The Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, two-thirds controlled by President Nayib Bukele’s party, has fired 1,700 legislative branch employees — three-quarters of the workforce — since taking office on May 1. Five employees related to key figures aligned with Bukele were saved from the purge.
Yolanda Castro de López and Jouser López are the wife and brother, respectively, of Óscar López Jerez, chief magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice who was illegally instated by Bukele’s party on May 1. Castro is the head of the Assembly’s Planning Directorate; López is a collaborator in the Bukele-aligned party GANA.
Óscar Avilés Dueñas, son of newly-instated Supreme Court magistrate Elsy Dueñas, kept his job as technical assistant to legislative committees. Claudia Figueroa de Arriaza, married to the director of the National Civil Police, kept her job as legal aide to the communications office. Cindy Saca Aragón, daughter of political operative and Bukele ally Herbert Saca, is still working in the departmental legislative headquarters of La Libertad, according to the Assembly’s human resources office. The monthly salaries of each of these people range from $1,300 to $3,500.
El Faro confirmed the family ties through official documentation from the National Registry of Citizenship and the National Registry Center and spoke with three former and two current Legislative Assembly employees, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Ingryd Escobar and Luis Ortega, legal representative and secretary general of the Legislative Assembly Workers’ Union (SITRAL), denounced the purge of employees when it began on May 6. Employees then barricaded the entrance of the legislative building to protest the layoffs. “They aren’t letting [the employees] gather their documents, they haven’t given them their termination letters, and they’ve denied them information from human resources,” Escobar told El Faro.
Ernesto Castro announced the firings two weeks after he assumed the Presidency of the Assembly. “We’re going to get rid of those who benefitted from phantom positions and who didn’t fulfill their working day, like the rest of the workers,” he said on May 14.
Four of these five relatives still come to work on a regular basis, according to SITRAL and seven employees of the Assembly. Two union leaders and two GANA employees asserted that Jouser Joaquín López Pérez doesn’t show up to work on a regular basis. He’s appeared on the list of employees since May, 2018, as an administrator with the political party GANA, with a monthly salary of $1,300.
In November 2019, El Faro requested the resume of Jouser López from the Assembly’s information office, but the publication’s request for the document was denied via letter. Jouser himself signed a letter to prevent the disclosure of his resumé on the grounds that it contained confidential information.
Jouser isn’t the only relative of López Jerez on the payroll of the legislative branch. Yolanda Dalila Castro de López, wife of the de facto Supreme Court chief magistrate, has worked for the Planning Directorate since January 2017 for a monthly salary of $3,500.
Óscar Armando Avilés Dueñas, the son of magistrate Elsy Dueñas, works in the Unit for Technical Judicial Assessment as a support technician, with a monthly salary since August 2019, according to human resources. In the previous legislature, he was an assistant for the Human Rights Commission and the Special Commission for the Investigation of Threats against Journalists. Avilés now attends the ad hoc commission reviewing the bill of the General Law on Water Resources.
Claudia Lorena Figueroa de Arriaza, wife of the police chief, has worked since October 2018 as a legal aide in the Assembly’s communications office with a salary of 2,000 dollars. As of October 22, 2018, she was employed by the Gender Unit, with a salary of $1,700. A SITRAL spokesperson confirmed that she is currently working as legal aide to human resources.
Cindy Yamileth Saca Aragón, Herbert Saca’s daughter, has worked as an administrative advisor in the Assembly’s departmental office in La Libertad since June 2017 with a monthly salary of $2,500 dollars. Like Jouser López, she signed a letter to prevent the disclosure of her resume.
El Faro sought comment from Yolanda de López, Claudia de Arriaza, Óscar Dueñas and Cindy Saca, but received no response. The publication also sought to obtain an explanation from the Legislative Assembly Executive Board, though they didn’t respond either. When the publication asked in the GANA offices for Jouser López, the receptionist responded: “I think you’ve come to the wrong offices, there’s no Jouser here.”
The Assembly Maintains the Same Budget for Next Year
Ernesto Castro promised cuts to the 2022 budget. “We’ve reduced the budget by 7 million USD each year,” he said in the second plenary session as the Assembly President. Nonetheless, this year's budget is $58.3 million, and for 2022 it will be $57.6 million USD — a reduction of $700,000.
Although the current legislature has fired 73 percent of the employees, there’s been no explanation as to whether the posts have been eliminated or whether they will be replaced with confidants of the administration.
The new Assembly has tried to stonewall transparency. On July 12, eleven proposed reforms to the Law for Access to Public Information (LAIP) sought to seal professional information such as financial assets, official travel, and statistics about public contracts. The Assembly tried again on August 25, when the Legislature updated the index of classified information on the transparency website, which included 20 new classifications of material that under the LAIP should be public. Both attempts failed under pressure from the press and civil society.
El Faro requested a list of the fired employees and the new contracts signed since May 1 from the Assembly’s public information office. The office didn’t deliver the information. “The new administration is in a process of reordering and restructuring,” they responded, adding that the “personnel-related information is subject to change.”
In January 2018, Néstor Castaneda, President of the Governmental Ethics Tribunal (TGE), delivered 22 reforms to the Law of Governmental Ethics (LEG) to then-Assembly president Guillermo Gallegos. One of the proposals was to sanction nepotism. Had it been approved, it would have prohibited hiring family of public officials to government posts. The five relatives of the Bukele-aligned officials would have been shielded as they were in their posts before the reforms were proposed.
Eduardo Escobar, executive director of the NGO Acción Ciudadana, says that Salvadoran legislation should sanction family favoritism. “Nepotism is a way to build networks that finance and sustain political parties,” the expert explained.
*Translated by Jared Pace Olson