Washington, D.C.—In February, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, led his political party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) to a landslide victory in legislative elections, raising international concern that this new majority would facilitate further democratic backsliding and attacks on rule of law. On May 1, on the first day of the new legislative session, this concern became reality as his party’s supermajority rushed to remove the Attorney General and the five magistrates of the country’s Constitutional Chamber without due process or adherence to national and international norms.
This power grab is the latest in a series of assaults on judicial independence and the rule of law in Central America. In a new op-ed for Foreign Policy, WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and Central America Research Fellow Will Freeman highlight the implications of this judicial takeover and the need for action from the Biden administration.
In recent years, Central America has seen several attacks on judicial independence and moves to take over top courts. Nicaragua’s top court was the first to fall, making way for the repeal of presidential term limits and mass imprisonment of protesters without due process guarantees. This was followed by Honduras, where Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party removed and installed a majority on the country’s Supreme Court, which allowed Hernandez to cling to power and has since served the party’s interests. In Guatemala, the fall out of the CICIG, the country’s UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity, left the Constitutional Court as the last bastion in the defense of rule of law and the recent nefarious barring of a standout independent judge from returning to the court is foreboding. In El Salvador, with the top court and prosecutor’s office under Bukele’s control, there are practically no obstacles to stop future power grabs. Since May 1, Bukele as well as the legislators have announced there will be additional purges and the new attorney general is calling for a review of the CICIES (International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador), backed by the OAS.
Since taking office, the Biden administration has struck the right tone in calling for a renewed commitment to the rule of law in the region; however, as Bukele’s dismissal and mockery of international critics shows, rhetorical warnings only go so far. As Beltrán and Freeman note, “Now, the time has come for the administration to deploy the full range of tools at its disposal to push back against attacks on the rule of law…If action doesn’t come soon, there won’t be any independent courts in Central America left to defend.”