SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) – Former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, whose five years in power were tarnished by accusations of corruption and elitism, died Saturday in the capital after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, his party said. He was 56.
The former leader had been in a coma since undergoing emergency surgery.
Flores, who led El Salvador from 1999 to 2004, was under house arrest on charges of embezzlement and illegal enrichment. He was accused of diverting more than $15 million, which had been donated by Taiwan to help the victims of earthquakes in 2001. A court says $10 million of that went to the party backing him and the remainder to him.
The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, better known as ARENA, which carried Flores to the presidency, mourned his death and said it would support his family. Current Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez also offered his condolences through his official Twitter account.
Doctors last week said Flores had suffered irreversible neurological damage and that his chances of survival were minimal.
Flores had suffered from thrombosis, the clotting of blood in veins. He was hospitalized for it in October 2014. He was hospitalized again Dec. 22, 2015, for an internal hemorrhage.
Loyda Robles, one of the plaintiff lawyers against Flores, said last week that his death would end the criminal prosecution, but that the civil litigation would continue.
Robles also said that plaintiffs had asked the country's Supreme Court to add the charge of money laundering to the case. That could expand the criminal prosecution beyond Flores to include the possible involvement of others.
On Sunday, ARENA lawmaker Ernesto Muyshondt expressed sadness that Flores had died under the cloud of criminal charges.
"Over the past few years he was plagued, vilified, accused by these people who wanted to harm him," Muyshondt said. "I'm sorry that he has left us before he could clear his name and prove his innocence."
Retired teacher Tomas Herrera awoke to the news Sunday and also expressed regret Flores had died before the prosecution could run its course.
"His friends said that he was innocent and others that he was guilty," Herrera said. "Now he's before divine justice."
Flores had a meteoric rise to the presidency, but once there gained a reputation for being arrogant and distant from his people. He became El Salvador's first president to be charged and put on trial for acts of corruption during his time in office.
"The people will remember him for the terrible dollarization, for the Firm Hand (to combat crime) and as corrupt," said Angelica Rivas, who works with a nonprofit organization promoting women's rights.
Jeannette Aguilar, of the University Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas, said that various studies showed Flores' presidency to be among the worst based on public opinion.
"He was a leader with an arrogant style, a lot of hubris, not close to the people, who responded to the interests of the economic elite who at that time dominated Arena," Aguilar said.
Born to a well-off, conservative and anti-communist family, Flores rose quickly through the ranks of Arena, which ruled El Salvador between 1989 and 2009. He started in the government of Arena's first president, Alfredo Cristiani, in 1989, when he was still in his 20s.
Just a few days into his new position, a guerrilla attack killed his wife's father. In the 1990s, he served as an Arena legislator and in 1997 was elected president of the legislature.
He won the presidency in 1999, beating former guerrilla commander Facundo Guardado.
Flores took office at the age of 39 as Arena's third consecutive president. He left office in 2004.
During his time in power, El Salvador was hit with successive natural disasters.
Earthquakes in January and February 2001 killed more than 1,000 people and left 200,000 homeless. Later a severe drought destroyed coffee crops.
The corruption scandal and alleged theft of the earthquake-relief funds sealed his reputation with many. The switch to the U.S. dollar as the country's currency also received a huge popular backlash.
Salvadorans were encouraged to see the attempts to bring Flores to justice, but he did not live long enough to see out the process.
"Our justice system has been slow, has obeyed the interests that do not obey the interest of justice of the people and some try to make him out to be the victim," said Miguel Montenegro from the El Salvador Human Rights Commission.