The Attorney General’s investigations into multi-million dollar irregularities in pandemic-related spending by government ministries have sparked a showdown with the National Civil Police (PNC), deepening the political crisis that has come to light just one year of Nayib Bukele’s presidency.
On November 13, PNC agents prevented officials from the Attorney General’s Office from executing a search warrant in the offices of the Ministry of Public Health. This is a very serious matter not only because it violates the law mandating police support of the Attorney General’s Office, but also because it confirms that President Bukele has turned the PNC and Army into forces that serve him, placing them above the nation’s rule of law.
This isn’t the first time that PNC Director Mauricio Arriaza Chicas has helped the Bukele administration conceal information about emergency expenditures that could provide evidence of corruption. On October 2, Arriaza refused to execute the Legislative Assembly’s order for the PNC to escort the Minister of Finance to testify before the Assembly on pandemic-related spending. The Minister of Finance has repeatedly refused to appear before the Assembly. The Attorney General has requested a pre-trial hearing of Arriaza’s refusal to comply with the Assembly’s order. The PNC director also supported the president’s decision to ignore a Supreme Court ruling that the detention of people found in violation of the mandatory quarantine was illegal, as no law or legislative decree had been passed permitting such detentions.
The Bukele administration’s concealment of irregularities in the government’s multi-million dollar purchases and contracts during the pandemic clearly reveal its willingness to undermine the institutional integrity of the entire government in order to protect itself.
This latest crisis began when the Bukele administration failed to fulfill its commitment to the Legislative Assembly for full transparency in the implementation of the special emergency laws passed in March. It has also refused to furnish information to the Corte de Cuentas, an independent government entity responsible for financial audits and oversight that includes the Comptroller General’s office. To avoid oversight by the Corte de Cuentas, which has been lax for decades, the government has restricted the release of information related to the Ministry of Public Health’s COVID-19 testing, as well as data and documentation pertaining to Ministry of Agriculture purchases of food for the four million aid packages that the minister claims were delivered around the country. An investigation by Factum Magazine published last July revealed that the food packages included cans of tuna purchased by the government from a Mexican shell company. The Ministry of Agriculture also bought more than 30 tons of corn from another Mexican company based in Sinaloa.
Last July, when Nelson Fuentes was Minister of Finance, he testified before an Assembly committee that the Ministry of Agriculture had diverted funds without legislative approval and in violation of the law. Fuentes resigned shortly thereafter, after refusing to obey orders to blackmail the Legislative Assembly by withholding its budget, and refusing to harass government critics with targeted audits.
In September, another similar episode occurred when Central Bank president Nicolás Martínez was fired by Bukele the day after he testified before the Assembly’s Finance Committee. His testimony revealed that, contrary to its frequent complaints of a lack of resources, the government had received more than $1.6 billion between May and August to fund pandemic-related programs.
The Attorney General’s Office has confirmed that its investigation into the Ministry of Health, which has been hindered by the police, was prompted by suspicions that $20.8 million out of a total of $31 million in government purchases of emergency medical supplies were illegal. The Attorney General revealed that the information used to initiate the investigation came from an audit report issued by the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador — CICIES). The CICIES report noted the arbitrary awarding of large contracts, in some cases to benefit government officials or family members; alteration of documents; overpriced goods; and purchases of products not suitable for medical use. The Attorney General’s Office is also investigating the irregular use of emergency funds by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Finance, and two autonomous agencies.
The executed search warrants triggered a flurry of attacks and accusations by Bukele against the Attorney General’s Office, one of the few institutions that Bukele has not previously openly attacked after taking office. Bukele applauded the Attorney General just a few months ago when his agents arrested former ARENA party leaders and former FMLN government ministers on corruption charges. But now that his administration is the target of these investigations, Bukele is accusing the Attorney General of pandering to partisan interests.
Every time he ignores a Supreme Court decision or sentence, Bukele accuses the Court of partisan politics. Since his February 9 attempt to take over the Legislative Assembly escorted by a military detachment and supported by the Minister of Defense and PNC Director, Bukele has derided and threatened any institution that has dared to challenge his power grab.
Bukele’s other tactic is to co-opt any potential opposition. In September, he succeeded in amending the regulations governing the nation’s Institute for Public Information (Instituto de Acceso a la Información Pública), one of Salvadoran society's greatest achievements in its decades-long battle against corruption and pursuit of greater transparency. The Bukele administration unilaterally granted extraordinary powers to the Institute’s president, who promptly restricted the release of Bukele’s personal financial statements. The government has literally closed down access to public information.
Even so, this administration can’t deny that it has been plagued by corruption scandals after a little over a year in office. Credit is due to the investigative journalists who have reported 20 cases that are now being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office.
In his eagerness to conceal multi-million dollar public expenditures, Bukele has fanned the flames of the fire that first broke out in El Salvador’s democracy on February 9, and that seems poised to destroy any semblance of institutional integrity in the country. Since he took office, Bukele’s strategy of insulting and attacking anyone who dares to question him is now being extended to other government institutions not firmly under his thumb.
There is enormous danger in having a police force and an army that kowtows to Bukele, and in having security forces that demonstrate blind submission to the president. A nation’s democracy and citizens are threatened when its military and police forces allow themselves to be manipulated by the executive branch instead of serving as a check and balance to this very institution. If our country keeps heading in this direction, the political crisis will inevitably reach a nadir where the rule of law no longer prevails. Instead, the country will be governed by force, directed and exercised by officials who have already demonstrated that their loyalty to the president is greater than their loyalty to the Constitution. If that ever happens, almost all of us (except for the corrupt) will feel the brunt of that failure.