Last June, a bipartisan group of 14 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin requesting an investigation into the financial activities of José Luis Merino, a powerful, behind-the-scenes leader of El Salvador’s ruling FMLN. They cited Merino’s “long-standing relations” with “organized crime networks that are subject to criminal investigations in the United States for cocaine trafficking and money laundering.”
Merino’s role in regional criminal activities first came to public attention when his name (under his nom de guerre “Comandante Ramiro”) surfaced in the computer files of the late FARC leader Raul Reyes, whose camp was bombed by the Colombian military in 2008. Since then, his suspect activities have grown due to his affiliation with Alba Petróleos, an entity created by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to boost the prospects of left-wing parties in the region by providing oil on preferential terms.
In August, Salvadoran magazine Septimo Sentido published an in-depth, three-part report blowing the lid off Merino’s dubious financial operations and the individuals behind them. It found that Merino’s inner circle is transnational in scope and even extends to the heart of the United States.
In addition to his official role as El Salvador’s Vice Minister for Investment and Financing for Development (a recently created office that gives him immunity from prosecution), Merino is the face of Alba Petróleos in El Salvador; the company is 60% owned by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company, while the balance is held by ENEPASA, a company established by several mayors from the FMLN.
The leading front-men for José Luis Merino’s international business operations are his brother, Sigfredo Israel Merino Cabrera, José Mauricio Cortez Avelar, and Aldo Adrián Aguirre, a Guatemalan living in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Sigfredo Armando Merino Cabrera is a U.S. citizen, and reportedly has used that to grant a patina of legitimacy to various business ventures in coordination with his brother, including to obtain power of attorney for the subsidiary of Alba Petróleos in Panama, APES INC., in 2010. He has a long association with his brother in a variety of commercial enterprises. From 2003 to 2006, they were tied to Coordinadora y Asesora de Proyectos (CAPSA), a sanitation company that received sweetheart contracts from mayors aligned with the ruling Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Today, he has important positions in at least eight companies that have received millions in loans from Alba Petróleos of El Salvador.
A second important figure is José Mauricio Cortez Avelar, a man who catapulted from an obscure legal career to being named to a number of company boards, companies that would be the recipient of multi-million dollar loans from Alba Petróleos of El Salvador. In 2011, Cortez Avelar became president of a company in Panama and member of another limited liability company in the U.S. state of Nevada, all tied to Alba Petróleos. In El Salvador alone, Cortez Avelar has been a member of 15 such companies (a shareholder in five of them) and is still active in 10. He acts as counselor and mercantile attorney in two of those. In Panama, he is a member of the board of directors of seven companies related to Alba Petróleos. In just six years, twenty-four companies, through which millions of dollars have circulated, were created and had Cortez Avelar’s participation.
Merino’s key ally in Nevada is Aldo Adrián Aguirre, a Guatemalan living in Las Vegas. (Aguirre served as an Honorary Vice-Consul of his country to that city from 2003 to 2014.) He has held management positions in several companies in Nevada. One of them was Alianza Consulting Group, which had dealings with Alba Petróleos of El Salvador. In 2011, under the auspices of this company, he became secretary and treasurer of the board of directors of Alba Refining Company, Latin America, SA, an offshore company registered in Panama. Previously, he started another company linked to Alba Petróleos, Petro Global International, registered in Nevada. From then on, his name began to become more and more prominent in companies related to Alba Petróleos, including the three in Nevada, three “offshore” companies of Alba Petróleos in Panama, and three more in El Salvador. One, El-Dia Corporation, based in Curacao, received loans from Alba Petróleos totaling more than $39 million in 2015, $10 million more than El-Día earmarked to finance a failed airline.