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EL SALVADOR: Leftist Govt Clamps Down on Corruption

SAN SALVADOR, Jun 23 2009 (IPS) - Serious allegations of corruption involving central figures in the government of right-wing former Salvadoran president Antonio Saca (2004-2009) will be investigated by a commission led by Finance Minister Carlos Cáceres.

Left-wing President Mauricio Funes, who took office on Jun. 1, announced the decision in his first address to the nation, in which he referred to situations encountered by members of his cabinet in several of the ministries they took over.

The presidential commission will be made up of experts and lawyers who will document every case and recommend appropriate measures, said Funes, who won the Mar. 15 elections as the candidate for the formerly insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), now a political party.

The team of experts will investigate the National Registry Centre (CNR), the ministries of Public Health and Social Assistance, Interior, and the Environment and Natural Resources, as well as the Salvadoran Institute of Social Security (ISSS).

One of the most shocking cases, according to Funes, is at the CNR, the land and property registration institution, where there are alleged to be 29 “ghost employees” on the payroll, drawing salaries every month but never turning up for work.

These irregularities require an immediate, thorough investigation, to identify administrative and criminal responsibilities, said the president, who did not rule out the possible existence of further anomalies.

According to the new CNR director, Fernando Batlle, some of the phony employees were on the payroll from 2002 until May 31 this year, costing taxpayers over 700,000 dollars a year to cover their salaries of between 1,200 and 3,400 dollars a month.

People who are alleged to have received these payments include present and former government officials and their relatives, all of whom have ties to Saca’s party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) that ruled this country since 1989.

Among them are Gloria Calderón, sister of former president Armando Calderón (1994-1999), lawmaker Enrique Valdés, and Laura Rodas de d’Aubuisson, the widow of Central American Parliament legislator Eduardo d’Aubuisson, who was murdered in Guatemala in 2007. The authorities in that neighbouring country blamed drug mafias for his death, in connection with which Guatemalan policemen were arrested.

The murdered man was the son of the late Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA, who ordered the assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, killed by a sniper on Mar. 24, 1980 while he was celebrating mass.

Former officials in the Saca administration and conservative newspaper columnists Ivo Príamo Alvarenga and Marvin Galeas are said to have charged the state consultancy fees while they were actually working for ARENA, particularly during the recent electoral campaign.

President Funes also announced that hidden microphones had been found in the office of the new Interior Minister, Humberto Centeno.

Gerardo Suvillaga, the former CNR director and campaign manager for ARENA’s presidential candidate Rodrigo Ávila, who was defeated in March, made light of the accusations.

“We do have two ghosts haunting the CNR. Look for a woman in white and a little boy. They’re really scary,” Suvillaga said.

Meanwhile, ex-president Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994), the leader of ARENA, asked Funes to produce the evidence and refrain from making “baseless” accusations.

“He should be careful, because he can ruin people’s honourable names if a proper investigation is not done,” said Cristiani.

Other ARENA figures claimed that Funes’ accusations are a “smokescreen” to cover up the high crime rates he inherited, including a murder rate of 61 per 100,000 population, the highest in Latin America and one of the highest in the world.

The head of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), Raúl Melara, spoke out in support of the new president’s commitment to root out corruption in the public administration.

“It is important to investigate this, and if any financial or other irregularities are found, they should be submitted to the proper authorities,” said Melara, traditionally a supporter of the right.

Jaime López, coordinator of the transparency programme for the Foundation for the Study of the Application of Rights (FESPAD), expressed backing for the president’s announcement, but said it could have been presented more forcefully if all the evidence had been made public.

He said the president could have avoided the “party-political disputes” that ensued by presenting the full list of persons and amounts involved in the ghost employee scandal.

López, who has worked on corruption issues in Central America for over 15 years, said that to pursue the case the president should hand over the evidence to the Comptroller General’s Office, which would carry out the investigation, and in turn to the Attorney General’s Office if crimes were involved.

The Comptroller General’s Office, the country’s highest audit body, has for over 20 years been under the control of the rightwing Party of National Conciliation (PCN), a traditional ARENA ally in parliament, where the Comptroller General is elected every three years by a simple majority.

Civil society organisations have complained on several occasions that reports of corruption have been shelved by the PCN-controlled audit office, in return for political and economic favours received under the four ARENA administrations from 1989 to May 2009.

The Global Corruption Barometer 2009, a report by Transparency International (TI) on surveys carried out by Gallup International and other pollsters in 69 countries, places El Salvador among the seven countries in which political parties and the justice system are perceived to be the most corrupt institutions.

A Gallup International poll of 500 people in El Salvador in March 2009 indicated that 69 percent of respondents had these perceptions, according to the Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo (FUNDE), the Salvadoran affiliate of TI.

FESPAD’s López said Funes should “open government archives to the public, with or without a freedom of access to information law,” as the government alone cannot investigate every act of corruption, but needs the help of the public and the press.

The new president should implement a “code of conduct that guarantees there will be no corruption in his government,” López said.

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