El Salvador / Politics
Despite “Concerns,” State Department Certifies El Salvador as Eligible for U.S. Aid

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Jaime Quintanilla

While the U.S. State Department has determined that the government of El Salvador is operating with sufficient respect for human rights and democratic institutions, at the same time it expresses 'significant concern' over President Nayib Bukele's seizure of the Legislative Assembly in February, as well as the president’s attempts to silence journalists and media outlets critical of the government.

On February 9, accompanied by heavily armed soldiers and police, Bukele stormed the chambers of the Legislative Assembly and threatened to dissolve parliament if members refused to convene and approve a $109 million loan for the president’s national security plan. According to the State Department, Bukele’s “use of the National Civil Police and armed soldiers to pressure and intimidate El Salvador’s legislature to approve funding for his security plan threatened the Assembly’s independence and potentially weakened public institutions.”

Despite these “significant concerns,” the State Department’s seven page memorandum highlights the Salvadoran government’s implementation of reforms, including policies and programs to increase transparency and strengthen public institutions. The memorandum emphasizes Bukele’s support for judicial independence and his administration’s 'advances' in combating corruption, inequality, insecurity, and irregular migration.

This State Department report, released on May 27, certifies that the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have each met the necessary requirements to receive U.S. aid. Over the last year, under threats of cuts to U.S. assistance, all three Northern Triangle countries have caved to the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. Experts see the report and the reinstatement of aid as confirmation that the U.S. is engaging in a politics of 'give and take.'

In the case of the Salvadoran government, U.S. approval coincides with Nayib Bukele’s first year in office. According to the Trump administration, El Salvador has met the nine criteria set forth by the U.S. Congress to qualify, along with Guatemala and Honduras, as a recipient of an aid package totalling $540 million. The House Appropriations and Foreign Affairs Committees have yet to approve this recommendation, however, and Democratic congressional representatives have criticized the excesses of the Salvadoran president and his administration.

Ronald Johnson, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, said during a May 26 press conference that these criteria take into account all the positive things that have been accomplished, while also recognizing obstacles that may exist. “So you look at El Salvador, at the cooperation we've built with the government recently, and one of those successes is the reduction of homicides and violence throughout the country,” he said.

“We’ve seen the partnership that we’ve built around reducing illegal migration. And there are a number of other issues where we’ve enjoyed close friendship and good cooperation, and in general, the State Department recommends that El Salvador be certified to continue receiving aid,' Johnson added.

On May 29, two days after the certification was published in the U.S. Federal Register, the State Department announced that it would be sending $6.6 million in aid to El Salvador, as well as $8.4 million to Guatemala and $5.4 million to Honduras, to support the region’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This is the second nod and a wink the Trump administration has given Bukele. The first was in October 2019, when Trump announced that he would delay the termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans living in the U.S. For Bukele, the message was clear: the extension of TPS was a quid pro quo for his administration’s efforts in converting El Salvador into an extension of the U.S. border wall.

The U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, and the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, speak during a press conference at the Rosales Hospital in San Salvador on May 26, 2020. During the meeting, the Trump administration presented Bukele with a donation of medical equipment to help with El Salvador’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera.
The U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, and the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, speak during a press conference at the Rosales Hospital in San Salvador on May 26, 2020. During the meeting, the Trump administration presented Bukele with a donation of medical equipment to help with El Salvador’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Photo for El Faro: Carlos Barrera.

'President Bukele worked very closely with the Legislative Assembly.'

If there is one thing that has characterized the first year of the Bukele administration, it has been the president’s constant attacks on the legislature. Two days following his occupation of the Legislative Assembly, on February 11, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice ordered Bukele to “abstain from using the Salvadoran Armed Forces contrary to their constitutionally established purposes, and to stop jeopardizing the republican, democratic, and representative elements of government and the pluralist political system—in particular, the separation of powers.”

The president said he would abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling, despite disagreeing with it, and the State Department report cites the action by the Constitutional Chamber as having “demonstrated its judicial independence.” Throughout the coronavirus emergency, President Bukele has been criticized for implementing measures that violate human rights, and for disregarding the Chamber's rulings and thus undermining the rule of law. The most notorious instance of such behavior took place on April 15, when Bukele publicly stated that he would refuse to abide by the court's ruling that prohibits security forces from arresting people for violating the government’s mandatory stay-at-home quarantine.

Even the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said on April 21 that the Salvadoran government was 'failing to respect the fundamental principles of the rule of law' by ignoring the Chamber's resolution. In her call for the release of all Salvadoran citizens who had been detained up to that point, Bachellet said that Bukele’s “failure to comply with the decisions of the Constitutional Chamber amounts to a failure to observe the Constitution, as well as a violation of international human rights obligations, including the right to equality under the law.”

On February 9, by order of the president, soldiers occupied the Blue Room of the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. Later, Bukele would usurp the seat belonging to the president of the Legislative Assembly, in the midst of a conflict over the legislature’s non-approval of the $109 million loan for the third stage of the president’s proposed Territorial Control Plan. Photo for El Faro: Víctor Peña
On February 9, by order of the president, soldiers occupied the Blue Room of the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. Later, Bukele would usurp the seat belonging to the president of the Legislative Assembly, in the midst of a conflict over the legislature’s non-approval of the $109 million loan for the third stage of the president’s proposed Territorial Control Plan. Photo for El Faro: Víctor Peña

Nevertheless, the State Department report says that, “to its credit, the GOES [Government of El Salvador] provided exemplary transparency in its daily COVID-19 response briefings.” According to the State Department, “the GOES has maintained a highly transparent and continually updated website of relevant information on the nation’s COVID-19 situation.” The memo also states that the Salvadoran Government has acted with transparency, holding press conferences and using social media to communicate information regarding the policies being implemented to address the emergency. “Throughout the crisis, Salvadoran government officials utilized social media effectively to provide real time transparency on the GOES’ response to COVID-19,” the memorandum reads.

Despite the president’s continued attacks on the Legislative Assembly, the State Department memorandum also claims that Bukele has worked closely with the legislature to develop emergency policies to limit the movement of people, establish quarantines, and use police powers in accordance with the Constitution, but that these efforts have been hampered by the extension of the state of emergency.

The State Department also reports that, “when the Supreme Court issued a ruling that President Bukele needed approval from the Legislative Assembly to enforce his emergency executive order requiring Salvadorans to stay at home, President Bukele asserted the Supreme Court did not have the authority to decide on the issue due to the state of emergency. Bukele’s assertion was seen by many as an effort to weaken, rather than strengthen, public institutions.”

A Transparent Government?

Throughout the state of emergency, the Salvadoran government has been widely criticised for its lack of transparency. El Salvador’s Court of Accounts of the Republic, which conducts audits of the financial, administrative, and operational activities of government institutions and employees, has issued reports to the Legislative Assembly denouncing the Executive for its lack of transparency regarding expenditures relating to the emergency. 

On March 26, the Legislative Assembly allocated $2 billion to the Executive for use in the government’s response to the emergency; as a condition, the legislature mandated the creation of an Emergency Committee, composed of the central government and members of civil society, to oversee and coordinate the use of the funds. But this committee fell apart after less than two months. On May 11, the legal representatives of various civil society member organizations resigned from their positions, arguing that the government had stonewalled the committee by refusing to provide information or make their expenditures transparent. 

Despite these two specific allegations, the State Department report concludes that “while these examples do not demonstrate that the government is uniformly pursuing reforms and policies and programs to increase transparency and strengthen public institutions, the central government of El Salvador is nevertheless meeting this criterion.” For the United States, Bukele’s creation of an International Commission against Impunity (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador, or CICIES)—an agency tied to the executive branch, which has no capacity to investigate acts of corruption—is a significant and remarkable achievement.

In November 2019, as an alternative to the commission proposed by Bukele and the Organization of American State (OAS), the United Nations proposed that the government of El Salvador establish a Commission Against Impunity similar to the one established in Guatemala (CICIG), with a deputy prosecutor who could actively investigate cases of corruption and other crimes without having to wait for an invitation from national institutions. The Salvadoran Foreign Ministry never responded to this request, and 22 days later made an official agreement with the OAS.

The United States acknowledges that CICIES can only provide technical assistance to investigations that must be led by the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía General de la República, or FGR), but nonetheless sees the move as an indication that Bukele is fulfilling a campaign promise. “Eliminating corruption in El Salvador remains a focus of his administration and his current very high approval rating is partly due to public support for his anti-corruption stance,” the State Department memo reads.

The memo also notes as a positive development the roughly half-a-million dollar increase in funding for the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP), a government transparency and anti-corruption agency, which saw its budget jump from $1,399,565 to $1,899,885 from 2018 to 2019. But the Institute’s budget for 2020 remains exactly the same as the previous year, and the only change has been in a slight internal redistribution of funds.

The State Department report avoids mentioning the Salvadoran government's attacks on the IAIP, however. At the end of 2019, the Institute was involved in a controversy over the delivery of documents, which contained confidential information on citizen complaints, to the president. This prompted the former head of the institute, René Cárcamo, to resign on November 15.

Then, in February 2020, the Presidential House orchestrated the replacement of Cárcamo, installing Juan Carlos Turcios, a confidant of the current Minister of the Interior, Mario Druán, as the new commissioner of the IAIP. Turcios, however, only lasted 48 hours in the position. He resigned after being repeatedly challenged by plaintiffs, who questioned his independence when dealing with cases pertaining to the Executive, where Turcios’ former boss works as a minister.

“The GOES was successful in reducing Salvadoran participation in a migrant caravan and thwarted another”

Since Bukele assumed office, one of his goals has been to strengthen El Salvador’s relation with the U.S. The first speech he gave after winning the presidential election took place at the Heritage Foundation, an organization known for promoting conservative politics in the U.S. In that speech, Bukele offered reassurances to the United States. Instead of asking that the Trump administration treat the 2018-2019 caravans of asylum seekers with respect, Bukele offered that 'the best way to respond is not by getting into a fight with your biggest ally, but to improve your own country. Then this way of speaking will change.”

In questions of migration policy, the Salvadoran president has followed the demands of his American counterpart to the letter. El Salvador was the second country, after Guatemala, to become a dumping ground for asylum seekers expelled from the U.S., and the Salvadoran government has made an agreement with the U.S. to share biometric data in order to facilitate deportations—an agreement that was criticized by the IAIP.

The State Department views El Salvador’s collaboration with the U.S. in implementing such anti-asylum and anti-immigration policies as a positive development. The report concludes that “in January 2020, the GOES was successful in reducing Salvadoran participation in a migrant caravan and thwarted another, while arresting and prosecuting the caravan organizers for the first time.”

The Trump administration has also celebrated El Salvador’s continued willingness to accept U.S. deportees, despite the dangers posed by the pandemic. During the quarantine, El Salvador closed all airports, only allowing humanitarian and cargo flights to land in the country. From March 17 to 20, El Salvador temporarily refused to continue receiving deportees, but according to records from the Salvadoran Ministry for the Defense of Human Rights (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos en El Salvador, or PDDH), they resumed on 21 March.

“Despite adopting extraordinary measures to combat COVID-19, El Salvador continued to accept ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] removal flights,” the report notes. According to documentation from ICE and declarations from El Salvador’s General Directorate of Migration, no deportee was allowed to board a flight without undergoing a medical examination to determine if they had contracted COVID-19.

However, a report from the PDDH concluded that some deportees were indeed infected with coronavirus, calling out the Directorate of Migration for obstructing the agency’s efforts by withholding information. El Faro was able to contact four deportees who confirmed that ICE never tested them for coronavirus. When these individuals returned to El Salvador and were admitted to a holding center, it took 27 days before they were finally tested.

The State Department report also celebrates the reduction of homicidal violence in El Salvador. The report cites the implementation of Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan as a positive development, claiming that the plan focuses on “dense urban areas, seeking to decrease extortions—gangs' primary source of revenue—and cutting communications between incarcerated gang leadership and gang members on the street.”

Image from inside one of the areas equipped to receive deportees in the Adolfo Pineda Gymnasium.
Image from inside one of the areas equipped to receive deportees in the Adolfo Pineda Gymnasium.

This is only half true, however. While the number of murders nation-wide did decline drastically and to a degree never before seen between June 2019 and May 2020, extortions have actually gone up, according to the FGR. On January 13, El Salvador’s Attorney General, Raúl Melara, submitted a report on his first year in office. In the document, Melara points out that reports of extortion have increased by 17.2% nationwide, and public transportation unions have indicated the same.

The government has also implemented policies affecting the nation’s prison system that have been criticized for violating the human rights of the incarcerated. The Bukele administration—once in June 2019 and again in April 2020—declared a state of high alert and instituted a total lockdown in prisons for gang members. 

During this last outbreak of killings, which left around 80 people dead over the course of just one weekend, sources from inside the prisons familiar with gang dynamics concluded that the government's claims of having secured “territorial control” were false, and that the gangs continue to govern neighborhoods throughout El Salvador.

“Government efforts to silence media outlets and journalists...continue”

President Bukele and his supporters have made repeated claims on social media that national and international human rights organizations, as well as news outlets and reporters critical of the government, are promoting an agenda against his administration. This is noted in the State Department report, which indicates that “government efforts to silence media outlets and journalists if they do not support the government's official narrative continue.”

“Journalists critical of government policy face threats, many of which are fueled by Bukele’s treatment of them on social media,” the document reads. “These efforts, which include selectively choosing to pull advertising from media outlets critical of its policies in order to shape content, undermine the healthy and open exchange of views that freedom of the press allows and does not promote independence of the media.”

Although the report praises the administration’s use of social media, it fails to mention that many citizens have been blocked from the government’s official social media accounts. The report mentions only one example of this, but does not cite the name of the person who was blocked or the institution for which he works. The person in question is José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, who was blocked on Twitter by Bukele on April 11. Vavanco confirms that the block is still in effect.

“His recent actions on Twitter to block a reputable human rights NGO from following him in order to limit the NGO’s critical commentary of the government’s COVID-19 response reinforces the critique from some civil society members that the government is not promoting a transparent exchange of views on COVID-19 policy,” the report says.

Vivanco was blocked after he criticized the extreme policies implemented by Bukele to enforce a nationwide stay-at-home quarantine. Vivanco responded to the block on Twitter, writing (in Spanish), “Another example of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's tolerance for criticism.'

On May 27, the president of the Association of Salvadoran Journalists (APES), Angélica Cárcamo, said that she had been blocked on Twitter by the president’s Press Secretary. “This act violates my right to access information of public interest and affects my work as president of the APES,' she wrote in a tweet accompanied by a screenshot of the block.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression’s annual report for 2019, presented before the Interamerican Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), concluded that since Bukele's arrival to the presidency, harassment of media and journalists critical of the government has increased across social networks. Additionally, the Rapporteur reported that “restrictions on questions from all media during press conferences, obstructions in journalistic coverage, defamation campaigns on social networks against communicators, and intolerance of criticism by authorities of the different political powers.”

'Right now in this country, it’s not possible to express an opinion that goes against the government line without being vilified on social media, often by government officials themselves,' explains Apolonio Tobar, the Human Rights Attorney for El Salvador.

The report presented to the IACHR claims that in Guatemala and Honduras, the media have faced adverse scenarios as well. In its analysis of Honduras, the report cites six documented cases of journalists who were murdered, most likely in retaliation for their reporting.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres tweeted on May 30 that 'No democracy can function without press freedom nor can any society be fair without journalists who investigate wrongdoing and speak truth to power.” 

A Disputed Report

The report being used by the State Department to certify El Salvador as a champion in the fight against corruption—a report that claims the Bukele government is working to strengthen public institutions, encourage transparency in government, and protect human rights—has faced strong criticism from human rights defenders and experts in transparency.

According to Tobar, “the Salvadoran government has shown a lack of respect for the country’s democratic institutions.” The current administration, Tobar claims, has repeatedly impinged on public access to information, the freedom of the press, human rights, the independence of institutions, and the rule of law.

Óscar Chacón, director of the nonprofit organization Alianza Américas, says that for years the U.S. State Department has used reports like these to achieve political ends. “Far from being an instrument to promote respect for human rights, they are a tool used for political and ideological purposes, and have very little to do with what’s happening on the ground,' he says.

Chacón also says that in the lower house of the U.S. Congress, this becomes a kind of bargaining chip used by Democrats and Republicans to offer concessions in exchange for ratifying a country’s certification.

This latest State Department report has been forwarded by the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Senator Patrick Leahy, for endorsement by Congress. Once Congress endorses the report, El Salvador will be eligible to receive U.S. assistance funds. Human Rights Watch’s José Miguel Vivanco says that among dissenting representatives in Congress, the report will not carry much credibility.

“It's perfectly predictable that an administration like President Trump's, which has maintained an embarrassing silence in the face of human rights violations and the breakdown of the rule of law under Bukele, will say that everything is fine and dandy in El Salvador,' Vivanco told El Faro.

For Wilson Sandoval, coordinator of El Salvador’s National Development Foundation's Anti-Corruption Legal Center (ALAC), the State Department's certification is out of line even by normal U.S. standards of accountability.

'It's a rather curious contradiction, on a theoretical level, what the State Department is doing in publishing this report,' he said. 'We're not just talking about the right to public information, we're talking about a right that in international law is called the human right to seek and receive public information. This right is being denied. In the end this is a violation of personal dignity, which is what Human Rights Watch and the IACHR have also said.'

*With additional reporting from Nelson Rauda and Roxana Lazo

*Translated by Max Granger

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