We Salvadorans have lost our constitutional guarantees. The coup of President Nayib Bukele and his legislative bloc against the judiciary on May 1 leaves us defenseless. Separation of powers has ceased to exist. Even in a country with our history of injustice and inequality, this has set us back decades. The law no longer protects us.
The illegal removal of the Constitutional Chamber magistrates and the attorney general is the gravest attack against democracy and the rule of law that the country has suffered since the civil war. Without any legislative debate or public selection process, practically by decree, the Nuevas Ideas deputies named new magistrates and an attorney general tailored to Bukele’s agenda, violating all of the procedures established by the Constitution and secondary laws. Regardless of Bukele’s verbal juggling act in front of the diplomatic corps, regardless of his efforts to redefine democracy by insinuating that the legislative election results give him absolute power, his actions are unconstitutional and anti-democratic.
The coup, cloaked in false legislative legitimacy, had the blessing of the security forces, as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. Backed by police officers and patrols, the usurpers occupied their new offices that same Saturday night. Then followed the resignation letters from the deposed magistrates and attorney general, who said they feared for their safety and that of their families. The deposed president of the Supreme Court, who initially refused to resign, woke up Monday to find police surrounding his house. He resigned. Violence doesn’t always mean firing a weapon.
In the style of organized criminal groups, the regime put into place by Bukele is no longer bound even by legal limits on political power. At this point, he is above jurisprudence. He is the law, and his police enforce it. By force. That his legislative bloc has begun legislating on his behalf is a formality, the façade of a new regime. Even without those new regulations, there is no rule of law in El Salvador today.
Bukele and his family clan have fastened their grip on the three powers of the state and dismantled, in the style of tropical dictators, the checks and institutional resistance against their ravings and the corruption of their officials. We’ve already seen, in the first two years of the presidency, the president’s willingness to use the state apparatus to pursue critics, dissidents, and the opposition. Now, owing not to the enormous support he received at the polls, but rather to his Manichean interpretation of his office and the weakness of the other political and social actors, he controls it all.
When institutions have been weakened or broken to the point of inability to guarantee that political power respects the rule of law, the citizenry suffers the consequences: we have lost constitutional guarantees to defend our rights. This means that not only democracy has died, but the Republic. We’re in the hands, and subject to the whims, of Bukele’s autocratic regime.
Many of his followers — that is, most Salvadorans — have accepted the president’s explanation defending the self-coup as a democratic expression of popular will. The people demand, they argue, a refounding of the Republic. Bukele said as much in his shameful meeting with representatives of the diplomatic missions, which took place on May 3 but was broadcast (without the permission of those present, with whom he had agreed to a closed-door meeting) on all television stations the next day.
Bukele’s words are the fruit of ignorance, manipulation, or both. Democracy is not merely voting. Democracy is a system of checks and balances, clear rules, and a rule of law guaranteed by institutions above any one person. We elect our representatives to administer and legislate, but also to be accountable to us. Their behavior, duties, and above all, limitations, are set by the judiciary. Those guarantees allow us to exercise our rights, among them free expression and exchange of ideas, without facing persecution or harassment from those who control state institutions.
The family that governs us today doesn’t want that; they want total control. On Wednesday, during the second plenary session under the new legislature, they confirmed to us why they want it: through the approval of a special law for the pandemic response, the president’s party built a barricade of impunity and condemned to death the numerous open investigations into corruption within Ministry of Health. This government wasn’t content with removing those who could prosecute them or declare their new laws unconstitutional. Nuevas Ideas enshrined impunity in the law by securing the ability to take over state resources without having to give account.
Bukele has had all of the popular support and legitimacy to truly clean out the political and institutional system of corruption. It was one of his main campaign pledges. Instead, after evading accountability by any means possible for the billions of dollars allotted in 2020 for pandemic response, and after shielding officials in his administration accused of corruption, he has dismantled the institutions tasked with investigating him and, ultimately, enshrined the new corruption — his own — into law.
It was foreseeable. In the early days of his presidency, even as he upbraided past Arena and FMLN administrations for their corruption, he forged alliances with some of the shadiest figures from those very same governments.
Bukele built his presidency around the idea that he would fight “los mismos de siempre” (the usual suspects), but there’s no longer room for doubt that the family clan that governs us today has exceeded the corruption of their predecessors in terms of the depth of the damage and their lack of shame for doing so. Passing a law of impunity for purchases with public funds, just four days after taking control of the legislature, mocks the public, especially those who believed their promises.
No authority figure or institution can now impede Nayib Bukele from continuing to build a regime of authoritarianism and impunity. Only an empowered public and the forceful, sustained condemnations of the international community can protect us today from the abuse and arbitrariness of absolute power.
Bukele is killing the Republic. All of those serving him today, from the Assembly to the ministers, as well as the attorney general, police, and the vice president, are his accomplices.
Nayib Bukele is no longer bound by law. And to the extent there are laws, they will be disregarded, eliminated or rewritten. He is the law. Perhaps millions of Salvadorans haven’t yet realized it, but this is how a republic dies and a dictatorial regime is born.