Salvadoran Ex-President Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison

Published: 13 September 2018

20080924-2 d-0237-9-562vFormer President Antonio Saca (left) with Former President George W. Bush in 2008 (Photo: Eric Draper, White House Archives)

By Lucy Papachristou

The former president of El Salvador, Antonio “Tony” Saca, was sentenced in a Salvadoran court Wednesday to 10 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to diverting more than US$300 million in state funds to his own businesses and third parties, the Associated Press reported.

Saca, 53, a member of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party known by its Spanish acronym ARENA, served as president from 2004 to 2009 and is the first Salvadoran ex-president to be convicted of corruption.

Saca and five of his associates including his former private secretary, Elmer Charlaix, pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced sentences. Both Charlaix and Saca faced 30 years before the plea deal, and each received five years for embezzlement and five years for money laundering, to be served consecutively.

“We are satisfied with the conviction, the criminal responsibility that has been imposed on the defendants, as well as the civil judgment,” prosecutor Jorge Cortez said. The case against Saca, however, has not been closed, he said. “We are going to strengthen investigations that are underway.”

Saca was arrested in October 2016 at a son’s wedding. When he took office in 2004 he declared assets of $3.6 million, which swelled to $13.1 million by the time he left in 2009. At some points during that five-year period, he gave his wife $10,000 a month to pay off her credit card debt.

Allegations of corruption against Saca, a former radio sports announcer, stretch back years. A secret cable sent by the US Embassy in San Salvador to Washington, later released by WikiLeaks, says that even those within Saca’s own ARENA party believe the president’s abuse of power “went beyond the pale.”

“Considerable evidence exists,” the cable reads, that “the Saca administration pushed laws and selectively enforced regulations with the specific intent to benefit Saca family business interests.”

Saca had expensive tastes, raising US Embassy eyebrows with his 5,024-square-meter (54,077 square feet) mansion - for scale, slightly larger than the smallest FIFA soccer field - that sits just over 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level on the eastern slope of the volcano of San Salvador, and commands sweeping views of the capital city below.

The mansion nestles in a grove of pine trees, and a semicircular staircase wends down the main facade, which looks down on the city, to a lavish garden, pool, and jacuzzi.

According to the online newspaper El Faro, Saca bought the mansion for $2.1 million from a company owned by the Salume family. Two members of that family, Nicolás Salume Barake and his son Nicolás Salume Babún, both now deceased, were close to both Saca and Mauricio Funes, Saca’s successor as president. Months after he took office, Funes asked the Legislative Assembly to appoint Salume Barake second in line to the presidency.

Funes was convicted in absentia in November 2017, along with his son Diego, of illegal enrichment after failing to account for $206,665 of his assets. The former president, who sought asylum in Nicaragua in 2016 after claiming he was being politically persecuted, was ordered to pay nearly $420,000 in restitution to the government.

Saca’s predecessor was also accused of corruption, but died before the matter was resolved. Francisco Flores was accused of diverting $15 million in aid money from Taiwan after two earthquakes devastated the small Central American nation in 2001.