El Salvador judge orders arrest of 17, including minister, in Funes probe

Former first lady of El Salvador Vanda Pignato is seen during a recess for a preliminary hearing in a civil case for alleged corruption against her and former president Mauricio Funes in San Salvador, El Salvador September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - A judge in El Salvador ordered the arrest of 17 people, including the current Minister of Social Inclusion, on Monday for their suspected involvement in a corruption racket allegedly led by former President Mauricio Funes.

Funes, who has been in exile in Nicaragua since September 2016, is accused of using public funds to pay for trips, home remodeling and hospital bills, among other expenses.

Among those sought for their alleged involvement was Vanda Pignato, Funes’ ex-wife and the current minister of social inclusion, and other former high-ranking officials.

The government of leftist President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was Funes’ vice-president and is not suspected of involvement in the racket, lent its support to the ruling.

“As a government, we reject any act of corruption, wherever it may be, and we support all the actions necessary for the defense of public funds. We won’t tolerate anyone who has betrayed the trust of the people of El Salvador,” the president’s office said in a statement.

Funes, a 58-year-old former journalist, governed the poor Central American country from 2009 to 2014 and brought the party formed by a former leftist guerrilla group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, back to power for the first time following a 1980-1992 civil war.

He says he is a victim of political attacks orchestrated by businessmen and conservatives.

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Paul Tait