The fact that Nayib Bukele’s announcement that he will seek reelection was foreseeable does not lessen its gravity — not only because it violates the Constitution and laws of El Salvador, but because the regime has already eliminated every counterweight that ensured that they were upheld.
“Let the people decide,” say the spokespeople for the regime led by Vice President Félix Ulloa, who spent half his life defending the constitutional prohibition of reelection until opportunism reshaped his judicial interpretation. But the Constitution and the rule of law have no place in populism nor state propaganda greased with taxpayer money. There can be no free elections nor democracy without respect for the Constitution, accountability, pluralism, separation of powers, and judicial independence, but in a context of state repression.
From the start, Bukele and his circle plotted to put an end to our democracy. Their dictatorial plan involved concentrating power by seizing control of all government institutions and shutting the door on dissent, public oversight, and any possibility for alternation in power.
Their trick for maintaining popularity while working toward this goal has been propaganda, and it worked better than almost any could foresee. Each step of that dismantling was taken in public, with the satisfaction and complicity of corrupt businesspeople, corrupt judges, corrupt government officials, corrupt police officers, corrupt soldiers, and citizens content with silence.
The first step came on February 9, 2020, just before the pandemic, when a delirious Nayib Bukele stormed the Assembly with the Army, threatening to dissolve the legislature if it did not approve a loan for security equipment. In our editorial 24 hours later, we warned of the dark course that Bukele had charted for the country. Entitled, Dictatorial Dressings, we called the moment “the lowest moment that Salvadoran democracy has lived in three decades.” Only the international community stopped the attempted coup, but Bukele’s conspiracy had just begun.
The pandemic offered him another dress rehearsal: that of disobeying resolutions from the Supreme Court of Justice and limiting civil liberties without following the law. He learned then that he could violate all of the country’s laws that he wished, without a single consequence.
He compensated for his control over the population by handing out food provisions and money to low-income families, boosting his popularity. Those food bundles were also part of a scheme to loot the state, purchased at inflated prices from friends of the president and sold on the illegal market by the director of prisons and his family.
Journalists from this and other news outlets sounded the alarm on the systematic plundering of public funds and rampant corruption. Minister of Health Francisco Alabí purchased pandemic-response supplies from his own relatives and Minister of Agriculture Pablo Anliker embezzled millions in public money. The scandal reached such dimensions that the OAS-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), a discreet ally to Bukele, was forced to open 12 corruption investigations that it later transferred to the Attorney General’s Office. Threatened by state institutions not yet under his control, Bukele sent the National Civil Police to block auditors’ entry into the ministries under investigation and within months expelled the short-lived OAS commission. If the pandemic had allowed him to test the loyalty of the police and Armed Forces, these events were the ultimate confirmation.
One year later, the president withdrew funds from the state budget allotted by law to mayors’ offices, arbitrarily deciding which municipalities would have resources. Simultaneously, the food packets began to be distributed by electoral candidates from his party, Nuevas Ideas.
His party’s sweeping triumph in the 2021 legislative elections paved the way for his coup against the judiciary: In their first session on May 1, 2021, party legislators laid waste to the institutionality that remained. Their first actions were decrees drafted in Casa Presidencial and voted on by legislators from the Bukele-aligned supermajority who had not read them nor needed to. Without following legal protocols, they removed the attorney general and the magistrates of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and replaced them with Bukele loyalists. Despite the evident illegalities, the newly instated magistrates entered the offices of the court that night, escorted by the National Civil Police. With police patrols surrounding his home the next morning, the president of the Supreme Court resigned, consummating his deposal by legislative coup. The thuggery triumphed over the law.
El Faro published an editorial —entitled, This Is How a Republic Dies— recognizing that this was an even lower point in our democratic life than the threatened coup against the legislature. We wrote: “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.”
Nobody was surprised when the new Constitutional Chamber, just months later, issued a resolution supporting reelection, backed shortly after by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
The smoke and mirrors continued to work: The new Assembly installed witch-hunting commissions to pursue critics and opponents, broadcast on television, with the sole purpose of humiliating those called to testify as well as repeating the propaganda that Bukele had arrived to punish those who had harmed the people before he took office. Legislators reached the absurdity of summoning the rector of Central American University (UCA), to “investigate” whether the Jesuit university was a façade for the opposition.
With this circus underway, Bukele and allies fastened their grip on the entire state apparatus and on access to public information. The removal of the attorney general allowed for the dismantling of a special prosecutors’ unit in charge of Operation Cathedral, an investigation into a network of corruption cases in the government. The spying on, stalking, and harassment of their critics intensified during this period, with the loyal help of the National Civil Police and Armed Forces, as well as powerful software like Pegasus.
Then came the fraudulent Bitcoin scheme in which private companies like Chivo were created with public funds. The president, in bouts of insomnia, claimed to have purchased millions of dollars’ worth of the cryptocurrency without leaving record of the purchases nor any indication of where he took the money, where they were negotiated, where the bitcoins went, nor any justification for why a single citizen —he— had access to them on his personal cell phone.
Meanwhile, the Assembly captured the last bastions of judicial independence by reforming —again, illegally— the Judicial Career Law and removing one-third of the country’s judges, reserving for itself the power to arbitrarily transfer those remaining from one courtroom to another. El Faro’s editorial board then declared our democracy in coma. We wrote, one year ago, that “we are witnessing, in leaps and bounds, the end of the Republic and its replacement by an undemocratic family clan that uses the state for its own benefit. But for Bukele and his circle to achieve their ends, they must rely on a slew of dishonorable, opportunistic, and corrupt officials and bureaucrats who operate at their behest, as well as on a citizenry blinded by propaganda.”
We did not recover the Republic after that, and it is now mortally wounded. We are a country governed by a tyrant who has found no limits even in the Constitution.
The only thing separating Bukele today from becoming a dictator is the unconstitutional reelection that he has announced. Right now he is a constitutionally elected president, even if his exercise of power is no longer constitutional. A second term in 2024 would make him a full-fledged dictator.
The moment he chose to announce his candidacy for reelection and summon the applause of his supporters for violating the Constitution speaks to the nature of his administration: We are in the sixth month of a state of exception in which authorities have jailed 60 thousand people without legal guarantees, thousands of them with no ties to organized crime. We are engulfed in the worst financial crisis to face the country since the end of the war, due to his cabinet’s incompetence, his populist urge to spend money to maintain his popularity, the failure of his Bitcoin project, and the pillaging of public funds by Bukele and his accomplices. The international community has repudiated his corruption and disrespect for democracy, the law, and human rights.
It is a brazen charade: He first reduced the homicide rate through a criminal pact with the gangs; officials in his government then freed criminal leaders from prison. When the negotiations unraveled, they approved the state of exception and unleashed the arbitrary detentions.
Of the tens of thousands of Salvadorans incarcerated during these six months, not one is an official from the Bukele administration accused of corruption, despite abundant proof against many. According to the investigations of the special prosecutors’ unit that investigated the plot to loot the state, at the head of the scheme are the president’s brothers.
Rescuing democracy can no longer pass solely through institutional channels, and the public cannot continue to pretend that the situation facing the country is normal. Only organized and resolute citizen opposition, and the support of the whole international community in compelling the country to comply with its constitutional and international obligations, can peacefully stop the installation of a dictatorship in El Salvador in the middle of the 21st century. Time is running out to do so.
*Editorial published in El Faro, El Salvador.