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US Shows Its Teeth on Engel List

Central America, in Brief: A leaked draft of the “Engel List” adds five-dozen names to the U.S. State Department's corruption map. The presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras won’t be happy: Now banned from U.S. soil are five more of Bukele’s closest confidants, businessmen and former corrupt officials linked to Giammattei, an advisor to Xiomara Castro and two of her party’s top legislators, and 23 jailers of Nicaragua’s political prisoners.

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ERIN SCHAFF

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Roman Gressier y José Luis Sanz

A leaked draft of the new additions to the U.S. State Department’s Engel List dealt a gut punch to five of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s closest confidants, most notably Treasury Minister Alejandro Zelaya, the head of efforts to avoid financial default.

Zelaya can no longer set foot in Washington, D.C., home of the IMF, or in New York, the finance capital. Nor can Bukele’s press secretary, legal advisor, or his party’s top legislator. They join four senior Bukele officials already on the list, including his chief of cabinet and one of his gang negotiators, the director of prisons.

U.S. government sources confirmed the draft’s authenticity to El Faro. The official list was sent to Congress Monday and should be made public this week. Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), a designer of the bill requiring the Engel List, said this morning she was proud of the State Department for these expanded sanctions.

The U.S. first published the list in June 2021. Relations with Central America have since strained to the point that the heads of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras refused to attend President Joe Biden’s Americas Summit a month ago and, in response to White House criticism of corruption and authoritarianism, demanded respect for sovereignty.

State Department and White House sources expressed for months a desire to “avoid nuclear conflict” with the tempestuous Bukele, but the list reads as a rebuttal. He responded on Friday: “UNITED FRUIT COMPANY.” It’s not the first time that he has claimed foreign interference; in a December speech he baselessly asserted that the opposition was “planning a coup d’état” with the diplomatic corps, NGOs, and independent media.

That’s coming from a president who ordered his party’s legislators in May 2021 to illegally remove the Constitutional Court judges and attorney general. The move landed then-legal advisor Javier Argueta on the Engel List. The magistrates imposed by Bukele later ruled, despite constitutional prohibitions, that he can run for reelection in 2024.

Nuevas Ideas legislative bloc chief Christian Guevara was also sanctioned, for the gag law approved in April to criminalize journalism about gangs with up to 15 years in prison. “It’s an honor to be [on the list] for doing what’s right for our country,” he retorted on Twitter.

He’s not alone in wearing the Engel List as a badge of honor. The Twitter bio of the head of Guatemala’s Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), a group impeding trials for corruption and human rights violations, reads: “Included in the Engel List for defending our veterans.”

Targeting private sector

The first edition of the Engel List carefully avoided Giammattei’s circle at a time when the White House saw him as their main ally in the region. But the version 2.0 of the list includes names showing that reports of presidential corruption have an ear in Washington.

Chief among them is José Luis Benito, infrastructure minister from 2018 to 2020, for allegedly taking bribes from a pay-to-play ring of construction firms. You may recall El Faro’s February revelation that, in exchange for directing $2.6 million in illicit campaign funds, Giammattei promised to keep Benito in his post after his election.

Also on the list is the head of construction company Aspetro, the company is one of the most favored with public contracts by Giammattei’s administration. The sanctions of five business people accused of bribery and disrupting U.S. commercial interests are the first signal that Biden has included the private sector in his design theory of corruption driving an ongoing crackdown against independent Guatemalan justice system actors.

When AG Consuelo Porras was sanctioned in September, accused of obstructing Justice, Giammattei called it a “violation of her human rights.” Top prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, a key ally to her, has now landed on the list. So has former President of Congress Sofía Hernández, for her family ties to drug traffickers, Los Huistas. We told you about her just one week ago, in a report on Jalisco New Generation Cartel activity in Guatemala.

 
'Do not come,' Vice President Kamala Harris told prospective Central American migrants contemplating traveling without papers to the United States. Harris traveled to Guatemala in June 2021 to discuss migration, foreign investment, and other bilateral priorities with the administration of Alejandro Giammattei. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

Biden’s changing Guatemala sanctions strategy may not have a deep impact given that Porras’ inclusion didn’t prevent the president from picking her for a second term in May, with support from the Guatemalan private sector and U.S. Republicans. 

“They say the lists don’t affect them or matter, and maybe that’s true for some of those sanctioned in Guatemala,” a source in the Biden administration told El Faro English. “But we know that in El Salvador the list has an impact, and a big one.” 

The source is referring to divisions created by the fear of sanctions among ruling-party legislators who U.S. officials deem responsible for measures the international community sees as deeply antidemocratic, like the proposed Nicaragua-style Foreign Agents Law.

Xiomara Castro’s dilemma

In Honduras, the sanctions didn’t shy away from power, either. A standout was Enrique Flores Lanza, ex-president Manuel Zelaya’s minister of the presidency. Now an advisor to President Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, he’s accused of siphoning $2 million from the central bank in relation to Zelaya’s desire for a 2009 referendum justifying his reelection. 

After spending eight years in Nicaragua to avoid prosecution for this case, he returned in March when Castro’s party, Libre, decreed a controversial amnesty to shield former Zelaya officials from any kind of prosecution —including for corruption cases— under the argument of ending political persecution that began after the 2009 coup.

The list also named two vice presidents of Congress with Libre and Zelaya’s former labor minister, health secretary, and head of the state electric company. It’s unclear whether Castro will permit local investigators or an eventual International Commission against Impunity (CICIH), still to be created, to look into Zelaya’s administration, like the Los Cachiros cartel’s under-oath assertion in Brooklyn court that he took money from them.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with Honduran President Xiomara Castro during their bilateral meeting in the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo: Erin Schaff/POOL/AFP
 
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris speaks with Honduran President Xiomara Castro during their bilateral meeting in the Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa on Jan. 27, 2022. Photo: Erin Schaff/POOL/AFP

The sanctions also touched businessman David Castillo, sentenced a month ago as the intellectual author of the murder of world-renowned Lenca land activist Berta Cáceres.

In Nicaragua, now included in the Engel List per the Renacer Act, the department named 10 prosecutors and 13 judges involved in a wave of judicial persecution that imprisoned dozens of opposition leaders, paving the way for Ortega and Murillo’s reelection.

The Engel List 2.0 draws a bleak map of possible partners for a Biden administration claiming corruption is a core national security issue and a root cause of migration. Without cooperation from governments, can sanctions carry the weight of U.S. regional policy?

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