Once again, President Nayib Bukele has accused the United States of violating the sovereignty of El Salvador — this time, following the U.S. State Department’s publication last week of an addendum to the so-called Engel List, sanctioning officials engaged in corruption or undermining democracy across four Central American countries.
The list now includes Press Secretary Ernesto Sanabria, the head of the ruling party legislative bloc, Christian Guevara, and the former presidential legal advisor Javier Argueta. The latter confessed to planning with the president the illegal removal of the Constitutional Chamber magistrates and attorney general on May 1, 2021.
Joining them on the list are the mayor of San Miguel, Will Salgado, accused of drug trafficking, and René Figueroa, former security minister and muscleman in the administration of Antonio Saca (2004-2009). Figueroa was sentenced in 2021 to three years in prison for embezzling $3.7 million as minister. His wife, Cecilia Alvarenga, was also sanctioned by the United States for her alleged involvement in laundering the embezzled funds.
It’s true that the United States is uneager to accept the judgment that it metes out to others, but Central American governments’ best defense against U.S. sanctions are transparency, accountability, and respect for the administration of justice.
Bukele and allies avidly denounce the corruption of past governments, and his party’s legislators created special legislative commissions to investigate its political rivals. Yet it has become even less transparent than past Arena and FMLN administrations and even more permissive of wrongdoing within its own ranks.
Nuevas Ideas legislator Caleb Navarro said last week, when asked in a television interview what measures his legislative bloc has taken to fight corruption, that the president meets with his ministers and that cabinet members also speak amongst themselves. That is how they ensure that nobody steals or misuses public funds. Meetings.
The legislator clearly does not understand his job description nor the concept of separation of powers, a cornerstone of any democracy. But his remarks coincide with dynamics of the past three years: The Bukele brothers have no desire to establish mechanisms for accountability, oversight, or prosecution of corruption. The press has repeatedly demonstrated that this administration meticulously covers up corruption in its own midst.
On March 19, 2020, in the broadcast of the first measures to fight the pandemic, Bukele said that the emergency would entail the “circulation of billions of dollars” and warned: “I myself will throw in prison anyone who touches a cent.” He then asked the head of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador, Ronalth Ochaeta, to assign 60 inspectors to audit allotted public funds.
Months later, when CICIES transferred to the Attorney General’s Office 12 investigations into corruption in the executive branch and its inspectors accompanied prosecutors in raids of the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, and the Treasury looking for documentation on suspicious pandemic purchases totalling $150 million, the National Civil Police tried to impede the search.
In May 2021, the attorney general leading the probe was removed from office by the Legislative Assembly controlled by Nuevas Ideas. Bukele’s party legislators then approved a law shielding officials from prosecution for pandemic-related purchases. One month later, the CICIES was expelled from the country.
The president who promised transparency on the campaign trail has refused to make public how he spended $3 billion in international loans from March to June 2020: two-thirds of the money for blunting the pandemic’s impact and the remaining billion for the economic recovery from the mandatory government quarantine.
In three years in power he has yet to reveal any information on public spending and not a single official from his administration has been detained for evidence of corruption.
The president’s chief of cabinet, Carolina Recinos, was included in two U.S. lists last year: the Engel List and the U.S. Treasury’s Global Magnitsky sanctions. The Treasury accused her of coordinating “kickbacks” for “government officials and some of President Bukele’s advisors' during the mid-pandemic construction of the flagship Hospital El Salvador, and of authorizing the purchase of emergency supplies from companies “with no apparent ties to the healthcare of manufacturing industries.”
Also sanctioned are former Agriculture Minister Pablo Anliker, for “significant acts of corruption,” and Vice Minister of Security Osiris Luna Meza and his mother, for stealing and reselling food destined to poor families affected by the pandemic. Labor Minister Rolando Castro was included for obstructing corruption investigations, and former Security Minister Rogelio Rivas, for “misappropriating funds for personal benefit.”
Corruption scandals in the Bukele network go beyond U.S. sanctions. Health Minister Francisco Alabí ordered supplies to respond to the pandemic from businesses run by relatives. Nuevas Ideas legislative chief Christian Guevara acquired contracts with the Ministry of Public Works for more than one million dollars. Education Minister Carla Hananía created a fund in her ministry to hire family members and friends of people in the Bukele orbit.
Of them only Anliker left his post as minister, offering no explanation. Nobody will investigate or arrest him in El Salvador as long as he remains the president’s friend.
The president also controls the new attorney general, whose first act after his illegal instatement was to dismantle the special prosecutors’ unit investigating most of these cases, and to bury the investigations. Rivas was removed from office only when Bukele found out he was mounting his own presidential campaign for 2024.
The U.S. lists also include the president’s legal secretary, Conan Castro, and former officials and legislators during the FMLN and Arena administrations such as Sigfrido Reyes, José Luis Merino, Carlos Reyes, and now-Bukele propagandist Walter Araujo. Businessmen Enrique Rais and Adolfo Salume also had their visas revoked.
The abundant corruption in the Arena and FMLN governments inflated the president’s popularity, but to maintain the charade of change his government has had no choice but to tighten its grip on information related to its own wrongdoing. Guevara was included in the most recent version of the Engel List for promoting a ‘gag law’ that can send journalists to prison for speaking of another major corruption scandal: Bukele’s gang negotiations. An obvious reason for the non-extradition of Mara Salvatrucha leaders is that, if sent to the United States, they could confess to their negotiations with the administration.
Demands that the United States respect El Salvador’s sovereignty are nothing more than a hypocritical smokescreen to mask rampant corruption. If Bukele does not want to deal with the Engel List or Magnitsky Act, he should defend the country’s institutions rather than submitting them to his whims by law or force. He could submit his government to legal oversight, respect the independence of the judicial system, and, as he promised, allow all of the corrupt around him to be jailed. But it won’t happen. Every day it is clearer that corruption is part of his governing agenda.