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Series of Corruption Allegations Stains El Salvador’s Promise — What Political Impact Will It Have?

Even as journalistic investigations have revealed widespread corruption in the dealings of Nayib Bukele’s administration, the president has attempted to keep the spotlight on his political opponents and the press. It’s unclear to what extent the evidence of corruption, combined with signs of authoritarianism in the administration, is affecting public opinion as El Salvador approaches pivotal legislative elections next February.

 
 

Nayib Bukele would likely not have become president of El Salvador in June of 2019 had it not been for corruption. Three out of four of the Casa Presidencial’s preceding occupants were riddled with charges of profiteering, nepotism, and the misuse of their public positions. Francisco Flores (1999-2004) died while on trial for embezzlement in 2016; Antonio Saca (2004-09), who pled guilty in 2018 to embezzlement and money laundering charges, will likely spend at least ten years behind bars; Mauricio Funes (2009-14) is dodging embezzlement charges of his own as an asylee in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.

Bukele—a 39-year-old businessman, Twitter guru, and self-styled political outsider who most recently served as mayor of San Salvador—made the fight against corruption the central plank of his presidential bid, popularizing the Twitter hashtag #DevuelvanLoRobado (“return what you stole”). “The usual suspects criticize this project because they want us to continue letting them steal,” he wrote in a campaign tweet just months before winning the election. “God willing, our country will change.”

And yet, only 14 months into his five-year term, there is mounting evidence that it is business as usual in the new administration. In the past five months since the president announced the country’s pandemic lockdown, Salvadoran newsrooms have published at least 14 investigations into evidence of corruption related to the administration’s emergency response, including multiple cases of self-dealing to the family members of administration officials and party insiders. The pandemic has also been marked by accusations of partisan aid distribution, the deletion of publicly-accessible government expenditures, resistance to audits on emergency spending, and the unlawful refusal of most of the ministries to report emergency spending to the Legislative Assembly.

Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, during a meeting with mayors in the Presidential House. May 22, 2020. Photo from El Faro: Víctor Peña.
 
Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, during a meeting with mayors in the Presidential House. May 22, 2020. Photo from El Faro: Víctor Peña.

Press investigations into corruption have indeed implicated multiple of those very ministries. A company founded and run by José Zelaya, the new treasury minister and former vice minister of income, received $750,000 for face masks from the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Agriculture bought $1.6 million in food from the business of Jorge “Koky”Aguilar—the mayoral candidate in Santa Tecla for the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and current president of the Environmental Fund of El Salvador (Fonaes), a government agency tasked with administering public resources to fight climate change. The Ministry of Health, meanwhile, purchased a quarter-million dollars’ worth of surgical masks from Aguilar. And Francisco Alabí, the health minister himself, oversaw the purchase of $225,000 in medical equipment from his family. 

In the same span, corruption has also reached the Legislative Assembly. A company owned by the family of deputy Gustavo Escalante, a newfound ally of Nuevas Ideas, sold the Ministry of Health 800,000 surgical masks at an artificially inflated price. After delivery, the ministry found that almost one-quarter of the entire batch was defective

“The amount of corruption that has come to light in the management of public resources over these five months has been scandalous,” said Roberto Rubio Fabián, director of the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE), a Salvadoran transparency watchdog and policy think tank. It’s still unclear, he added, whether there has been a concrete increase in corruption relative to prior administrations or simply higher levels of public awareness, but he points to a swelling budget, decreased access to information, and eased regulations for contract procurement amid the emergency as particularly concerning—and he says more evidence will likely continue to emerge.

Even so, the emergency response isn’t the only vector for corruption in the Bukele administration’s management of public funds. Further evidence of corruption unrelated to the pandemic has emerged in public finance in recent months. On February 11, the Development Bank of El Salvador ignored internal conflict-of-interest warnings in awarding a loan to Susana Recinos Montes, the sister of one of the bank’s managers and Bukele’s presidential commissioner—a position that oversees the functioning of the cabinet of ministers. In late July, news broke that a San Salvador project management company received years of preferential dealing of public contracts from Rogelio Rivas, former staffer at Bukele’s Mayor’s Office in San Salvador and current security minister. This August, Revista Factum reported that Osiris Luna, Bukele’s director of prisons, illegally spent $8.5 million in commissary profits, but has thus far refused to admit the nature of the expenditures. 

Regulatory easing by the Legislative Assembly at the onset of the pandemic has been a key factor in enabling the families and business associates of senior officials in the Bukele administration to receive favorable public contracts relating to emergency response. On August 27, Bukele announced an executive order allowing for the submission of bids for contractual services via email—a practice which Treasury Ministry regulations had previously prohibited under El Salvador’s acquisitions and contracting law—and for bidders to bypass the Electronic System of Public Purchases (Comprasal), a crucial transparency window into government spending.

In an ensuing press release on September 1, FUNDE condemned “the administration’s efforts to curb access to information on public procurement,” warned of potential destruction or contortion of public information, and called on domestic and international monitors and civil society to intervene in “this serious backsliding in the fight against opacity and corruption.”

El Faro reached out multiple times to Casa Presidencial—as well as the Ministries of Health, Treasury, and Agriculture—for comment but, as of press time, has received no response. 

Most recently, El Faro published an investigation into the Bukele administration’s covert negotiations with incarcerated MS-13 gang leaders to lower the homicide rate and garner electoral support for Nuevas Ideas in next February’s elections. In exchange, the gang received short-term benefits, such as improvements to prison commissaries, the transfer of abusive guards, and the reversal of a short-lived move in late April to mix opposing gangs in the same cell blocks. Gang leaders also received pledges to reform gang-related laws conditioned on the results of the February elections, the reporters found. The administration vehemently denied the findings, and then attacked and denigrated the journalists who conducted the investigation.

As events and investigations have unfolded, international observers have begun to draw their own conclusions about the administration. “I don’t think on the evidence we’ve seen to date that the Bukele administration is serious in the fight against corruption and that there aren’t people in Bukele’s inner circle who are benefiting from government contracts, public health contracts, and other kinds of self-dealing,” said Geoff Thale, longtime observer of El Salvador and president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). 

The CICIES: A Question Mark

During his campaign and the early days of his presidency, Bukele capitalized on widespread resentment of corruption in prior administrations by promising to support the creation of two new checks on government: an international anti-corruption commission, tasked with investigating public officials and providing counsel and institutional support to the Attorney General; and an anti-corruption czar, a newly-created position for a member of the political opposition tasked with blowing the whistle from within the executive branch. No anti-corruption czar has been named to date, and the commission that has taken shape is far from what Bukele promised.

The special envoy of the Organization of American States, Uruguayan Luis Porto (L), signs the letter of understanding next to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele during a press conference to announce the installation of the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) at the presidential palace, in San Salvador, on September 6, 2019. - The government of El Salvador together with the Organization of American States (OAS) announced on Friday the installation of an international commission against impunity that will be responsible for investigating acts of corruption and preventing impunity. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP)
 
The special envoy of the Organization of American States, Uruguayan Luis Porto (L), signs the letter of understanding next to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele during a press conference to announce the installation of the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) at the presidential palace, in San Salvador, on September 6, 2019. - The government of El Salvador together with the Organization of American States (OAS) announced on Friday the installation of an international commission against impunity that will be responsible for investigating acts of corruption and preventing impunity. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP)

In 2019, the administration received two proposals for international anti-corruption commissions: one from the United Nations (UN) and another from the Organization of American States (OAS). The UN proposed a commission modeled after the CICIG—Guatemala’s anti-corruption commission which severely rattled the country’s political class before former president Jimmy Morales disbanded it. On November 26, Bukele officials opted instead for a separate model, known as the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), proposed by the OAS.

“We’ve worked more quickly with OAS contracts. The UN’s offer to help us still holds and of course we will take it,” Bukele said in a press conference on January 27. Far from having the power to independently investigate political corruption, as Bukele had promised during his campaign, the role of the OAS-backed commission has been reduced to advising and offering investigative assistance to the Attorney General’s Office, raising widespread questions about its degree of independence from the administration and Bukele’s commitment to his anti-corruption platform. 

“I wouldn’t say he’s only giving lip service,” Thale said of the president. “I do think that he pursues corruption when and where it serves his political purposes, and that he’s concerned to ensure that corruption investigations remain within his political control. That’s why the CICIES went from being a grand idea in his campaign for an independent body modeled on the CICIG to being a technical commission with very little independent power.”

On April 17, the OAS announced the deployment of a “team of 30 multidisciplinary professionals to implement an audit and follow-up mechanism regarding the use of funds destined for the national emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic” in El Salvador. When asked if he thought the CICIES had made a political impact in monitoring the use of pandemic funds, Rubio was doubtful. “Not for the time being, because they haven’t released any of their findings,” he said. “Time is running out and we want to see results...if the CICIES only exposes cases from the past, as we’ve seen the Attorney General do, well, it’s easy to stand up to those no longer in power. But facing those in power is more difficult, and a test of true independence.” 

When asked the commission’s findings and the nature of its collaboration with the Attorney General’s Office, a spokesperson for the CICIES responded via email that “we are currently engaged in technical assistance and monitoring of Covid-19 funds; we will reveal pertinent information at the appropriate time.”

Even as the CICIES investigates, the administration has sought to insulate itself from scrutiny by suspending access to public information and undermining its opponents and critics—whether in the legislature, courts, or press. Institutions, including independent media that have challenged the official narrative about the pandemic response by publishing evidence of corruption, have experienced increased insecurity under the Bukele administration.

“Salvadoran journalism is facing a critical moment in which the freedom of press, freedom of expression, and access to information have been affected,” said the Association of Salvadoran Journalists on July 31, El Salvador’s Day of the Journalist. In Bukele’s first year, APES reported 61 instances of attacks against the press in Bukele’s first year, ranging from restricted access to public meetings and information to social media-based troll campaigns that have particularly targeted female journalists. For reference, APES registered 16 in the final year of the administration of Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the preceding president. 

From March 17 of this year through the end of July alone—the rough timespan of the emergency response to the pandemic—APES documented 65 cases of abuse, including theft of professional equipment from the homes of journalists working for independent outlets GatoEncerrado and Disruptiva. El Faro itself has been subject to defamation campaigns originating from government-controlled outlets and repeated by the president and his political allies via social media. At times El Faro reporters have faced mass online harassment from accounts aligned politically with the president.

“This government doesn’t like to be held accountable to the press or to anybody, and not only ignores the press, but attacks it, saying that they’re part of the corrupt establishment and in many cases lying about the press or whoever criticizes them,” said José Miguel Cruz, a Salvadoran expert on public opinion who directs research on Latin America at Florida International University. “That makes this government qualitatively different [from its predecessors] in terms of the magnitude of corruption and the lack of transparency.”

Bukele during a press conference outside of Nueva Israel, a community hit by Tropical Storm Amanda. Photo from El Faro: Carlos Barrera
 
Bukele during a press conference outside of Nueva Israel, a community hit by Tropical Storm Amanda. Photo from El Faro: Carlos Barrera

A Hazy Political Future

This summer, as campaigns began for pivotal congressional elections in February, the president is seeking to emerge from the pandemic and consolidate a governing coalition via his party, Nuevas Ideas. The weaknesses of public opinion polling amid a pandemic and political complications of a deep economic recession—plus the broad discontent with the traditional parties in broad swaths of the population—have made it unclear what effect recent evidence of corruption will have on the electorate.

In recent months, major pollsters have found evidence of strong public appraisals of President Bukele—both of his first year in office and of his administration’s management of the emergency. LPG Datos, the influential polling wing of media outlet La Prensa Gráfica, released findings at the end of Bukele’s first year in office in late May, suggesting that three-quarters of the population “strongly approves” of his time in office, with an additional 17 percent that “somewhat approves.” LPG Datos polling on the administration’s emergency management around the same time suggested that 85 percent of the population “strongly approves,” and another 11 percent “somewhat approves.”

The University Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University (IUDOP), a pillar of academic study of public opinion for the past three decades, released this June a report suggesting that the administration’s management of the pandemic may have negatively affected Bukele’s general approval rating. The report found that, over his first year in office, the share of the population responding that “he’s doing things well” fell from a towering 85 percent to 66—a nonetheless enviable figure for any president in the region. “The president is doing very good work,” wrote a 20-year-old man from Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Sonsonate, anonymously cited in the institute’s final report. “We’ve seen some of his shortcomings, but even so, he’s shown he wants the best for this country.”

As corruption allegations continue to come to light, how Salvadorans receive the evidence remains to be seen. “I’m not saying his government’s not popular, or that the reality is completely different, but we really don’t know the extent to which this government remains popular,” said Cruz of Florida International University. “We are in really dark territory here.” And yet, due to Bukele’s savvy messaging, he noted, as well as the frustration with the political system and traditional political parties, Bukele remains popular.

“People to some extent know what this government is doing. They know about the corruption. It’s hard to hide it,” he continued. “But at the same time, this government has been very skilled in sending these messages to the people implying, ‘Look, we’re having these problems, but this is something that the others did too. The difference is that we’re doing this for you.’” 

Given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, public opinion experts note that Salvadoran pollsters have had increased difficulty in getting representative sampling across all sectors of society and have increasingly relied on phone, social media, or other web-based surveys. Thus, while results across polls suggest that the public strongly approves of the official management of the response, their findings should not be taken as a decisive indicator, according to Jeannette Aguilar, an independent researcher of public opinion and former president of IUDOP.

“I’m not disparaging polling, but rather pointing to the need for a deeper analysis,” Aguilar said. “Public opinion obviously can’t be reduced to polling.” Electoral support is often conditioned on the perceptions people have of other factors, including media coverage, the legitimacy of democratic institutions, and the strength of opposition parties, she noted.

In Washington, according to Thale, perceptions of Bukele have shifted due to both his military confrontation with the Legislative Assembly in February and his management of the pandemic. The United States has exerted outsized political, economic, and military influence on El Salvador for decades—it is by far the country’s largest trading partner and international aid supplier, shares its currency, and is home to roughly one in five Salvadorans.

In the past three decades, the United States has also supported hardline gang crackdowns that have perpetuated cycles of violence, implemented hardline immigration policy that has either directly harmed or vastly increased the perils faced by Salvadorans fleeing poverty and violence, and offered financial and military backing of the right-wing junta during the civil war. 

Seasoned members of the United States Congress and career officials at the State Department who were unsure what to think of Bukele when he took office were shocked by Bukele’s militarized conflict with the Legislative Assembly in February, which was visually reminiscent of the civil war, Thale noted. Later, bipartisan sympathy for Bukele’s relatively quick response to the pandemic soured as evidence accumulated of detentions without judicial authority, arbitrary arrests, abuse of quarantine enforcement, corruption, and constitutional conflict between the president, the Legislative Assembly, and the Supreme Court. “All of that did hurt his image, and I think it’s contributed to real concerns,” Thale said. 

But rising suspicion of the administration, whether domestically or internationally, won’t necessarily tip the scales in the legislative elections next February. “There’s been an erosion [of support], but it won’t necessarily affect Bukele electorally; that depends greatly on the opposition’s ability to capitalize on the erosion,” said Rubio. “The party in power can be rife with corruption but if the opposition has no credibility, then that’s a problem.”


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