After openly and repeatedly defying an El Salvador Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the arbitrary detention of people accused of violating stay-at-home orders, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador has shown this week his full intent to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for undermining rule of law, forcing the country into a constitutional crisis.
In a tweet released earlier this week, President Bukele ordered that the police and military use lethal force in the fulfillment of their security duties. Bukele also said that the government would pay the legal fees of any police officer investigated over killings of alleged gang members. This rhetoric appears to condone extrajudicial executions by the security forces, in violation of El Salvador’s criminal law and the laws governing military and police conduct.
Bukele’s recent orders for a repressive prison lockdown is also disturbing. Blaming imprisoned gang leaders for ordering a recent rise in violence, state forces locked down prisons and conducted massive searches, while keeping inmates packed together in degrading conditions.
While imprisoned gang leaders may be directing gang activity on the street, flouting harsh and abusive treatment of incarcerated populations does nothing to make Salvadorans safer. Indeed, at a time when it is critical that governments across the hemisphere take action to reduce prison populations before rampant COVID-19 infections cause a catastrophe, Bukele’s government is touting prison lockdowns that may actively contribute to the spread of illness.
Bukele’s actions this month, from openly defying rulings by the Supreme Court, allowing the police and military to illegally detain and inhumanely treat 778 civilians accused of violating quarantine, condoning the use of lethal force by public security forces, and the repressive prison actions, signal his clear intent to consolidate power in the executive branch.
This concentration of power would be troubling anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. However, it’s especially concerning in El Salvador’s context, where the government and civil society have faced a difficult struggle to overcome the legacy of the Cold War-era military dictatorship. Bukele’s instincts to impose repressive measures and call for heavy-handed tactics is an appalling assault on the laws that preserve democracy and constitutional order in El Salvador.
As noted by Representatives Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, all of these recent actions by the Bukele government jeopardize the human rights of Salvadorans and put El Salvador’s democracy at risk. “We urge you to adhere to your country’s constitution and respect the authority of El Salvador’s legislative and judicial branches,” the letter states. “Policies that promote social distancing are essential, but they must also ensure the protection of fundamental human rights.”