The White House adds pressure on Bukele and Giammattei for corruption and lights an alert with Xiomara Castro

Officials and political allies of the governments of Xiomara Castro, Alejandro Giammattei and Nayib Bukele were sanctioned by the United States government in the latest version of the “Engel List”.

One of the closest communications advisers to Nayib Bukele. A legislative vice president who is a key piece of President Xiomara Castro in the Honduran congress. The Guatemalan prosecutor who has launched criminal investigations against opponents of Alejandro Giammattei and his allies. On Wednesday, July 20, the United States government published an update to the so-called Engel List, in which names Central American individuals implicated in corruption. On this occasion, the list is loaded with warnings to the rulers of the three countries of the so-called Northern Triangle and, in the case of Guatemala, some of its most powerful businessmen.

The Engel List is the colloquial name that has been given in Washington and the diplomatic world related to Central America to a political tool created by the Expanded Commitment Act between the United States and the Northern Triangle, which was approved in December 2020 at the initiative of former congressman New York Democrat Elliott Engel. The law was later included as part of other legislation that regulates the foreign operations of the State Department.

What this legislation mandates is that the Secretary of State must send to Congress, twice a year, a list of “individuals who have knowingly engaged in acts that threaten democratic processes or institutions, who have engaged in significant corruption, or who have impeded investigations of such acts of corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador”. Those who are listed lose the right to obtain visas to travel to the United States and are subject to having financial assets or properties that they have in US territory blocked.

The one published on June 20 is the third update on the list. And, this time, the political messages that with it bequeath Guatemala City, San Salvador and Tegucigalpa could have clearer consequences than on previous occasions. As a US diplomatic official told Infobae: “It is not so much the issue of visas or even possible economic sanctions, it is what is being said in the ear of those (who are) on the list and their partners”.

Honduras: First wake-up call to Xiomara Castro

The message to the Honduran ruler is perhaps the clearest this time. “The honeymoon with Castro seems to have ended with this”, said a Central American diplomat based in Washington who knows details about the preparation of this list and who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to do so in public.

In this version of the Engel, the State Department includes former officials of the government of Manuel “Mel” Zelaya (2006-2009), former president and husband of Xiomara Castro. Among them are two deputies from the Free Party, controlled by Zelaya, who have been key pieces of the president in the Honduran congress during the first months of her administration.

One of them is Rasel Antonio Tomé Floresvice president of Congress, whom Washington points to as “engage in significant corruption when he used his position as president of the National Telecommunications Commission to embezzle approximately US$327,000 of public funds.”

Rasel Tome
Rasel Tomé (to the right of President Xiomara Castro), one of the Hondurans mentioned on the Engel List, is close to President Xiomara Castro and her husband, former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya. He is accused of embezzling US$327,000.

Tomé was one of the main operators in the recent approval of a controversial special law to regulate the nomination of candidates for magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, which opens the door for people with open investigations or judicial processes to run for the highest court. .

Tomé and his Libre party also approved, last February, a legislative amnesty for former officials of the government of Mel Zelaya who left the country after the coup d’état that deposed the former president in 2009. The amnesty, according to a note in the investigative newspaper Contracorriente, was interpreted as a general “impunity pact” that will allow Zelaya officials to be investigated for corruption or even drug trafficking. evade justice. Tomé was the deputy who gave legal impetus to the amnesty in Congress.

The Engel List also includes Enrique Flores Lanza, former minister of the Zelaya presidency and who was prosecuted for embezzlement of public funds in a case known as El Carretillazo. Shortly after the approval of the amnesty, Flores was acquitted of all the charges against him and is today an adviser to President Castro.

Even before the publication of this version of the list, voices in Washington had warned that Zelaya’s influence in his wife’s government could put her in trouble with the United States. “The main political problems of the president can derive from that duality. For now, the entire government (in Washington) is on the side of Castro and what she is trying to do, but we must also take into account the political influence and power that Zelaya and his close circles have,” Ana María said in a recent interview. Méndez-Dardón, director for Central America of the influential Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Until now, Castro had navigated these doubts and had even come out on top after not attending the IX Summit of the Americas organized by the Biden administration. Vice President Kamala Harris, questioned by the absence of the Honduran, was quick to say that relations with Honduras were very good.

On Tuesday the 20th, however, Castro and his Foreign Ministry reacted outraged by the inclusion of members of LIBRE and political allies of Mel Zelaya in the Enge Listhe; Hondurans resorted to the same formula that their Salvadoran and Guatemalan neighbors have used when Washington beats them to the punch: accusing the Americans of interventionism.

“The Government of the Republic wishes to express its categorical rejection of the Engel List, recently published by the State Department… because it is a politically motivated and interfering document. Honduras is a sovereign nation and will continue to defend the principle of non-intervention and self-determination of the peoples”, says a note published by Foreign Affairs from Tegucigalpa.

Manuel Zelaya (left), former president of Honduras and husband of the current president, is close to several of the Honduran officials mentioned in the Engel List.  REUTERS/Freddy Rodriguez
Manuel Zelaya (left), former president of Honduras and husband of the current president, is close to several of the Honduran officials mentioned in the Engel List. REUTERS/Fredy Rodriguez (FREDY RODRIGUEZ/)

Two diplomatic officials consulted by Infobae, an American and a Central American, both in Washington, agreed that this tension, which has reached a public level with the publication of the Engel List but began in private after the approval of the amnesty for Zelaya officials , could jeopardize US support for an eventual International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH). Already in the budget allocations project for fiscal year 2023, the US Congress warned that the conditions were not yet met in Honduras to allocate funds to that commission.

“One of the main alliances with the United States government is for the installation of the CICIH. The president has shown openness… but we have to wait, because several months have passed since this commission was announced and there is still nothing that we can call real progress,” warned Méndez-Dardón, from WOLA.

In the heart of the Presidential House of Bukele

Already in 2021, with its first version, the Engel List had caused political earthquakes in the environment close to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele. In July of that year, Washington appointed several of the officials closest to the president, including his chief of staff, his legal secretary, his minister of labor and his former minister of agriculture, who is also a childhood friend. The government’s reaction, then, was to accuse the United States of playing into the hands of the opposition and undertaking, from the Attorney General’s Office and the Legislative Assembly, political persecution against opponents and journalists.

This new version of the list is, in the Salvadoran case, more brief, but it also reaches the core of the circles of power that surround Bukele.

One of the listings is Ernesto Sanabria, press secretary of the president, one of his closest associates during the presidential campaign and his close friend. The State Department accuses Sanabria of “undermine democratic processes and institutions, using their position and influence with the president to inappropriately pressure officials in opposition parties to resign under threat of criminal prosecution”.

Before becoming press secretary, Sanabria was related to a Twitter account from which Bukele’s entourage launched massive defamation campaigns and attacks on opponents and journalists, according to an investigation by the newspaper El Faro.

After Bukele took office as president, Sanabria was one of those in charge of setting up Diario El Salvador, a newspaper financed with public funds that has served as a platform for official propaganda. and, also, as a weapon of political attack against opponents, journalists and critical media.

In February 2021, Carmen Rodríguez, a Salvadoran journalist based in Washington, accused Sanabria of defaming her and threatening her after she published thathe press secretary was investigated in El Salvador for exercising gender-based violence against his ex-wife.

Ernest Sanabria
Ernesto Sanabria (right), a close associate of President Nayib Bukele since he was mayor of San Salvador. Sanabria, the president’s press secretary, is accused of using his influence to threaten opponents and undermine democracy.

It was also listed in the Engel Christian Guevara, head of the New Ideas caucus, Bukele’s party, in Congress. Washington accuses him of “undermining the democratic process” because it was he who introduced legislation that seeks to criminalize journalists who report on the pact of the Bukele government with the gangs MS13 and Barrio 18.

On this occasion, unlike the previous ones, Bukele has barely commented on the Engel List. Guevara has defended himself by saying that he was included for “waging war on the gangs.” Sanabria has remained silent.

From El Salvador, it is noteworthy that a preliminary version of the list, leaked to journalists at the end of the previous week, included Bukele’s finance minister, Alejandro Zelaya, investigated for irregular acts during the Covid-19 pandemic and pointed out by Washington of make political use of the disbursement of public funds to mayors of the country to electorally benefit Nuevas Ideas.

In the final version published by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Zelaya does not appear. A US diplomatic source confirmed to Infobae that the minister’s name was in the preliminary versions of the list. Another Central American diplomatic source in Washington assured that theThe exclusion of Zelaya is a kind of armistice message from the Biden administration in the specific case of the stalled negotiations between El Salvador and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).in which this official has been central.

Christian Guevara
Christian Guevara. Head of the caucus of the ruling party Nuevas Ideas in the Salvadoran congress, also sanctioned.

“It seems that the United States is more focused on the economic issue in the case of El Salvador and I think there was lobbying (in the case of Zelaya)… It is significant that the list does not make any reference to the emergency regime (decreed by Bukele and expanded by its congress since last March, and which has generated multiple complaints of human rights violations and of causing the death of sixty imprisoned Salvadorans), but that there is an interest in the possibility of a default”, considered a of the diplomatic sources consulted in reference to the fact that the negotiation with the IMF, chaired by Zelaya, is key so that El Salvador does not fall into default, a possibility that has already been warned by several risk analyst houses, such as Moody’s and Fitch.

An unexpected warning to powerful Guatemalan businessmen

Guatemala and the government of President Alejandro Giammattei are caught by the Engel List in the middle of a public lawsuit with the White House, the end of a purge promoted by the government of judges and prosecutors who investigated politicians and businessmen close to power, and a increasing private sector lobbying in Washington against these investigations.

But this time, the fangs of the State Department aimed more at the government’s private partners than at public officials. Of the latter, the inclusion of Rafael Curruchichea lawyer whom Attorney General Consuelo Porras – herself included in a previous version of the list – appointed head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) to replace Juan Francisco Sandoval, now in exile in Washington for having come close to Giammattei in an investigation that involved the president with a millionaire bribe of Russian miners.

Curruchiche is accused of “obstructing investigations of acts of corruption, for spoiling high-level cases against government officials and mounting apparent spurious cases against FECI investigators, private attorneys and members of the defunct CICIG.”

Attorney General Consuelo Porras (right), herself sanctioned by the United States, appointed Rafael Curruchiche (left), head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), which has now spearheaded the criminal prosecution of opponents.

The great novelty, however, is the inclusion of Ramón Campollo Codina, Ramiro Mauricio López Camey and Mauricio López Oliva, three businessmen linked to CACIFthe private sector union, known in Guatemala for its extensive influence on the country’s political affairs. The three are accused by Washington of paying bribes so that their companies would be favored with millionaire public contracts. The defunct CICIG and Sandoval’s FECI investigated multiple corruption schemes involving businessmen like these, but Washington had been elusive in publicly naming them. Until now.

The Engel List, to which some blame little effectiveness when it comes to holding Central Americans accountable, seems to have sent, this time, more concrete and stronger messages to the corridors of power in the region. The State Department is scheduled to release a new version before the end of this year.


The US adds dozens of Central American officials to its blacklist for corruption

The United States conditions aid to Central America to the investigation of corrupt officials

Honduras rejects the US “Engel list” and calls it interventionist