Editor’s Note: This article has been abridged and condensed from the original version in Spanish.
Internal documents from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) obtained by El Faro reveal that $50 of the $109 million of the loan with which president Nayib Bukele is looking to finance Phase III of his Plan for Territorial Control (PCT in Spanish) will go toward expanding domestic deployments of the army in public safety-related operations over the next three years. The rollout of Phase III would touch the municipalities of almost 3 million residents across 14 departments, including parts of the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador.
This earmark coincides with an executive order signed by Bukele on November 27, 2019, authorizing the army to conduct peacetime patrols through December 2020 and mirroring prior FMLN administrations’ orders to authorize similar patrols. The loan will contribute to the largest budget increase for the Armed Forces—just over 50 percent from 2019—since the end of the civil war in 1992. It will also endow the Ministry of Defense with the largest budget under the executive branch.
A quarter of the loan will fund the acquisition of cutting-edge intelligence-gathering technology, including video surveillance equipment and heat-seeking drones with three main capabilities: facial recognition, license plate recognition, and real-time surveillance. While most of these funds are assigned to the National Civil Police, the army would receive the most expensive and sophisticated drone technology. Furthermore, while the proposed roles for both the police and army include drone monitoring systems, only the army’s system received a budget through the loan.
While the National Civil Police and Armed Forces have indicated that the surveillance technology will be used to fight organized crime and drug trafficking and “allow for virtual patrolling that increases the scientific rigor of criminal investigations,” the proposed acquisitions have caused a stir among human rights monitors concerned about the current lack of robust protections of civilians’ private information.
The lack of privacy protections have also sparked concerns about the flow of information to foreign governments, and in particular to the United States. In December 2019, El Salvador signed a series of agreements with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granting the department access to private information about Salvadoran citizens, ranging from biographical information and public records to sensitive biometrics such as iris scans, fingerprints, and facial identification.
On the other hand, Manuel Escalante, assistant director of the Human Rights Institute at the Universidad Centroamericana, argues that the army’s permanent assignment to public safety tasks might even be unconstitutional. “This administration’s primary objective with this loan is to keep the Army permanently assigned to public safety tasks,” he told El Faro. “If that’s indeed the vision, the PCT is primarily about the military, not the security apparatus.” On May 17, 2013, the Court of Constitutionality ruled in verdict 4-2012 that the president can only dispatch the Armed Forces on security operations temporarily, and under “exceptional circumstances.”
An Olive Green Security Plan
For the time being, the Bukele administration has not made public the principles, strategies, timeline, or objectives of its security plan, the PCT. The president has said, though, that the first three of the plan’s seven phases should be carried out between 2019 and 2021 to the tune of $571.2 million.
Bukele has signaled from the moment he took office that the Armed Forces would be central to his strategy. During his inaugural address in Barrios Plaza on June 1, 2019, fighter planes roared overhead. Six weeks later, he announced the recruitment of 2,000 new soldiers to assist in public safety tasks. That day, the envoy of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Isabel Albaladejo, publicly called on Bukele to avoid building upon the militarization of prior FMLN administrations. “The Police will not be prepared if we continue relying on the Armed Forces to act outside of its constitutional mandate and its training,” she cautioned.
Despite her warning, Bukele swore in the new recruits this past February 19 in Plaza Barrios—hardly one week after occupying the Assembly with heavily-armed soldiers—to the sound of jet engines overhead. “Today we add 1,400 new soldiers to our Armed Forces. Each of them, in turn, will help to swell the ranks of the Plan for Territorial Control,” he affirmed.
In Phase I of the PCT in 2019, $21.6 million went to food costs for army and police patrols—money which did not come from the prior administration’s last budget. Phase II carried a budget of $158 million for social spending, such as the creation of community third-spaces and technological and vocational training centers. Phase III, which the government hopes to finance through the loan, reiterates the role of the military by paying for the acquisition of a variety of patrol transport vehicles.
CABEI records appear to contradict certain government claims about the money’s purposes. While bank documents claim the army’s role will be to fight organized crime and drug trafficking, the minister of Public Safety has said that the drones will be used to discover gang hideouts and frontline soldiers and police officers. Bukele says the watercraft will help fight drug trafficking; CABEI records say they will be used for search-and-rescue missions; the Chief of the Cabinet says they will also be used to monitor gangs’ coastal activities.
The Salvadoran office of the Anti-Corruption and Legal Advice Center (ALAC), using a complaint filed with CABEI, sued the Salvadoran government, alleging unethical behavior and claiming documents for Phase III of the PCT were “vague, lacking detail, and not publicly accessible.” ALAC also questioned the government’s proposed use of drones, arguing that the technology could be used as a weapon of war, or as models to build wartime weapons.
CABEI prohibits the direct use of its funds to purchase goods that might fuel the Central American industrial complex. The bank did not return El Faro’s request for comment prior to publication.
Arena Is Close to Giving the Nod
Following El Faro’s discovery in early February that Seguritech, a video surveillance company, had paid for the flight of Bukele’s director of prisons, Osiris Luna, to Mexico, Arena withdrew its support on the grounds of conflict of interest. But by March 5, a faction within the political party announced its support for the executive’s plan. That same day, party leadership had moved from its initial stance of refusing to approve the plan wholesale to negotiating its finer points, such as the allegation that the quotes for certain items in the proposed loan, including helicopter repairs quoted at the same price as a new helicopter, had been inflated.
On February 18, one week after the occupation of the Assembly, Revista Factum revealed that Bukele attended the wedding of Yaniv Zangilevitch, CEO of video surveillance company Eye Tech Solutions and, according to Bukele, an old friend. During Bukele’s tenure as mayor of San Salvador, the mayor’s office approved an $85 million public contract with the company, although it came up short in a city council vote. Then, under a new council led by current mayor Ernesto Muyshondt of Arena, the council approved the contract in 2020.
One month after the occupation of the Assembly, Arena leaders appear to have dropped any semblance of misgivings about Bukele’s security plan, deflecting questions about the transparency of the loan, and defending both the broadened use of video surveillance and the discrepancies in budgeting between the police and the army. On the other side of the aisle, the FMLN is refusing to back the plan, citing concerns about equipment types and privacy rights. Once supporters of the Sánchez Cerén administration’s expanded use and militarization of drones, the Frente is now posturing itself in opposition to Bukele’s politics of continuity.