El Salvador’s ex-president is arrested for corruption at son’s wedding, along with former officials

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 12:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 11:32pm

Police in El Salvador have arrested the country’s ex-president, Elias Antonio Saca, and six former officials in his government for alleged embezzlement and money laundering, authorities said.

Saca, 51, and five of the others were detained in the early morning on Sunday “on charges of various crimes”, police said on Twitter. Saca and two of the suspects were arrested at the wedding of one of Saca’s sons.

Saca is a member of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). He was president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009.

He is accused of embezzlement, money laundering and links to illegal groups, the prosecutors’ office said.

Prosecutors say the former president has not clarified the origins of US$5 million of the US$6.5 million in assets he acquired during his time in office.

He declared his fortune at US$3.6 million when he took office. Five years later, it had grown to US$13.1 million.

But newly surfaced evidence suggests the sums involved could be even larger.

Elmer Charlaix, Saca’s former private secretary and one of those arrested, allegedly had US$5.8 million in private bank accounts and prosecutors said he could not explain the origin of the money. He allegedly wrote about US$15 million in checks to Saca, other officials and Saca’s party.

Charlaix turned himself in at a police station on Sunday after news of his ex-boss’ detention broke, saying: “I have come to face the accusations against me.”

A self-made businessman, Saca was a well-known journalist before becoming president.

He was seen as a strong ally of the United States during his time in power.

The other suspects arrested include former public waterworks official Cesar Funes, 46, and ex-presidential communications chief Julio Rank, 65. Police said those two were detained along with Saca in an exclusive restaurant where the wedding celebrations were taking place.

Official sources said the suspects were in custody in the premises of the anti-drugs squad in the capital San Salvador.

El Salvador, a Central American country of six million people, is stricken by poverty and violent crime involving drug gangs.

The other three detained suspects are Pablo Gomez, Francisco Rodriguez Artega and Jorge Alberto Harrera.

They worked in Saca’s government and are currently financial officials in the government of leftist President Salvador Sanchez.

The suspects could face sentences of up to 15 years in jail for embezzlement and money laundering, according to El Salvador’s penal code.

Saca was already facing charges dating to early this year, when he was accused of embezzling some four million dollars.

His leftist successor as president, Mauricio Funes, faces similar charges. He obtained political asylum in Nicaragua in September, after saying he feared for his life in El Salvador.

Political analyst Juan Ramon Medrano said the corruption investigations were likely partly due to pressure from the United States.

Washington has demanded action on corruption in return for financial aid to boost development and fight crime in El Salvador and its two poor neighbours.

Additional reporting by Associated Press