M. Continuo

El Salvador rejects U.N.-backed anti-graft body, backs milder plan

By Nelson Renteria

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - The United States tried and failed to convince El Salvador to set up an international commission to fight corruption like the one that helped bring down the president of neighbouring Guatemala, a Salvadoran government official said.

    Instead, the U.S. government's aid agency (USAID) will renew a less powerful anti-corruption programme in the Central American nation without broad investigative powers, according to documents seen by Reuters.

    The United States early this year offered $1 billion in new aid to help revitalise Central America - one of the world's poorest and most violent regions - and stem the flood of child migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

    But how much money they receive will likely depend in some measure on their willingness to battle corruption.

    The U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was instrumental in gathering evidence showing that President Otto Perez was part of a customs racket.

The probe led to Perez's resignation and arrest last month, although he has denied the allegations against him.

    His fall triggered calls for similar investigative units in other Central American nations and the CICIG's head, Ivan Velasquez, has said it is an "exportable" model.

Still, the prospect of facing the same fate as Perez has made neighbouring governments wary of setting up a similar body.

In July, Thomas Shannon, counsellor to the U.S. State Department, met Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and suggested the country establish its own U.N.-backed anti-corruption body.

    "He spoke about the possibility of an International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador," said Marcos Rodriguez, the country's secretary for citizen participation, transparency and anti-corruption.

    "We will analyse it, but for the time being we don't need it ... The judicial powers, the attorney general's office, have said the same," said Rodriguez, who attended the meeting.

He said Washington had not applied any pressure to force El Salvador to set up the U.N.-backed commission.

Guatemala's Perez denied the accusations against him, and accused Washington of seeking to extend the anti-graft commission to El Salvador and Honduras after his fall.

The U.S. State Department did not respond to requests for comment on the Salvadoran plan.

After Shannon's visit, USAID finally proposed renewing a separate anti-corruption plan to improve transparency of El Salvador's public institutions, a spokesman at the agency said.

Worth $25 million over five years - or about half what the CICIG gets in Guatemala - the five-year project lacks the reach of the CICIG, which used wire taps, emails and raids to help the government investigate fraud and ultimately bring down Perez.

Instead, the USAID plan will depend on "political will and implementation of transparency regulations," according to the documents seen by Reuters.

Rodriguez said El Salvador was ready to take part in it.

(Additional reporting by Enrique Pretel; Writing by Anna Yukhananov; Editing by Dave Graham and Kieran Murray)