El Salvador / Impunity

Interpol Tied Nuevas Ideas Legislator to Money Laundering and Human Trafficking

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Monday, September 4, 2023
Efren Lemus

Leer en español

The Salvadoran National Civil Police (PNC) documented that José Bladimir Barahona Hernández, a legislator from Morazán with the ruling Nuevas Ideas party, was tied to a human trafficking ring, according to a series of emails and intelligence reports elaborated before and after Barahona won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in February 2021.

Barahona was the mayor of Villa de Meanguera, Morazán, from 2015 to 2021 with the now-disappeared Social Democrat Party when a trafficker confessed to a judge in 2017 that Barahona was one of his bosses. This information, obtained by police and prosecutors under the administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019), led to a process of asset forfeiture in August 2019 against the now-legislator’s vehicles, real estate, and businesses.

El Faro obtained these police emails and intelligence reports through a leak of thousands of gigabytes of official documents by the organization DDoSecrets, which received them from the hacking group Guacamaya. They reveal that during the administration of President Nayib Bukele the police also carried out an investigation into Barahona. They found evidence tying him to crimes of human trafficking, tax evasion, and money laundering.

On August 19, 2020, three months before Barahona registered as a candidate for the legislature with the ruling party, the PNC concluded a financial and assets analysis against him and five of his family members tied to one of his businesses, Barmar S.A. de C.V. According to an internal police document, the legislator, his relatives, and his business handled thousands of dollars from an “unknown origin,” which the police concluded was evidence of tax evasion and money laundering.

Despite these reports and the asset forfeiture process from 2019, the ruling party did not object to his candidacy. In February 2021, he was elected to the Assembly. On June 10, 2023, Nuevas Ideas announced that Barahona would run for reelection in the party’s internal primary prior to the February 2024 elections.

In the first legislative session on May 1, 2021, just hours after his swearing-in, Barahona and the rest of the ruling party and allies voted to illegally remove the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber and Attorney General Raúl Melara, whose administration was investigating the newly elected legislator for alleged human trafficking.

On June 7, 2021, the PNC elaborated another intelligence report that included the names of 12 suspected human traffickers in eastern El Salvador. Barahona and his brother Edgar Bernardo Barahona Hernández were two of the individuals listed. “In the past elections, he was a legislative candidate under the banner of Nuevas Ideas in the second box on the ballot, achieving the majority of votes,” the police wrote in the report.

On September 1, 2023, El Faro called and left messages once again at the voicemail of Barahona, but he did not respond. Nor did Barahona reply in February 2022, when El Faro revealed the sworn testimony of a member of a human trafficking ring implicating him. The communications office of the Legislative Assembly has yet to return an interview request.

Money of “unknown origin”

On April 18, 2018, the Attorney General’s Office led by Raúl Melara ordered the National Civil Police to investigate a human trafficking case codenamed ‘Barahona’ “in order to perform a financial and asset analysis of Mr. José Bladimir Barahona Hernández in response to an investigation by this prosecutor’s office (...) related to the illicit activity of human trafficking.”

According to an email from the Department of Analysis and Processing (DATI) of the PNC, the financial analysis concluded on August 18, 2020 and the results were sent to the Attorney General’s Office the next day. 

Attached to the email are five Word documents with the financial analysis of each of five suspects under investigation. The report related to the now-legislator asserts that in 2004 and 2005 he obtained loans to buy two vehicles worth over $53,000. The loans were paid off before they were due, but the investigators could not find where Barahona got the money to pay them.

“By comparing the income of known origin (loans, remittances, vehicle sales, earnings reported by the Treasury Ministry) to the deposits made to the different bank accounts of Mr. Barahona Hernández, it was determined that in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2012, 2013, and 2014 the bank deposits, according to verified information, were greater than the income from known sources. The origin of this money is unknown. It must be mentioned that, in the mentioned years, assets were acquired for $78,360.31 of unknown origin, given that bank deposits were presented from an unknown source.”

Twelve coyotes

At 1:30 p.m. on June 7, 2021, the Division of Police Investigation in Morazán sent an email to a police official of the last name Arévalo with the following subject line: “Sending report on illegal human trafficking.” The email reads: “Resending report on individuals dedicated to illegal human trafficking in the department of Morazán, dated 04-06-2021 [June 4, 2021], which was modified due to the adding of new information.” Attached are two PDF documents: one titled “Coyotes” and the other “intelligence report on human trafficking SJ.”

The “Coyotes” document contains a picture and information on 11 people. The second document contains the names of 12 individuals who the police identified as traffickers in Morazán. Both include José Bladimir Barahona Hernández and his brother Edgar Bernardo.

“The indicated individual worked in illicit human trafficking, offering his services as a guide on the journey to the United States of America for an estimated value of $9,000, with the condition of turning them over to U.S. immigration authorities in order for them to request political asylum,” reads one of the reports.

José Bladimir Barahona, Nuevas Ideas legislator representing Morazán, during a legislative session on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo Víctor Peña
José Bladimir Barahona, Nuevas Ideas legislator representing Morazán, during a legislative session on Feb. 22, 2022. Photo Víctor Peña

Of the legislator’s brother, Edgar Bernardo, the police wrote: “He was detained for six years in the Republic of Mexico for an unknown reason. He worked in illicit human trafficking with his brother Bladimir Barahona, offering his services as a guide on the journey to the United States of America. Some years ago, Edgar belonged to the National Civil Police.”

The police intelligence report omits that Edgar Bernardo Barahona, the legislator’s brother, was arrested on August 29, 2019, the day that the National Civil Police announced an important operation against transnational crime and Commissioner Mauricio Arriaza Chicas announced that a mayor from eastern El Salvador was involved. By the end of the operation, no mayors had been arrested. The only mayor mentioned in those documents was the mayor of Villa de Meanguera, Barahona, who is now poised to run for reelection to the Legislative Assembly with Nuevas Ideas. In October 2021, a Santa Ana court sentenced his brother to 10 years in prison for human trafficking.

At 12:40 p.m. on June 9, 2021, two days after receiving the police investigation report, the officer Arévalo sent the information to another forwarded it to another officer, Chinchilla: “Good afternoon, Chinchilla. Please take this into account in coordination with the Attorney General’s Office. Thanks.”

From San Salvador to Washington

After his swearing-in to the Legislative Assembly, Barahona was assigned to the Financial and Municipal Commissions, where he has kept a low profile. As a sitting legislator he is immune from prosecution, but his name and that of his business continue to circulate in police offices in El Salvador and the United States.

Just before noon on November 16, 2021, the Salvadoran office of Interpol sent its Washington counterpart a request for international cooperation in the same ‘Barahona’ case opened by the Attorney General’s Office under Raúl Melara: “We request your kind international cooperation relating to information on the address in your country of Mrs. Ercila Yaneth Márquez (...) who is wanted by the Asset Forfeiture Court, in order to report the source of her unjustified increase in wealth due to the actions of an entity in her possession that is the subject of an investigation.”

Seven days later, on November 23, Washington Interpol replied: “Please provide us with a detailed profile of the criminal investigation.”

While the exchange is not directly related to legislator Barahona, the response from Interpol El Salvador implicates him in the irregular management of Barmar S.A. de C.V., a business that he founded and ran with the help of relatives.

“The corporation made premium payments for the purchase of vehicles (the source of which is unknown) on March 13, 2013, offering as a guarantee the equipment of the company, estimated by legal representative Ever Barahona to be worth $429,648.25. But, earnings reported to the Treasury Ministry for the year 2012 totalled $16,003.45 with a reported utility of $1,265.59, which means that the entity did not have the financial capacity to acquire that equipment,” responded Interpol El Salvador.

According to Salvadoran commercial records, Bladimir Barahona is a shareholder of Barmar S.A. de C.V.

An exceprt of the communications between Interpol El Salvador and its Washington counterpart between November and December 2021 on the
An exceprt of the communications between Interpol El Salvador and its Washington counterpart between November and December 2021 on the 'Barahona' case. El Faro obtained this communication via the Guacamaya Leaks.

Despite the irregularities that prosecutors detected in the business’s books and the police reports under the Bukele administration, Barahona continues to sit on the country’s Financial Committee, according to the website of the Legislative Assembly.

Barahona is an alternate member of the commission, one of eight legislators to sit on it. He legislates on financial issues despite Interpol El Salvador’s assertion that one of his businesses “was created to be used as an asset, to funnel amounts of money from unknown sources, which according to the legal framework is considered an instrument of money laundering.”

All of this information describing allegations of illicit conduct was known to authorities since Barahona was mayor of Villa de Meanguera, but it did not stop his swearing-in to the Assembly. Nor was it an obstacle to his enrollment as a pre-candidate for reelection. On July 10, 2023, the ruling Nuevas Ideas party reported that Barahona will run next February for a second term.

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