WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

3 May 2021 | Press Release

El Salvador’s moves against Attorney General, Constitutional Court: “Direct Attack on Democratic Institutions”

Majority bloc in El Salvador’s new National Assembly Replaces Attorney General, Constitutional Court, Hands Control to President Bukele and Allies.

Washington, DC – Within hours of taking office on May 1st, the majority bloc in El Salvador’s National Assembly led by President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, moved quickly to replace all five magistrates of the country’s Constitutional Court and the Attorney General of the country; moves that President Bukele described favorably as a “house cleaning.” In taking these steps, Bukele’s party sought to remove all checks and balances on the powers of the Executive and undermine the independence of the judiciary.

Over the last year, the Constitutional Court ruled repeatedly that the President had exceeded his constitutional authority in issuing far-reaching executive orders, ignoring legislative actions, and disobeying judicial orders. The Attorney General has opened corruption investigations against several of the President’s Cabinet Ministers, and launched a probe of reported negotiations between government officials and leaders of MS-13, a major street gang. Now the magistrates of the court, and the Attorney General have been dismissed and replaced.

While the Assembly has the constitutional power to dismiss the magistrates, and the attorney general, constitutional experts insist that the Assembly can only take action for a specified set of reasons, has to hold hearings and has to grant the officials due process before taking action. The Assembly, in its decisions, cited differences with the government.

The Assembly can name new magistrates, and a new Attorney General, but, according to the Constitution, only after a nomination process that requires input from a judicial council, the national bar association, and others. None of these procedures and requirements were followed. 

Police were guarding the chambers of the Constitutional Court, and the offices of the Attorney General to ensure that the deposed officials could not enter.

The Assembly moved quickly to name new magistrates to the court and a new Attorney General, thought to be allies of the President. One of the new magistrates had defended the president’s refusal last fall to obey a Constitutional Court order to open military archives to a judge investigating the infamous El Mozote massacre and the military officials responsible for it. 

In one day, President Bukele and his allies in the Assembly seized control of two independent organs of government that have checked his power in the past and challenged his authority. President Bukele and his allies are using their new majority in the Assembly to remove from office his political opponents. This is an assault on democratic institutions, and a deeply troubling concentration of power,” said Geoff Thale, President of WOLA.

In response to criticism from international institutions, members of the U.S. Congress, and the Biden Administration, President Bukele tweeted “with all due respect, this is not your business” (“no es de su incumbencia .”)

The Biden Administration has sought to work with El Salvador and the other countries of the Northern Triangle to strengthen the rule of law and address the underlying conditions that drive people to migrate. Administration officials issued tweets criticizing these actions by President Bukele and his allies, including Vice President Harris, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken called President Bukele to express U.S. support for the rule of law on Sunday.  

The actions by President Bukele and his allies in the Assembly make it clear that the Salvadoran government is not acting as a reliable ally in strengthening democratic institutions or governance, and that the Biden Administration won’t be able to cooperate with him and his government in addressing these problems. In the end, that’s not good for the Salvadoran people,” said Adriana Beltrán, WOLA’s Director for Citizen Security.

A broad range of Salvadoran human rights and civil society organizations, including the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA), Cristosal, and the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES), among others, also strongly criticized the Assembly’s actions as an attack on the rule of law and democratic institutions.