrez and spoke with him on several occasions claims that in May of 2020, Gutiérrez had decided to quit his position as consultant over “disagreements concerning the direction of the government.” Gutiérrez did not respond to El Faro’s April 8 inquiry into whether the disagreements with the Bukele administration had to do with the lack of transparency in the management of Covid-19 funds, despite the fact that El Faro’s question was part of an ongoing, back-and-forth text message exchange with Gutiérrez.
Gutiérrez was part of a group of Venezuelans with close ties to the Bukele administration. El Faro consulted several sources with various connections to the government, who maintain that there are two groups of Venezuelan advisors working for Bukele: one political, one technical. The political group is led by Lester Toledo and Sarah Hanna—members of the Venezuelan opposition party Voluntad Popular who work closely with El Salvador’s ruling party, Nuevas Ideas, and who have been advising the Bukele brothers since Nayib Bukele’s presidential campaign. The second is a group of technical experts who serve as advisors to the cabinet, and who were appointed at the recommendation of Sarah Hanna.
In February 2020, the Carlos III University in Madrid announced that “El Salvador’s presidential anti-corruption commissioner” would lead a seminar on “instruments for combating corruption.” Photo courtesy of Carlos III University.
The Anonymous Advisor
Between June 1, 2019 and the next May, Gutiérrez had an office in the Casa Presidencial and an official Salvadoran government email account. Among civil society organizations and within the CICIES and the CCR, Gutiérrez was known as the president’s anti-corruption advisor, though never personally presented himself as such.
The first photographs of Gutiérrez participating in an official government activity are from December 19, 2019, when Gutiérrez and Casa Presidencial legal counsel José Ángel Pérez participated in a meeting with CICIES commissioner Ronalth Ochaeta. “We are continuing to work with the Casa Presidencial in establishing the CICIES and other instruments necessary for efficient cooperation in El Salvador,” reads an OAS/CICIES statement published on Twitter.
Gutiérrez has worked closely with Ochaeta since the signing of the CICIES Framework Agreement on November 26, 2019. In this agreement between the government of El Salvador and the OAS, both parties committed to delegating a team to coordinate the creation of the CICIES.
The OAS appointed Luis Porto as Strategic Advisor, Francisco Guerrero as Secretary for the Strengthening of Democracy, and Ronalth Ochaeta as CICIES Commissioner. The government appointed Alexandra Hill as Foreign Minister, Conan Castro as Legal Secretary, and Juan Carlos Gutiérrez as “advisor to the Office of the President.”
On March 6, 2020, Gutiérrez participated in a meeting between Ochaeta and Court of Accounts magistrates Carmen Elena Rivas, Roberto Anzora, and Carmen Martínez. The purpose of the meeting, according to the CICIES, was “to establish joint cooperation in the fight against corruption.” Ochaeta introduced Gutiérrez to the group as “the anti-corruption advisor to the Casa Presidencial.”
On March 26, El Faro asked Anzora what the Venezuelan’s role was, but at the time of publication had yet to receive a response. A source from the CCR familiar with the details of the meeting would only say that this was the first time Gutiérrez visited the court’s offices, and that he had been told that the Venzuelan was working with Ochaeta. The CCR’s website described the purpose of Ochaeta and Gutiérrez’s visit as a meeting to present “the commission’s strategic vision” and “projects to improve government auditing, transparency, and anti-corruption efforts,” and to discuss details of an agreement for “technical cooperation and joint training and development.”
At the beginning of 2020, a leader of a civil society organization, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of government reprisal, told El Faro that he had been in communication with Gutiérrez, who “presented himself as the person in charge of transparency and anti-corruption issues for the Executive.” The source said that CICIES personnel had explained to him that those were the roles Gutiérrez performed for the Casa Presidencial.
On April 1, 2020, Gutiérrez was also present at another meeting, at the International Fairs and Convention Center (CIFCO), with the “Covid-19 funding oversight team.” Also present at the meeting were: Salvadoran Minister of Public Works, Romeo Herrera; then-director of the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS), Rosa Delmy Cañas Zacarías; Minister of Health, Francisco Alabí; and then-president of the CCR, Carmen Elena Rivas. Commissioner Ochaeta facilitated the meeting.
It was during the weeks surrounding this April 1 meeting that Gutiérrez left his position with the Casa Presidencial over disagreements concerning the handling of the pandemic, according to El Faro’s sources.
Between March 27 and April 31, 2020, the Salvadoran Ministry of Health used $31 million from the special pandemic response budget to purchase medical supplies and personal protective equipment. $20 million of these purchases are currently under investigation for corruption by the Office of the Attorney General.
Audits of the resource management practices at the Ministries of Tourism, Public Works, the Economy, and Agriculture, underwent review by the Court of Accounts for irregularities: overpriced purchases, services paid without justification, purchases made from unqualified or inexperienced companies, or companies linked to public officials.
Gutiérrez maintains close ties with conservative circles in Venezuela and Spain. He served as the defense attorney for Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López, exiled in Madrid since October, 2020. On March 22, 2019, the Spanish news outlet Expansión reported that Juan Guaidó had named Gutiérrez as his legal representative so that, on behalf of the interim government, Gutiérrez could coordinate with Spanish law firm Cremadas, Calvo & Sotelo—where he is also a partner—to track down wealth that left Venezuela during the administrations of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro, and to recuperate Venezuelan assets from the European Union.
Gutiérrez is not the only Venezuelan opposition figure with close ties to Leopoldo López and Juan Guaidó, and who also has contacts at the highest levels of the Salvadoran government and at the OAS. The “senior campaign manager” for Nuevas Ideas, Lester Toledo, has publicly declared that he is friends with Luis Almargo and that he forged his political career alongside David Smolansky, an opposition leader with Voluntad Popular. In Venezuela, Smolansky served as mayor of El Hatillo and was promoted by Almargo to serve as OAS commissioner for Venezuelan migrants and refugees. In February, 2019, Toledo, Smolansky, and Amargo were in Cúcuta, on the Colombia-Venezuela border, supporting Guaidó at the Venezuela Aid Live benefit concert.
In July, 2020, Almargo downplayed criticism of Bukele’s military occupation of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly. “We shouldn’t invent dictatorships where there aren’t any,” he said. He then went on to criticize those who would suggest using the Democratic Charter of the OAS to address government abuses in the context of the pandemic: “There are certain voices that are perpetually hysterical about this, but frankly we just don’t share their view.”
*Translated by Max Granger
FI name: April 2021