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U.S. accuses senior officials and politicians in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras of corruption

The accusations come as the U.S. prepares to invest more heavily in Central America as a means of deterring migration.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2020. U.S. lawmakers and analysts said he was apparently excluded from the lists released Tuesday but he has been implicated in drug trafficking by the Department of Justice. He has denied the allegations. (Jorge Cabrera/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — Congress on Tuesday released three lists of Central American politicians whom the State Department has found to be corrupt or involved in narcotrafficking, underscoring the challenge facing the Biden administration as it attempts to work with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to deter migration.

The lists include 16 current and former politicians from the three countries, including the chief of cabinet to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and current Honduran and Guatemalan lawmakers.

U.S. lawmakers and analysts said the lists appeared to exclude a number of officials who have faced corruption allegations in recent years, including Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has been implicated in drug trafficking by the Department of Justice. He has denied the allegations.

Still, the lists point to one of the major challenges facing the Biden administration as it prepares to increase development assistance to the three “Northern Triangle” countries in the hope of slowing migration to the United States. Biden has proposed a four-year, $4 billion development program for Central America, the implementation of which is likely to be complicated by corruption allegations in the region.

“We cannot expect the people of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to thrive at home while their elected officials are more focused on self-enrichment than serving the public,” said Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.). “This list is a strong step, but it is only the first step towards holding those officials accountable."

Torres requested the list from the State Department earlier this year. It was sent to Congress last month and released publicly on Tuesday.

Central American leaders resisting Biden’s anti-corruption efforts

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. The governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala did not respond to requests for comment.

Relations had grown tense between the United States and the Northern Triangle countries long before the list’s publication. The United States expressed concern earlier this month about Bukele’s party’s decision to remove members of the country’s Supreme Court. He has pushed back against that criticism.

“For the voices that still ask us to return to the past, with much respect and affection: the changes that we made are IRREVERSIBLE,” he wrote on Twitter.

Salvadoran officials named by the State Department included Carolina Recinos, Bukele’s chief of cabinet, and Rogelio Rivas, his former security minister.

Recinos “engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office,” the report said.

Rivas, it said, awarded “his own private construction company several noncompetitive and unadvertised contracts to build police stations and other buildings.”

In March, a federal court in New York sentenced Tony Hernández, the brother of Juan Orlando Hernández, to life in prison on cocaine trafficking charges. Court documents in the case alleged that Juan Orlando Hernández’s presidential campaign was financed by drug proceeds.

Honduran president, a Trump ally implicated in drug trafficking, tries to win over Biden

Boris Roberto España Cáceres, a member of Guatemala’s Congress who is on the list released Tuesday, had previously been accused by a U.S.-backed anti-corruption body of money laundering. The list referred to “credible news reports” that indicate his role in “an active bribery corruption ring.”

Carlos Danilo Preciado Navarijo, the mayor of the Guatemalan city of Ocós, was also on the list. He had been captured this year by Panamanian authorities at the request of the United States. He is accused of drug trafficking, according to the State Department report.

In response to legislation last year, the U.S. government will have to produce another list of Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran officials suspected of corruption, whose U.S. visas will be ordered revoked. Dubbed the “Engel list,” it is expected to be released to Congress in the coming months.

“I hope that the Engel list will be more comprehensive, particularly given that the administration has had more time to put it together, and that it will make full and strategic use of all the tools at its disposal,” said Adriana Beltran, the director for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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