WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

27 Jul 2021 | WOLA Statement

Bukele Administration Risks Politicizing El Salvador’s Anti-Corruption Fight

Democratic Backsliding Accelerates After Wave of Actions by Bukele Government

On Thursday, July 22, Salvadoran authorities arrested several former cabinet members and legislators from the FMLN party who served in the Mauricio Funes administration (2009-2014) on charges of money laundering, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment. The arrests follow a series of actions that have raised further concern about the increasing attacks against the rule of law and democratic backsliding in El Salvador.

Among those detained are former ministers Violeta Menjivar, Erlinda Handal, Hugo Flores, and Carlos Caceres, and former deputy Calixto Mejia. The Attorney General’s Office announced that it was also seeking a request for an Interpol “red” notice for the detention of several others currently outside the country on similar charges, including former president Salvador Sanchez Ceren (2014-2019) who served as vice president in the Funes administration. Concerningly, the arrests of the FMLN officials took place without respect for due process: according to several reports, the detainees were held without being informed of the charges against them and without a judicial order. 

According to newly appointed Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, the arrests were related to the issue of “sobresueldos”—that is, payment of unauthorized bonuses from a confidential slush fund under the control of the president. The payment of unreported bonuses has been a common practice during the last six administrations and across the political spectrum, including presidencies that saw the FMLN and ARENA parties in power, one of which was the presidency of Tony Saca, who started the GANA party in 2010 after being expelled from ARENA.

While the details of these charges are not clear yet, the arrests of the FLMN officials are raising concerns about selective prosecutions and the possible politicization of the fight against corruption. Notably, the arrests took place weeks after the U.S. State Department published a list of officials—including several top-level appointees in the Bukele administration—involved in significant corruption and undemocratic actions in the Northern Triangle. In El Salvador’s case, the list included four current and two former government officials of the Bukele administration, including his current chief of cabinet, labor minister, legal advisor, and former minister of security and justice. To date, authorities have yet to initiate investigations against those named on the list—Attorney General Delgado has said he has no basis to do so—nor have they been removed from office.   

The recent events form part of a larger, troubling pattern of politicizing anti-corruption efforts and attacks meant to silence Bukele’s critics and political opponents. Making serious progress against corruption requires determined efforts to overcome vested interests and ensure that individuals are held accountable regardless of their position or political connections. Otherwise, the Bukele administration is creating the perception that, when it comes to investigating corruption, some are above the rule of law depending on political affiliation. 

Other recent actions by the Bukele administration add to concerns about stepped-up attacks against rule of law and democratic institutions. Two weeks ago, Bukele proposed a series of controversial reforms to freedom of information laws, dramatically limiting the type of information that the government is required to make publicly available. The reforms seek to shield the salaries and financial holdings of senior government and other officials from public knowledge. They would also classify information related to official trips, public contracts, and state agency advisors as secret, and allow government offices to declare 25 types of information confidential that until now have been required by law to be made public. 

The package of reforms come weeks after the National Assembly, dominated by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, granted immunity to officials accused of mismanaging COVID-19 funds, and after the closure of the OAS-backed International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The CICIES had been working with former Attorney General Raul Melara in investigating alleged irregularities of emergency fund purchases to respond to the pandemic. 

For decades, corruption has hindered the ability of El Salvador’s government to provide basic services, and undermined its ability to effectively address the country’s social and economic challenges. El Salvador needs independent and transparent institutions, and it needs impartial anti-corruption probes that don’t run the risk of being perceived as politically motivated. The need for the U.S. government and international bodies to reaffirm the importance of democratic institutions and impartiality in El Salvador has been made even more clear in light of the Bukele administration’s continued attacks against rule of law and democratic governance.

*An earlier version incorrectly stated that the last six administrations saw the GANA party in power. Those presidencies saw the ARENA and FMLN parties in power, but not GANA.