Last Monday (3), the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, met with foreign ambassadors to try to explain what is happening in the country. Two days earlier, at the opening of the new Congress, now controlled by the Salvadoran leader, five judges who make up the Constitutional Court and the Attorney General were dismissed by a constitutional provision.
Although provided for in the country’s Charter, the sudden move once again left suspicion that Bukele was seeking authoritarian management with a veneer of legality – magistrates were opposed to the president’s policies. The exonerated judges were opposed, for example, to measures that appeared to be aimed at controlling Covid-19, but which, in fact, aimed at political control of opponents.
In places without water, food and medicine, the government forcibly isolated those accused of violating mandatory quarantine. Many have entered these centers without going through health protocols or a date to leave. Previously, the president had already challenged the country’s institutionality by occupying, with military backing, the seat of Congress to lobby for approval of a safe zone loan. The action, in which Bukele sat in the presidency of the former Speaker of the House, was followed by armed soldiers and riot police.
During the meeting with the ambassadors, the president complained about the repercussions abroad that the dismissal of the magistrates had had and went so far as to say that the diplomatic representatives “misinform their country”. The president was also surprised by the international condemnation and declared that the decisions of the assembly were in accordance with the Constitution. “There is always a separation of powers.”
The day after the meeting, Bukele, in the populist style that characterized him, dared. He showed the video of the meeting on a national channel, which generated the repudiation of several present in the engagement. The Chilean Ambassador to San Salvador, Renato Sepúlveda, polite, regretted the transmission “in disagreement with previous agreements, without the presence of the press and in private”.
European Union Ambassador Andreu Bassols quipped: “Thank you, President Bukele, for putting the meeting on national television. May 9 will be Europe Day, and we will be showing an excellent program to Salvadoran public television. We demand that it be on the national channel. “
Video of the meeting also revealed that Bukele, in addition to attacking international vehicles – “give plenty of room for opposing versions” – was annoyed by the absence of Brendan O’Brien, in charge of affairs at the United States Embassy in the country. For the president, by refusing the invitation, the American demonstrated the Biden government’s dissatisfaction with Salvadoran decisions, a finding reinforced by the declaration of vice Kamala Harris, to whom El Salvador must answer for the dismissal of the magistrates.
On Thursday (6), around twenty former presidents, including Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox, from Mexico, Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana, from Colombia, Mauricio Macri, from Argentina, and Luis Alberto Lacalle, from Uruguay, published a letter condemning “the collapse of the rule of law in El Salvador”.
Regional instability is of particular concern to the Biden administration, which has as one of its main problems with Latin America the flow of immigrants who attempt to enter the United States irregularly.
In general, these are people who escape terrible humanitarian situations. The countries of the so-called Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) are facing the action of large criminal factions, the “maras”, which already have more than 70,000 members in the three countries, according to the NGO Insight Crime.
Ironically, the “maras” were formed by young Salvadorans expelled from the United States under the leadership of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and who, on their return to El Salvador, found a country still recovering from economic damage and politics of civil war. (1980-1992). These young people then joined criminal gangs, mainly Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio-18.
The “maras” have taken control of various sectors of the economy, such as commerce, industry and transport, which must pay bribes to these gangs to function. In the countryside, these groups recruit young people and destroy villages, forming the panorama behind the enormous influx of Central Americans to the United States.
Since Bukele came to power in 2019, there has been a significant decrease in violence caused by the “maras”. Independent local vehicles, however, point out that the decrease was due to the president allegedly making a deal with the factions. In this pact, criminal groups could continue to collect their fees, provided that the number of murders is reduced. Either way, the improvement in safety data is reflected in Bukele’s high popularity rating – 85.9%, according to LPG Datos.
In Central America, other countries are facing conflicts involving different branches of government. Guatemala saw people take to the streets in November to protest the Supreme Court’s filing of corruption cases involving members of the legislature.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández lobbied the courts to cover up allegations of corruption and drug trafficking. Outside the Northern Triangle, Nicaragua lives a dictatorship, led by the former revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega. Where the Supreme Court is subject to the executive, the “maras” do not work, but Nicaraguans are fleeing political persecution and the economic crisis made worse by the pandemic.
Bukele appeared on the political scene when he was elected mayor of San Salvador in 2015. For the presidential election, he built a character who presented himself as an outsider, although he began to serve in the Left Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN). In the new outfit, which includes a back cap and informal clothing, Bukele began to preach management without ideologies.
He withdrew from the FMLN, whose recent ex-presidents are accused of or face corruption, and from the Arena, a right-wing party that supported the military during the civil war. The two political forces suffered from popular attrition because they did not find a way to improve the economic crisis of the country and did not solve the problem of violence with the predominance of “maras”.
The son of a wealthy Palestinian-born businessman, Bukele, when he took office, sacked career officials and replaced them with names unrelated to previous governments – nurtured by brothers and cousins Of the president. For Óscar Martínez, journalist from Faro, Bukele’s political career has always been marked by authoritarianism. “There are two pillars which support him: the great popularity, which he nourishes by his style and his humor, and the weakening of the opposition.”
Another expert on Central American conflicts, the American Jon Lee Anderson, the riding of Bukele sees him as an “almost religious” idol. “In the years before the Civil War, El Salvador was almost a feudal country and has always been very conservative and religious. In a way, that remains, and it is the right context for the emergence of a leader like him, with an almost religious appeal. “
Bukele’s decisions are usually announced on Twitter. He asks the commanders of the armed forces to take specific action, and the subordinates respond with “yes, sir” – also on the networks.
Bukele looked for ways to economically stifle the media. On Wednesday (5), the National Assembly reformed a tax reduction law for the benefit of newspapers. According to a rule of 1950, newspapers, magazines and books related to the “free diffusion of thought” could import paper and ink without paying taxes.
Now, the new rule establishes that newspaper companies “will not benefit from a tariff exemption on imports of raw materials, machinery and equipment for printing or publications which are not directly intended for educational purposes.” .
The target, of course, are the independent publications which denounce the abusive treatment in the detention centers and the signs of the truce concluded between Bukele and the “maras”. With congressional control – the president’s party and his allies make up two-thirds of the National Assembly – Bukele has the advantage of passing proposals and changing laws. In the absence of strong opposition, institutions have become the enemy.
At first, the dismissed judges alleged the unconstitutionality in the exemptions, but soon after they left the debate and no longer defend the permanence of the post. “If there was any doubt that Bukele didn’t care about a government with checks and balances, it has now passed,” says Martínez.