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US bans entry of “corrupt” John Saldivar

HeadlineUS bans entry of “corrupt” John Saldivar

Photo: John Saldivar

The public designation of former UDP Cabinet minister, John Saldivar as a former government official guilty of significant corruption was initially announced by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Nov. 17, 2022

The US State Department has released a written statement that notifies the public that former UDP Belmopan area representative, John Saldivar, who served during the previous Barrow administration as the country’s Minister of National Security, has been designated by the US government as a former government official who was involved in “significant corruption”, and as a result he and his immediate family are now barred from entering the United States.

In the statement, the US State Department indicates that Saldivar “accepted bribes in exchange for improperly facilitating the acquisition of Belizean immigration documents” and that he “interfered in public processes for personal gain.” US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken made an announcement of the designation prior to the release of the written statement, which was released on Tuesday and which points to section 7031 (c ) of the USSD Foreign Operation and Related Programs Appropriations Act of 2022. That section of the US legislation “provides that officials of foreign governments and their immediate family members about whom the Secretary of State has credible information of direct or indirect involvement in significant corruption or a gross violation of human rights are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

The announcement by what is still arguably the world’s most powerful nation could deal a death blow to the political career of Saldivar, who was attempting to regain footing after a huge loss at the polls in the 2020 general elections and who is once more seeking to be the UDP standard bearer in Belmopan. It could also further weaken and splinter the United Democratic Party, following a recent attempt by certain members of the party to recall its current leader, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow. The party recently began holding conventions for the selection of some standard bearers and the endorsement of some — and Saldivar was seemingly on the cusp of securing the Belmopan standard bearer position at an upcoming convention after the apparent sidelining of the other contender, Khalid Belisle (former Belmopan mayor), when the announcement landed like a comet. The UDP now must decide whether it will disqualify Saldivar or whether it will risk being a political party associated with a person publicly designated as significantly corrupt by the US.

While the UDP has not released a public statement on the matter as yet, the Leader of the Opposition, Hon. Moses “Shyne” Barrow, in a social media post, referred to the designation as an “allegation” by the US State Department, and he went on to say, “Notwithstanding our zero tolerance of corruption by public officials, we must be guided by the fundamental principles of due process and in the Belize judicial system all are innocent until proven guilty.”

Barrow went on to say that the Opposition will take steps to gather facts from the State Department and Saldivar to “determine the way forward to implement our anti-corruption policy in a fair and just manner.”

But other members of the UDP are calling for Saldivar’s removal from the party, and are classifying Barrow’s statement as indicative of the symbiotic relationship between himself and Saldivar. 

Notably, it was Saldivar (who had once himself briefly secured the spot as UDP leader in 2020 before his association with a convicted US fraudster became known via Utah court documents) who was believed to be the mastermind of the UDP “Caucus for Change”’s effort to remove former UDP leader Patrick Faber from the helm of the UDP in 2021 — which arguably paved the way for Barrow’s swift ascent to the top spot in the party.

Known UDP stalwart Denton Belisle (the father of Khalid Belisle, former Belmopan mayor who also aspires to be Belmopan area rep) thus stated this morning, “The attempt therein to obfuscate the issues at hand and to downplay the gravity of the move by the U.S. Government against Saldivar leaves me to conclude that all efforts will be made by the UDP leadership to cover up Saldivar’s transgressions and to protect and preserve his status within the UDP, cost it what it may.”

It remains to be seen what type of cover-up can he done, or what type of investigation would be necessary to understand the basis of the corruption claims made by the US government. The accusations are many. They can be found in the past headlines of most local newspapers, and in the archives of the country’s television stations and news websites.

The role he allegedly played in the improper “acquisition of Belizean immigration documents” is documented in the coverage of a Senate Select Committee inquiry (2016-2017) that was held following the release of a report by then Auditor General Dorothy Bradley that uncovered unethical conduct within the Immigration Department during the period 2011-2013. Saldivar was listed during the committee’s questioning of key Immigration officials as a government minister who would frequently visit the Immigration Department to deliver applications on behalf of his “constituents”. It has been alleged that during that period Cabinet ministers were signing visa recommendations for a range of individuals, particularly Asian nationals.

When questioned by Jules Vasquez in 2013 about the role he played in facilitating visa acquisition for some persons, Saldivar had said, “I have never issued any letter. I have simply called at times to try to see the process through, but that’s about it. I have never written any letter — that has never occurred with me.”

Interestingly, when it was announced that a Belizean government official had been receiving payments of $25,000 US monthly from US fraudster Lev Dermen, who reportedly defrauded the US government of $511 million in a bio-fuel scam, a January 2020 AMANDALA article had noted that Lev Asan Dermen used the name Levon Termendzhyan when “he was granted Belizean nationality in September, 2013.”

The article further noted that Dermen was a Los-Angeles-based businessman who “was granted Belizean nationality under questionable circumstances” and that he was “indicted in the state of Utah along with four members of a polygamous family with the surname ‘Kingston’ who owned a bio-fuel plant, Washakie Renewable Energy, which was used in the massive forgery for which four members of the family made a plea deal with prosecutors..”

(Transcripts from the Utah District Court proceeding indicate that Lev Dermen and his affiliates were introduced to Saldivar while he was Minister of National Security in order to facilitate the opening of a casino in Belize. Other Belizean government officials were also at that meeting. In 2013, Saldivar admitted to having met Dermen during the 2013 Gold Cup Football Tournament.)

Prime Minister at the time, Hon. Dean Barrow, had indicated that all members of his Cabinet, including Saldivar, had denied receiving any money from Dermen. Not long after, Saldivar was named in alleged court documents that indicated that he communicated via text with Dermen’s business associate, Jacob Kingston, to arrange the transfer of the US $25,000 monthly.

And it appears that the US government had been tracking and documenting all these developments.

The US Embassy’s Belize 2020 Human Rights Report stated, “In February, Minister of National Security and newly elected leader of the United Democratic Party John Saldivar was forced to resign when court documents revealed that he received large sums of money from a U.S. citizen accused of defrauding the U.S. government of tax in return for political favors in Belize. Saldivar remained area representative for Belmopan and an active legislator. The Commissioner of Police stated the BPD would initiate an investigation into the matter and press charges, but as of October no charges had been filed. The Senate Select Committee presented its report and recommendations on an investigation, initiated in 2017, of the Immigration and Nationality Department conducted by the Office of the Auditor General. The report confirmed the department had a pattern of improper and illegal issuances of Belizean visas, passports, and citizenship. The committee conducted public hearings in 2017 that revealed several instances where high-ranking government officials, including ministers of government, approved the issuance of visas, citizenship, and passports to unqualified individuals. As of October no charges had been filed against anyone as a result of the report.”

Prior to these allegations, however, Saldivar had received public criticism before — for his association/business partnership with convicted murderer Danny Mason, who was involved in the murder and beheading of Pastor Llewelyn Lucas, and for misuse of Coast Guard vessels donated by the US government while he headed the Ministry that oversaw that arm of law enforcement.

In an October 16 article entitled, “Leaked documents confirm business relationship between John Saldivar and Danny Mason,” the San Pedro Sun had reported, “Despite much denial from several government officials, a leaked document released on October 17th revealed the business relationship between Minister of Defense John Saldivar and Mason, the accused murderer. In a press release issued on Tuesday, October 18th, the Barrow Administration announced that Saldivar was placed on a one-week leave of absence… Saldivar previously reported that he had accepted $50,000 from Mason as a contribution to his Belmopan Bandits football team. He stated that was the extent of their business relationship and claimed that he has disassociated himself with Mason since September 2015 after learning of Mason’s ‘unsavory’ past. However, the document with signatures of both men indicate how both Saldivar and Mason were shareholders of the company: Bandits Sporting Club Limited, the holding company for the Belmopan Bandits Football Club. According to the document dated August 18, 2015, shares were split with 70% belonging to Saldivar, and 30% to Mason.”

The other accusation, that Saldivar used Coast Guard boats to entertain some of his questionable associates — specifically Lev Dermen— has also been documented. And there were media reports that he used such vessels to transport his football team, Belmopan Bandits, to San Pedro when the team played on the island. In regard to the first of the two accusations, 7News has aired an audio clip in which a man purported to be Saldivar can be heard saying, “Now I understand why when Lev mi come da Belize, when I take Lev on the Coast Guard boat, I take Lev and all of these Mormons pan wa fishing trip out deh eena the Coast Guard boat and so… that is how he was, according to Jacob, asserting that, hey, yuh listen to me or else you could get F*** because I have friends all over the world, my network of F* powerful people… That’s how my name come to be mentioned. Da soh I di get the 25 thousand dollars every month. That’s how my name come into it. Me get lotta F* money from Lev.”

Nonetheless, in the face of all these accusations, Saldivar is defending his reputation and refuting what has been reported about him. He has said that the funds he received from Dermen were campaign contributions (and had in fact stated at a press conference last year that then Prime Minister Barrow knew about it.) According to Saldivar, who refuted the US Department’s claims in a Facebook post, he recalls being told that a person known as a car dealer who claimed to be a part of his inner circle made some untrue statements about him while trying to secure a visa from the US Embassy. The person allegedly said that Saldivar received bags of money weekly and claimed that he was involved in corruption in the Immigration Department.

Saldivar went on to refer to the US State Department’s claims that immigration documents were improperly acquired through bribes accepted by Saldivar as “unfounded, and malicious” — noting that no evidence or specific case was cited in the statement.

He further commented in a release on his Facebook page on Wednesday morning that he had no clue where the allegations were coming from until he remembered a conversation he had with former Prime Minister Dean Barrow while they were in office.

“I never knew that this big lie would come back to haunt me, and I did not consider anything until now that it has come back to my memory while searching for answers,” he remarked in his post.

Saldivar is claiming that the US State Department will never be able to produce any evidence against him and has hinted that there is some ulterior motive behind this designation, which, he said, has blindsided him just weeks before his endorsement convention.

“This is the mighty United States of America, accountable to no one. We are all supposed to just accept that they are right, even when they have been wrong so many times before. We are to assume there is no secret motive to interfere in our politics, even though evidence of such interference abounds across the world,” Saldivar commented.

He added, “This designation of mine is timed a few weeks before my convention to once again become the candidate for the UDP. Up until yesterday, this was a sure thing. If I mount a legal challenge, it will not conclude before the convention, so there is no way I can clear my name before then. But of course, they know that.”

He called the move a “bully tactic” and suggested that it was no coincidence that the Prime Minister, John Briceno, met with Antony Blinken recently.

“For those of you who are interested in our democracy and ensuring that there is no political interference from outside forces, especially when using manufactured evidence, picture this: John Briceno visited US Secretary of State Blinken last week and this week Secretary Blinken who hardly even knows where Belize is, signs a declaration against a key political opponent of John Briceno,” Saldivar said.

He even made mention, when responding to comments on the post, of recent visits by Patrick Faber, former UDP leader and Collet area representative, to Briceno’s residence. Prime Minister Briceno has subsequently referred to that insinuation by Saldivar as “ridiculously preposterous”, adding that he “wishes this on no one.” 

The Prime Minister further told reporters, “I do not rejoice what is happening to Mr. Saldivar and especially to his family that quite likely they were not involved in the allegations that were made against him, but it is something certainly for my Cabinet for us to be able to look at that and to see what the consequences can be if we do not do what is right.”

In regard to Saldivar’s insistence that the claims being made by the US State Department are untrue, Briceno commented, “Well, he has been saying this for a number of years whenever anything is brought up to him that he is innocent and every time things come out to show that there is not much credibility to what he is saying. But I guess, like everybody, he has to put some kind of defense; he has to say something. But time will tell.”

Saldivar says that he is consulting an attorney in Belize and may retain a US attorney if he decides to pursue a legal challenge against the US government, since he claims that no due process was observed or evidence presented to him prior to the US State Department’s announcement.

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