Opinion / Corruption

Bukele’s Anti-Corruption Smokescreen

Tuesday, April 30, 2024
El Faro Editorial Board

Leer en español

Salvadoran police have announced the arrest of presidential commissioner Cristian Flores Sandoval on charges of corruption. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Flores offered state contracts in exchange for money. President Nayib Bukele, in the middle of his presidential “leave of absence” until June 1, wrote on X that the commissioner was neither the first nor the last official to face accountability for acts of corruption. Media outlets around the world, including the L.A. Times, Deutsche Welle, and France 24, reported the commissioner’s arrest and the president’s words. The trick worked.

Spanish newspaper El Mundo was even more generous, arguing in an article on the incident that the war against corruption announced by Bukele had “paid off” with the arrest of Flores.

His prosecution is good news for the country, assuming that the Attorney General’s Office can prove the accusations of corruption leveled against the now ex-commissioner. If he did in fact orchestrate a corruption scheme, his arrest is a positive step and he should face justice for his abuse of power. Corruption is, and has long been, one of El Salvador’s biggest problems.

A real fight against corruption, however, must begin with the fundamentals: a robust rule of law, judicial independence, and government transparency, which is to say, precisely those mechanisms that Bukele and his loyalists have spent the past five years destroying. What we are witnessing is not a fight against corruption.

If Bukele, his attorney general, and his police had fighting corruption on their agenda, the government would be purged from bottom to top. On the contrary, the function of El Salvador’s top prosecutor is to protect the corrupt and enable corruption for the home team. Commissioner Cristian Flores Sandoval has not been arrested for corruption.

Let’s break it down in parts.

During his 2018 presidential campaign, Nayib Bukele promised to create a robust commission against impunity following in the footsteps of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Instead, he made an agreement with the OAS to form a weaker and more watered-down commission —the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador, or CICIES— to comply with formalities. During the pandemic, investigators from the CICIES assembled twelve corruption cases involving the Bukele government. They shared those cases with the Attorney General’s Office, which began to investigate them.

This is as far as the CICIES got. Bukele terminated his contract with the Commission, which he claimed could not be trusted. In reality, he expelled the commission for daring to investigate his government. Shortly thereafter came the coup against the attorney general and the imposition of the Bukele government’s current prosecutor, Rodolfo Delgado, whose first action was to dismantle the team of anti-corruption prosecutors and bury the investigations against Bukele and his circle.

At the same time, the president deactivated the Institute for Access to Public Information, shut off public access to information on state purchases and contracts, and issued a pandemic emergency decree followed by the declaration of the state of exception, which would allow him to award public contracts without a bidding process, and to conceal government finances. There are billions of dollars in public treasury funds whose fate remains unknown.

Information on purchases, contracts, and the origin and destination of public funds is not even available for the government’s much-touted successes, like the fight against the pandemic and public security that the president often boasts about. Bukele is incapable of transparency even when bragging about his accomplishments.

Despite this, there is sufficient public evidence of corruption and abuse of power implicating his staff and even the president himself, whose brothers, according to investigations by the former attorney general’s Special Anti-Mafia Group, were in charge of a criminal organization embedded in the government.

During the pandemic, this criminal organization allegedly orchestrated the illegal awarding of state contracts and the theft and sale of emergency food relief.

Regarding purchases made during the pandemic, prosecutors investigated Minister of Health Francisco Alabí and Minister of Agriculture Pablo Anliker for allegedly allocating millions of dollars in contracts to close associates. According to the Attorney General’s Office, two out of three government purchases made during the pandemic were suspected of irregularities — allegations that could not be confirmed because the current prosecutor closed all the files and raided the offices of the investigating prosecutors.

In May 2021, after dismissing the prosecutor and the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the ruling-party-controlled Legislative Assembly approved a law that protects all officials who participated in purchases and contracts during the pandemic from administrative, civil, and criminal liability. The legislation is popularly known as the Alabí Law due to the impunity it guaranteed the Minister of Health.

Other examples of corruption that this government has neglected to address: Vice Minister of Security Osiris Luna sold 42,000 government food packages destined for people in need during the pandemic and disappeared hundreds of thousands of dollars in government contracts to phantom supervisors. He also negotiated a pact with three gangs on behalf of the Bukele government. Nevertheless, despite all the evidence of corruption against him, Luna remains at his post, protected by the Bukele clan.

Bukele’s chief of cabinet, Carolina Recinos, “engaged in significant acts of corruption during her term in office,” according to the US State Department, which sanctioned her along with other government officials, among them former Security Minister Rogelio Rivas, who was accused of awarding construction contracts to his own family members. Rivas was dismissed by Bukele, not for her acts of corruption, but for secretly organizing a team to evaluate his own chances of running for the presidency.

The list of Bukele’s relatives, or employees close to the president, who personally benefited from public funds is extensive: The head of the Nuevas Ideas ruling-party legislative bloc, Cristian Guevara; the president of the Legislative Assembly, Ernesto Castro (Castro had already benefited from the largesse of Alba Petróleos and received funds from the secret coffers of President Mauricio Funes); and even the son of Carolina Recinos, Germán Bernal, a close business partner of the Bukele brothers, who also profited by unjustified means.

Those “investigated” or detained by this administration, on the other hand, have been targeted for other reasons. For example, presidential security advisor Alejandro Muyshondt was detained after publicly accusing government officials, congress members, and Nuevas Ideas party militants of acts of corruption; he died in detention under suspicious circumstances. The former mayor of San Salvador, Ernesto Muyshondt, has been transferred to a psychiatric hospital as a consequence of his continued imprisonment, despite the fact that a judge ordered his release. Five environmentalists were also arrested in the Department of Cabañas, accused of war crimes. The activists had been denouncing the government’s efforts to reopen mining operations in the area. Despite international condemnations, they remain under house arrest and are awaiting trial.

Attorney General Delgado, imposed by the president, is not fighting corruption; he is doing the exact opposite. He is a shield for the corrupt and an instrument of punishment wielded against critics of the government and anyone who seeks to operate outside the control of the president and his brothers. Only corruption endorsed by the Bukele clan will be allowed.

Commissioner Christian Flores was not arrested for acts of corruption he may have committed, but for operating on his own, outside the authorized corruption scheme. For stepping out of the box. His arrest also serves as an example for those who might follow in his footsteps.

It is a basic component of any dictatorship: the president decides who, how, and when to punish. This guarantees loyalty and control over subordinates, who fear they will be next. This is the purpose of the anti-corruption smokescreen.

Support Independent Journalism in Central America
For the price of a coffee per month, help fund independent Central American journalism that monitors the powerful, exposes wrongdoing, and explains the most complex social phenomena, with the goal of building a better-informed public square.
Support Central American journalism.Cancel anytime.

Edificio Centro Colón, 5to Piso, Oficina 5-7, San José, Costa Rica.
El Faro is supported by:
FUNDACIÓN PERIÓDICA (San José, Costa Rica). All rights reserved. Copyright © 1998 - 2023. Founded on April 25, 1998.