U.S. slaps sanctions on foreign officials for alleged corruption, El Salvador bristles

FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of the Treasury headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Signage is seen at the United States Department of the Treasury headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., August 29, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

WASHINGTON/SAN SALVADOR, Dec 9 (Reuters) - The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday targeted foreign government officials and companies it accused of corruption, including senior figures in El Salvador and Guatemala involved in their countries' COVID-19 responses.

Thursday's action, the latest in a series of sanctions announcements in the week of President Joe Biden's democracy summit, targeted 15 individuals and entities across countries in Central America, Africa and Europe, the Treasury said.

"Corrupt acts take resources from citizens, undermine public trust, and threaten the progress of those who fight for democracy," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement.

Those targeted include El Salvador's chief of Cabinet, Martha Carolina Recinos De Bernal, who the Treasury alleges headed a scheme to award inflated contracts as part of the country's coronavirus response, and a Guatemalan health official suspected of engaging in misappropriation of funds.

Sanctions were also applied by the State Department against Osiris Luna and Carlos Marroquin, two El Salvador officialswho a day earlier were accused by the Treasury of leading, facilitating and organizing a number of secret meetings with incarcerated leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio-18 gangs. read more

El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, hit back on Twitter, writing: "These daily accusations seem absurd."

"It is clear that the United States Government does not accept collaboration, friendship or alliance," he said.

In a sign of deepening tensions with Washington, Bukele also tweeted screenshots of private WhatsApp messages he exchanged with Jean Manes, former charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, who left her post last month as ties deteriorated.

The State Department also applied further sanctions against Nestor Moncada Lau, a national security adviser to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, alleging he operates an "import and customs fraud scheme" to enrich members of Ortega's government.

Among other officials targeted were Liberian warlord-turned-Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, who the Treasury accuses of a "pay-for-play" scheme with government ministries and organizations for personal enrichment.

The Treasury also imposed sanctions on former Ukrainian official Andrey Portnov, accusing him of buying influence in Ukraine's courts, as well as two former Angolan officials - Leopoldino Fragoso do Nascimento and Manuel Helder Vieira Dias Jr., who it alleges embezzled billions of dollars.

The State Department also announced visa bans on nine individuals it said were involved in significant corruption, and their immediate family members.

Reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador Editing by Dan Grebler and Peter Cooney

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