El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office has opened an internal investigation into seven current and former prosecutors who oversaw Operation Cathedral, a sweeping probe into acts of corruption committed by administration officials between March 2020 and April 2021 including the administration’s secret negotiations with the country’s most powerful gangs, the theft of pandemic food relief by government officials, the diversion of food relief for political campaigning, and corruption in the allotment of public contracts to respond to the pandemic. Operation Cathedral had not progressed since the illegal instatement of Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado by the pro-Bukele legislative block in May 2021. Shortly after, Delgado disbanded the unit of prosecutors that handled Cathedral, known as the Special Anti-Mafia Group.
San Salvador’s Fifth Court of Peace signed a warrant to search the offices of the Special Anti-Mafia Group prosecutors, some of whom left their positions in the wake of Delgado's instatement. In its request for the warrant, the Attorney General’s Office claimed to have evidence that investigators had leaked “confidential information.” The newly-appointed chief magistrate of the Fifth Court of Peace, Judge Rafael Antonio Iraheta Tamayo, authorized the searches to begin on Jan. 10.
El Faro reviewed a copy of the court order authorizing the raids, which states: “The raid has been authorized from eight o'clock on Jan. 10 until eight o'clock on Jan. 12 for the purpose of seizing objects (digital information storage devices) used for revealing or disclosing confidential facts, actions, information, or documentation, as well as information obtained in the course of judicially authorized telecommunications surveillance related to the case.” The order added that the devices “relate to the commission of the crimes of disclosing confidential material and revealing facts, proceedings, or secret documents by a judicial employee.” Three former prosecutors involved in investigations of government corruption confirmed to El Faro that their former workplaces were raided on Jan. 10.
Judge Iraheta Tamayo also authorized the Attorney General’s Office to extract and analyze information stored on the prosecutors’ electronic devices “that may be associated with the crimes under investigation.” The work of extracting information and analyzing the devices, the order adds, should be carried out by experts from the Attorney General’s Office.
The judge who authorized the raids and seizures, Iraheta Tamayo, was promoted to the bench as a result of the reform to the Law of Judicial Careers, passed last August by the Bukele-aligned coalition in the Legislative Assembly. This modification to the Law of Judicial Careers forced the automatic retirement of all judges over the age of 60, as well as all those who had served for over 30 years. The move was interpreted by many sectors of the Judicial Branch as a way for the ruling Nuevas Ideas party to appoint judges obedient to the Executive, or at the very least, as a way to remove judges considered to be disloyal.
The reform allowed Supreme Court magistrates, also newly appointed by Nuevas Ideas, to reorganize El Salvador’s court system and appoint replacements for the now-vacant positions. This is what happened in the case of Iraheta Tamayo, who prior to the reform had served as Justice of the Peace in Arcatao, Chalatenango, but now presides over a court in San Salvador that rules on much more consequential decisions, such as the recent search warrant authorization.
According to several prosecutors who spoke with El Faro, the Bukele administration’s persecution of this group of corruption investigators began the moment the new attorney general was sworn into office in the early hours of May 2, 2021. Exiled former chief anti-corruption prosecutor Germán Arriaza told Reuters last December that the Special Anti-Mafia Group was dismantled after Delgado’s arrival. Arriaza said Delgado was aware of the revelations uncovered by the unit.
Now, both the administration and the attorney general appear to be changing course: not only have they tried to keep the findings of these investigations secret and to remove the prosecutors responsible for carrying them out; they also want to put the involved prosecutors on trial.
Upon request for comment from El Faro on the raids, a representative of the Attorney General’s Office wrote: “We can neither confirm nor deny if any such proceedings exist.”
The first location raided by the Attorney General’s Office was the prosecutors’ office located in Colonia San Benito, in San Salvador. This is the office previously under the charge of Germán Arriaza, the former director of the anti-corruption and anti-impunity division of the Attorney General’s Office, who, along with three fellow prosecutors, created the now-defunct Special Anti-Mafia Group.
The Special Anti-Mafia Group documented that Bukele administration’s negotiations with gang leadership were overseen by Carlos Marroquín, head of the General Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric, an office within the Ministry of Governance, as well as Osiris Luna Meza, Bukele’s vice minister of justice and the director of the Bureau of Prisons. The special unit also conducted investigations into corruption schemes spearheaded by Luna and his mother, Alma Yanira Meza Olivares, which included the buying and selling of government food relief packages for political ends.
The prosecutors mapped out a web of government officials responsible for making decisions on acts of corruption. They identified the “center of power” as the president’s three brothers: Karim, Ibrahim, and Yusef Bukele, all of whom set government directives without holding official positions. Beneath the Bukele brothers, according to the investigation, were Carolina Recinos, the president’s chief of cabinet, identified as responsible for handing down orders, and several individuals from the group of Venezuelan advisors who control Bukele’s cabinet.
On Dec. 8, 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Recinos for being “the head of a multiple-ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme involving suspicious procurements in the construction of a hospital.” The U.S. simultaneously sanctioned Luna and Marroquín for negotiating with the Mara Salvatrcuha-13 and two factions of Barrio 18 to reduce homicides and ensure the gangs’ support for Nuevas Ideas in the 2021 elections.
The Attorney General’s Office and National Civil Police began their search on Jan. 10, seizing devices they suspected contain the confidential information in question and might help identify the source of the leak, though the court order does not specify to whom the information was revealed. One of the seized devices was Arriaza’s work computer that he left at his desk when he resigned seven months ago. Arriaza is a key figure in the case because he oversaw investigations that, according to two prosecutorial advisors, were ready to be presented in court sometime before April 2021.
Why these investigations did not proceed under former Attorney General Raúl Melara remains unclear. Following the Bukele administration’s instatement of the new attorney general, Arriaza fled El Salvador after receiving threats of arrest for his investigating the administration. Other prosecutors under Arriaza’s charge say they experienced similar threats, and were followed and surveilled following the publication of Operation Cathedral. El Faro confirmed that at least two other prosecutors involved in Operation Cathedral have fled the country to seek asylum.
El Faro revealed Operation Cathedral in August 2021. Attorney General Delgado did not comment publicly on the matter until Dec. 23. “This isn’t about going around saying there are some kind of anti-mafia groups or I don’t know what, that are created and only exist in the minds of prosecutors who already left their positions, nor is it about an investigation that is basically just a powerpoint presentation that anyone could easily manipulate,” he said on state television. “It’s unacceptable to toy with the integrity of state institutions,” Delgado continued. “It’s unacceptable to go around spreading all kinds of bullshit accusations against the Attorney General’s Office and disguising it as journalism. The Office of the Attorney General of the Republic must be respected.”
The investigations published by El Faro included surveillance video screenshots from inside the maximum-security Zacatecoluca prison, which show Luna escorting several hooded men to a meeting with incarcerated gang leaders. El Faro, after gaining access to dozens of copies of prison logbooks, had already documented how these hooded men had entered without identifying themselves and met with gang leaders from MS-13 and the two factions of 18th Street. El Faro published internal documents from the Bureau of Prisons, signed and sealed records listing those who attended the meetings, and even coded messages sent by imprisoned gang members to their leadership in the streets.
Three weeks ago, the Nuevas Ideas legislative bloc renewed its support for Delgado, appointing him to serve another three years as attorney general. Prior to serving in this official position, Delgado worked as a lawyer for Alba Petróleos, the Salvadoran subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. In 2018, the Attorney General’s Office opened money laundering investigations into PDVSA implicating President Nayib Bukele. In 2020, Delgado also represented National Civil Police director Mauricio Arriaza Chicas when he faced prosecution on charges of disobedience and fraud.
On Jan. 10, as prosecutors raided Arriaza’s former office in San Benito, they also raided the offices of the government’s anti-impunity task force, the Grupo contra la Impunidad (GCI), at the Attorney General’s Office headquarters in San Salvador. GCI prosecutors used to collaborate with the International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity (CICIES), and had conducted several investigations into corruption relating to pandemic-related government spending. In 2019 Bukele himself called for the creation of the CICIES, but his posture changed when revelations broke that the commission had assisted in investigations into the Bukele administration.
One month after he was appointed Attorney General, Delgado broke ties with the CICIES, citing the OAS’s hiring of Ernesto Muyshondt, the former mayor of San Salvador and a member of the right-wing opposition party Arena, who was accused of negotiating with gangs and is currently being held in pre-trial detention. Delgado argued that the hiring of Muyshondt called into question the integrity of the CICIES, but the OAS maintains that Muyshondt was never actually hired.
In addition to Cathedral, another case of interest to prosecutors is the investigation of officials who favored family members, or companies with which they had close ties, in the purchase of pandemic-related medical supplies. That investigation led to the discovery that US$20 million of the $31 million allocated to the government’s emergency pandemic budget (Fopromid) was used to make illegal and nepotistic business deals. This revelation gave cause to the GCI, on Nov. 10, 2020, to raid the ministries of Health, Agriculture, Security, Government, Social Security, along with other offices of the executive branch, as part of what the Attorney General’s Office said was an investigation into the illicit business dealings of public employees, such as Health Minister Francisco Alabí.
That raid marked the beginning of the rivalry between the Bukele administration and Attorney General Raúl Melara. On Nov. 10, agents with the National Civil Police (PNC) attempted to prevent prosecutors from entering and searching the Ministry of Health, in contravention of a judge’s order authorizing the raid. In response, Melara petitioned the Legislative Assembly to create a special criminal investigative unit to make arrests or carry out investigations and searches without relying on the PNC, an institution that Melara believed could no longer be trusted. The special unit was never created.
Since May 1, when the Legislative Assembly ousted Melara and several Supreme Court magistrates, and as the Jan. 10 raids illustrate, the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office have become close collaborators.
*Translated by Max Granger