El Salvador / Corruption

Minister of Justice Fired for Using Public Funds to Prepare Presidential Bid

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Friday, April 23, 2021
Efren Lemus y Roxana Lazo

Eduardo Rogelio Rivas Polanco, who, as Minister of Justice and Public Security, oversaw a historic reduction in homicides, was removed from his position at the end of March. The reason for his ousting, according to state intelligence, was that he was building a political plan to become the Nueva Ideas (NI) party’s presidential candidate for the 2024 elections. Rivas’s aspiration ended with his dismissal because the Casa Presidencial (Capres) received official reports from the State Intelligence Agency attesting that Rivas used public resources for that purpose, and especially because he did not have approval from President Nayib Bukele, or any of the leader’s family members who make such decisions.

On January 11, 2021, the OIE delivered a document to Capres that started with the following warning: “A situation has been developing that, if made known to the public, could have a serious impact on President Bukele’s government, not only because of the use and purpose of public funds.” The 19-page report, entitled “Analysis of the situation recorded in the Ministry of Justice and Security,” which requests “top secrecy” because it described private details about that state agency, was prepared by an employee who Rivas fired from the Ministry but who ended up working for the OIE.

Rogelio Rivas, Minister of Justice and Security, during a debriefing of his first year in office, which took place on July 23, 2020 in the Legislative Assembly’s Salon Azul [Blue Room]. Photo: Victor Peña/El Faro
Rogelio Rivas, Minister of Justice and Security, during a debriefing of his first year in office, which took place on July 23, 2020 in the Legislative Assembly’s Salon Azul [Blue Room]. Photo: Victor Peña/El Faro

El Faro obtained a copy of that report from an OIE agent on March 9, 2021, two weeks before Rivas was dismissed. In the days that followed, this newspaper confirmed that the report coincides with other documents obtained later: bids for public contracts, employment records, memoranda, and even electricity bills. In addition, El Faro separately interviewed three high-level sources with access to information from Capres. The testimonies confirm and complement each other in detailing the dismissal: Rivas had political aspirations that he did not discuss with the Bukele clan. That report, the sources say, reached Karim and Ibrajim Bukele, the president’s brothers and advisors, and it was one of the main elements that the government used to remove Rivas on the evening of March 26, 2021.

El Faro decided not to publish images from the report, because it contains the names of several public employees and companies that this newsroom continues to investigate. 

The OIE document affirms that Rivas changed the institution’s organizational chart four times to create directorates and hire trusted personnel to guarantee him the diversion of funds to an account called the “Presidential Fund Configuration” to finance his eventual campaign. “He has designed a mechanism for capturing resources (…). The configuration of said fund would be used in his campaign as the NI presidential candidate, since he considers himself to be the ideal candidate for the party to nominate for that position,” it reads. At the end of the evening of April 16, 2021, via telephone call, El Faro requested an interview with ex-minister Rivas to get his version. These were his brief responses.    

--I’m calling because I need an interview with you.

--No, man. I’m out of public office now. 

--I’d like to show you some documents.

--Oh, God, man. If we meet I’ll kick your ass. No! What for?

--Let me clarify that I didn’t prepare those documents. They’re official documents.

--Well, I don’t care anymore.

--I'm calling you because next week we're going to publish a report about your departure from the Ministry.

--Publish whatever you want. I’m no longer a public official, and like any other citizen, if I feel offended, I will sue you, you bastard, you can be sure of that.

--You have every right to sue. I’m only calling you because of your right of reply.

--Fine. OK. Bye!

According to the OIE report, the funds transferred to the account for an eventual Rivas campaign came mainly from governmental appropriations intended for the construction of infrastructure and purchases made during the pandemic. El Faro documented the existence of that account, “Presidential Fund Configuration,” through the Ministry of Finance. In 2020, that state agency began an audit of the Ministry of Security’s finances, and one of the things it found was the account. Paradoxically, the audit was requested by ex-Minister Rivas.

A former high-level Government official confirmed that “Rogelio asked the Treasury to audit the Ministry because he said there were many crooked things in the Ministry.” However, the former official saw no sense in the request. “The investigation that he requested was done and we were surprised to find that he was part of a fund. If my memory serves, that fund was started in November 2019,” the source explained.

According to the intelligence report, two moves made it possible for the money to reach the “Presidential Fund Configuration” account. First, former Minister Rivas centralized the budget management of two important agencies, the National Civil Police and the General Directorate of Migration and Foreigners. Second, Rivas placed people related to his past work in directorates key to implementing the budget and acquisitions: his former boss, businessman Rudel Jesús Antonio Franco Duarte, and former employees of the Salvadoran Institute of Municipal Development (ISDEM), an institution over which Rivas presided at the request of the then-mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, from 2015 to 2018.

The OIE also informed the administration that former Minister Rivas used institutional equipment to set up a “troll center” in San Salvador’s San Francisco neighborhood. A “troll center” refers to a team responsible for creating and operating fake accounts to applaud or attack people on the internet. According to the OIE report, this troll center was managed by Herbert Alexander Lobato Elias, one of Rivas’s advisors and a representative of the Diario La Huella newspaper, a company hired by the Casa Presidencial to promote the Territorial Control Plan. Setting up the troll center was part of the plan to bolster Minister Rivas’s image on social networks as a prelude to his run for the candidacy.

The first contact with the OIE agent who filtered the report occurred on March 9, 2021, a day after this newspaper published that Rivas failed to pay taxes for eight years. The source wrote the following message on an electronic messaging app: “There’s more dirty laundry.” The OIE agent was referring to the former minister’s intentions to run as a candidate in the 2024 elections as well as the misuse of public funds. The source noted that the former ministry employee who produced the report “spent a lot of time complaining that Rogelio was using public resources for his future campaign, but nobody listened to him, until he decided to gather all he could. He prepared the report and delivered it to one of the [Bukele] brothers. From there, they paid attention and began to find out more and build the case.”

A government official, who spoke with El Faro on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job, concurs that this was the reason for Rivas’s removal: “They fired him because he thought he had everything to be the next presidential candidate.” The source explained that Rivas had the historic reduction in homicides in his favor, something he tried to leverage for his political purposes. Moreover, the source confirmed that, since November 2020, part of the cabinet knew that Rivas used ministry agencies to promote Nuevas Ideas candidates for mayor and representative in past elections, to gain clout within the party in the near future. “That ministry gives you a lot of power and can make you sick in the head. It’s like having a mini-government within a government,” the source said.

The Minister Expelled from Olympus

In June 2019,  when Rivas was sworn in as minister, he did not have any experience in matters of public security. He had worked as an engineer for construction manager Rudel Franco’s companies and had experience in municipal matters. Why did President Bukele appoint the civil engineer to contend with the chronic problems about which Salvadorans complain, such as the gangs, homicides, and extortion? Part of the answer goes back to 2013. “When he was still governor of San Salvador, he was summoned by Peter Dumas to a meeting with Nayib. They summoned him and he came quickly, hit it off with Nayib’s people, with the cousin and with Karim (Bukele’s brother), who are pretty slick. Rogelio had a Mazda 3, and we would go to the meetings there in Nuevo Cuscatlán, with Brozo Sanabria (a nickname referencing the online alterego of Ernesto Sanabria, Casa Presidencial’s press secretary), Karim, Peter Dumas, and that whole gang,” recounts a person who worked closely with Rivas at ISDEM and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

In 2015, when Bukele left the Nuevo Cuscatlán Mayor’s Office, Rivas was one of the people who accompanied him on his rise to power. That year, when Bukele was mayor of San Salvador, Rivas was hired as the mayor’s advisor and director of ISDEM, an institution where he clashed with FMLN leaders, who accused him of using his position to promote his image. In 2019, when Bukele took the reins of national government, Rivas was appointed as Minister of Justice and Security, a position he held for 21 months.

Rogelio Rivas, Minister of Justice and Security, next to Nayib Bukele, during a Security Cabinet press conference on July 15, 2019. Photo by El Faro: Victor Peña.
Rogelio Rivas, Minister of Justice and Security, next to Nayib Bukele, during a Security Cabinet press conference on July 15, 2019. Photo by El Faro: Victor Peña.

During his administration, the former minister hired his old boss, construction manager Rudel Franco, as “infrastructure advisor.” The report says that Franco did not sign any documents, but he had control of the bid selection committees at the Institutional Procurement and Contracting Department (DACI). “He adapts the criteria for awarding public contracts so that the companies that are part of the mechanism are the ones that win. He also modifies the budget structures to let said companies participate. For example, in the remodeling of the (Police) stations and sub-delegations he incorporated the category of supervision or creation of portfolios, when that was not appropriate.” El Faro called Rivas Franco Consultants but was unable to contact the former ministry advisor mentioned in the report.

Other important staff positions were given to former ISDEM employees: Juan Henríquez, ISDEM’s former manager, was appointed director of the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA); Silvia Leticia Portillo, former head of ISDEM’s Institutional Procurement and Contracting Unit (UACI), was hired as director of DACI; Luis Alberto Saravia Ramírez, former head of ISDEM’s treasury, was hired as Finance Director, while William Arévalo, a confidant of the former minister, was hired as the Ministry of Security’s Director of Logistics.   

According to the Intelligence report that led to Rivas’s firing, the trusted employees were necessary for speeding up or hindering bids, consulting contracts, and payments for the provision of goods and services. They were trusted employees and therefore never questioned that computers, cell phones, and funds were allocated for the troll center’s operation.

Since the end of 2020, Rivas’s management had become a thorn in the administration’s side. Bukele’s inner circle had details about Rivas’s political intentions, but any cabinet change would have been politically damaging in the face of the February 2021 municipal and legislative elections, in which the Nuevas Ideas party participated for the first time and won majorities in the Legislative Assembly and mayorships. “Olympus had him in their sights, but since his (ex-Minister Rivas) popularity was high and the issue of security was working, they did not want to risk it, so they waited until after the election to make changes,” the OIE agent relates.

On March 26, 2021, scarcely a month after Nueva Ideas’s overwhelming victory in the elections, President Bukele swore in Gustavo Villatoro, a former prosecutor and official in Antonio Saca’s administration (2004-2009), as the new Minister of Justice and Security. The president did not explain the reason for the change and limited himself to saying, in a surprise press conference, that his administration was seeking “a new vision” in the battle against crime. 

Rivas’s dismissal — and Villatoro’s appointment — occurred at 6 p.m. on March 26, 2021, the last working Friday before Easter vacation, when the flow of information and debate in the country diminishes significantly. Upon returning from Holy Week, Salvadorans had a new minister of Security, but questions about why this change occurred were already a thing of the past. A second cabinet change occurred on April 7, 2021. That day, President Bukele swore David Martínez in as the new minister of agriculture to replace Pablo Anlíker, the official the Court of Accounts is questioning for anomalies in the purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of food from Mexican companies during the pandemic. 

A shadow of corruption pursues both former ministers. Nevertheless, for the moment, Anlíker has emerged on better footing, because he was appointed vice minister of agriculture, a position that allows him to maintain the immunity that shields him from possible charges by the Attorney General’s Office, while Rivas, sources say, has been expelled from government altogether. Former Minister Rivas says it in his own way: “I am out of public office.” One can infer that there is something that seems unforgivable in the Bukele circle of trust: attempting to gain power without the Bukele clan’s approval. One of the sources consulted for this report said it more plainly: “scheming (hidden strategies) behind the back of Olympus.”

Rivas’s Troll Center

On October 14, 2016, Herbert Alexander Lobato Elías, then-chief of communications at the Ministry of Labor under the FMLN Government of Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019), founded Diario La Huella, a company devoted to generating advertising revenue, spreading information, and “orienting public opinion,” among other things. Although this company’s founder was employed full-time at the Ministry of Labor, in 2017 he also worked for ISDEM, which was directed by Rivas.  

“Rogelio has always liked when the press speaks well of him, and Lobato would come to cover stories and interview him,” says a person who worked closely with Rivas at ISDEM and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. On February 16, 2017, ISDEM hired Lobato to conduct “specialized training on managing social networks as a fundamental tool for the communication of ISDEM employees,” according to free management contract 24/2017, for the amount of $2,000.

In 2019, Rivas hired Lobato at the Ministry of Security. Then, Lobato and his company had double income from the security issue. On July 18, 2019, the President’s Office paid Diario La Huella 2,260 dollars for a free management contract for the “service of Territorial Control Plan Phase 2 guidelines in digital newspapers.” Four days later, on July 22, 2019, Lobato left for Washington to participate in the sixth meeting of ministers and secretaries from Central America’s Northern Triangle and the US Department of Homeland Security. According to the Transparency web portal, he participated in his capacity as “director,” but the portal does not specify which area.

On August 30, 2019, Lobato’s company also won a $1,000 contract with the Social Fund for Housing (FSV) for web advertisements as well as publications on social networks to publicize the results of the first 100 days of the (Bukele) administration.” The following year, in April 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) paid Diario La Huella another $6,000 for advertising.

The report says that Lobato was hired in 2019 to direct the communications unit but he was fired. Months later, without specifying the date, he was rehired to “form the office that operates outside the ministry.” That office, located on Durazno Street in the San Francisco neighborhood, was a troll center working to boost former Minister Rivas’s image, functioning independently from the ministry’s Communications Directorate.   

In September 2020, the use of in-house electricity in the San Francisco neighborhood amounted to $599.99 dollars, a bill paid with public funds. El Faro has a copy of that receipt. The OIE report explains how the disbursements were made: “The director of logistics (William Arévalo) is the person who is trusted to provide resources to the minister’s troll office and is in charge of the circulating fund with which he not only pays for the troll office’s house but also the office’s other superfluous expenses.” 

El Faro confirmed that the troll center moved from the San Francisco neighborhood to a house located in the Cumbres de Cuscatlán neighborhood in Antiguo Cuscatlán. Among the items moved were a dozen computers that had the ministry’s inventory serial number.  Lobato confirms that the equipment belongs to the Ministry of Security. “Yes, the equipment was from the Ministry of Security and there were some 10 or 15 people working there,” said Lobato, interviewed by El Faro on Saturday, April 17.

Although Lobato insists that office was handling Territorial Control Plan matters, there are documents indicating that the office was not officially related to the Ministry. That is stated in a memorandum from November 20, 2020. That day, at 11:15 in the morning, William Arévalo, the ministry’s Director of Logistics, received a memorandum from the executive director Ricardo Evert Santamaria, informing him that Lobato’s assistant handed in an electric bill, in the amount of $575.24, corresponding to November of 2020. The receipt from the CAESS company was sent to the Institutional Financial Directorate to be settled.

The payment was not made because the receipt had a late payment charge of $2.16, a situation that, according to internal regulations, required a ministerial resolution to make the payment. Santamaría indicated in the memorandum that there was a bigger problem. “The point is that this directorate does not know how the ministry is making use of this property, since it is not within the institutional structure that is coordinated from here, and we could not give the information necessary for producing said resolution; that is why I am sending you said (original) invoice, to see if you have the necessary information and the situation can be resolved.”

The document’s content surprised Lobato. “Really? That’s incorrect, but I don’t know how to prove it to you. They told me there are some offices there because there wasn’t space in the ministry. I moved where they sent me. I don’t have anything to do with hiring, nor with the payment of anything. I just carry out my mission: monitoring the Territorial Control Plan,” he responded.

The official organizational chart of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security has a Communications Directorate. Why did former Minister Rivas need another office for the Territorial Control Plan? Juan Hernández, the Ministry’s director of Communications, says that he doesn’t know. “He (Lobato) was acting as advisor and the advisor and the Minister understand each other,” he said.

El Faro attempted, via mail, to get a version from the ministry employees mentioned in the OIE report. We also asked for a statement from a ministry official about the information in this report. “And where does that information come from?” asked Hernández, director of communications. It was explained to him, but as of press time, there was no response.

*Translated by Jessica Kirstein

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