Bukele To Be Reelected in El Salvador As Often as He Likes

Journalist Oscar Martinez, of the Salvadoran newspaper “El Faro”, speaks about Nayib Bukele’s reelection, the ongoing State of Exception in the country

Foto: EFE | Confidencial

26 de noviembre 2023


“The [Salvadoran] Constitution doesn’t allow the same person to be president two terms in a row, in order to guarantee they don’t use their powers to remain in power,” Nayib Bukele stated on television before he reached the presidency. He was right. But he changed his mind, the same way he changed the rules.

Like other “incipient dictatorships,” he utilized Magistrates he had seated in the Constitutional Chambers to interpret the Constitution in a manner “worthy of Cantinflas,” and allow his reelection as president. These were some of the affirmations of Oscar Martinez, news editor at El Faro, El Salvador’s most important online investigative newspaper.

The “interpretation” offered by the court magistrates at Bukele’s beck and call was that the operating president should leave his office six months before the elections, in order to run. However, in El Salvador, these next elections are right around the corner, on February 4th.  After “violating the Constitution,” such details “no longer matter” to Bukele, says Martinez.

Despite everything, Bukele remains the most popular president in Latin America, and “will win” reelection, because he has no counterweights, much less candidates that could face up to him. The other parties “are crushed, in part by their own incompetence and corruption.” Hence, Bukele “will govern for another five years, and then maybe he’ll want to govern for more years than that,” Martinez believes.

Nayib Bukele has assumed control of all the Salvadoran institutions, while his controversial State of Exception “has disarticulated” the gangs all across the country. Nonetheless, in the process he is “destroying democracy,” with an administration also characterized by the lack of transparency. He hasn’t wanted to explain to the citizens why he secretly released Elmer Canales, alias “Crook”, one of the principal leaders of the feared Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, responsible for horrific crimes in the country. Canales was recently apprehended in Mexico and extradited to the US where he’s now in jail.

Previous to this, however – around November 2021 – Canales had been mysteriously released from a Salvadoran jail, then fled the country. The gang leader remained a fugitive until November 7, 2023, when he was captured by Mexican authorities. The release of this criminal “is evidence of Bukele’s pact with the gangs,” maintains Martinez.

How is Bukele defending his right to run again?

OSCAR MARTINEZ: It’s a trick that other incipient dictatorships have also used, which is to use the Justice System’s Constitutional Chamber to authorize a new interpretation of the Constitution, in this case one worthy of Cantinflas. El Salvador’s Constitution is clear: in more than six articles it prohibits reelection. Article 75 literally states that those who subscribe to proceedings, proclamations, or contracts to promote or support reelection or the continuation in office of the President of the Republic will lose their rights as citizens. Article 154 states that the presidential period will be five years, beginning and ending on June 1st, without the person who has exercised the presidency being allowed to continue in their functions even one additional day.

The Magistrates imposed by the Bukele-dominated Legislative Assembly issued a nonsensical new reading of this rule, stating that when the Constitution refers to the immediately preceding period, it’s not referring to the presidential term in course before the elections, but the months immediately preceding them. There’s no logic to that. These are imposed functionaries who obey the orders of their leader.

Will Bukele resign from office to run in the next elections?

The elections are on February 4th of the coming year, so that period of time is unfeasible. In theory, they promised to do so at the end of this month, and that he would designate a replacement. They may or may not do that. Since he’s already violated six articles of El Salvador’s Constitution in order facilitate his reelection – something that hasn’t occurred since 1944 in El Salvador – the details will no longer matter to Bukele.

In Nicaragua, you have a long trajectory and understand very well how someone in the president’s seat with dictatorial aspirations, in this case Nayib Bukele, can manipulate all the institutions so they interpret the day-to-day realities however the leader wishes. That’s what’s happening in El Salvador.

The other recent news in El Salvador has been the apprehension of Elmer Canales, better known as “Crook,” one of the top leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, who was supposedly in a Salvadoran prison cell. How can you explain the fact that he was actually in Mexico and free?

Canales was imprisoned in 2000. In 2002, he was one of the creators of the MS-13 gang’s national control structure that they called the Ranfla National. That is, “Crook” has been an upper leader in a gang responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. He was in a maximum-security cell during the government’s negotiations with the gangs – negotiations that broke down in March 2022, when the MS-13 killed 87 Salvadorans because they were upset that the government hadn’t complied rapidly enough with their promises, and the pact ended there.

But in November 2021, at a time when the government had not yet broken the truce and decreed the State of Exception, there was a rise in homicides that left over 50 deaths in just one weekend. The Bukele administration decided to illegally free a man who still had over 40 years left on his prison sentence, a man the United States was asking to have extradited, supposedly so he would go calm things in the street.

But after that, Crook never again returned to jail. In an audio we posted from Carlos Marroquin, former head of the Directorate for Social Tissue Reconstruction, he admits that he spoke with an MS-13 member in connection with their rupture of the truce; and that he personally got “Crook” out of jail and brought him to Guatemala as a demonstration of loyalty to the gang. 

What’s been Nayib Bukele’s response to this news of “Crook’s” recapture?

Bukele still holds on to his popularity and the democratic rules matter little or nothing to him. He’s already forgotten them. Bukele considers himself someone who doesn’t owe the citizens any kind of information. His only reaction was an emoji on Twitter. That’s all the president has said. And they’ve continued on, as if nothing is happening.

The problem is, there are certain things they can’t control. “Crook” is the living proof that there was a pact with the gangs. And if that man decides, for example, to get a reduction in sentence in return for telling all the secrets he knows and lived through in the flesh: who freed him; what they were negotiating; if they [the gang] were given money; what other gang members were possibly freed. That will present a problem for these government functionaries.

Bukele’s term in office was marked by the so-called “war” against the gangs. Nearly 20 months after the declaration of a State of Exception, what’s the balance on this, and what impact has the suspension of legal guarantees had?

The State of Exception has two opposing faces, or faces at each pole, if you want to see it that way. Have the gangs been disarticulated in El Salvador, thanks to the state of exception? The answer is yes. They’ve managed to disarticulate those criminal mafia as never before in the history of the country.

Are there people in the neighborhoods that no longer live in fear of going out on the street? Yes. There are tens of thousands of people who no longer have to pay extorsion money. It’s a fact that only those who don’t want to see reality will deny. Nayib Bukele has managed to reduce homicides to levels that we would have thought inconceivable in El Salvador. How has he managed that? By destroying democracy, imprisoning tens of thousands of innocent Salvadorans. Causing the death of over 145 prisoners in the regime’s jails, according to the latest human rights report from the NGO Cristosal.  Systematizing the practice of torture in the jails. In a certain sense, transforming some police groups into a government mafia.

There are a ton of cases involving members of the police or the military who have used the State of Exception not only to extort people or take their land away, but also to rape minors. Is there less gang violence? Yes. Is there more government violence? Of course there is.

When will this State of Exception end?

They’ve been renewing it month by month. I believe that the Bukele government wanted to announce with much ado that they’d finished off gangs, and that he wanted to do it before the elections, in the context of this electoral campaign, which is senseless because he already knows he’s going to win. But I think that the capture of “Crook” has dynamited those desires and put him in an uphill struggle. I imagine they’re going to continue decreeing the State of Exception for some more months, until they can set up an enormous event to announce in a spectacular way that they’ve finished off the gangs.

In El Salvador, there’s no longer any judicial independence. Bukele replaced over 33% of the judges with a cheap excuse. He retired all those over 60, claiming that they were corrupt, but without individualizing the cases. Then he put in docile judges, who are now in all parts of the judicial system. They took over the Public Prosecutor’s office and got rid of the Attorney General who they accused of multiple cases of corruption and pacts with the gangs. That Attorney General was accusing some of [Bukele’s] employees of having stolen and sold for their own profit over 42,000 sacks of basic foods destined for the poorest people during the pandemic. He then put in an Attorney General who’s his puppet. He modified the laws to be able to accuse anyone he wanted with more ease. He modified the country. From 262 municipalities, we went to having just 44; instead of 82 deputies we now have only 60, all based on electoral calculations to control everything.

In other words, when the State of Exception ends, we’ll be in the same country – a country under the full control of a man who has increased the military budget in a country that’s not at war, and at the same time has reduced the budget for education and health.

The government has also promoted the repeal of the Gag Law that forbade and threatened journalists and the media who were reporting information about the gangs. What was the reason for this repeal, and what does this decision signify?

That law was highly questioned, because basically it said that any journalist who gave out information coming from – or presumably coming from – the gangs, and that generated “anxiety” in the population, could go to jail for up to 15 years.

But that bogus law didn’t matter a bit to the Salvadoran journalists, and we continued revealing his [Bukele’s] pacts [with the gangs]. Because journalism in El Salvador has decided not to submit to the king’s absolutist designs.

Why did they repeal that law? I don’t exactly know. There’s some speculation in political corridors that there was some kind of request from the US ambassador. I haven’t been able to confirm that version.

Nayib Bukele is the most popular president in Latin America. Are these elections merely an administrative formality, or does Bukele have any counterweights? Is there someone who could challenge him for power?

There’s no one who could challenge him for power. The other parties have been crushed. In the case of the traditional parties like the FMLN or Arena, partly because of their own incompetence and corruption. Those parties looted this country since the 1994 postwar period, right up until Bukele arrived on the scene in 2019 to loot it himself, together with his administration.

The people hate those two traditional parties, because of their disastrous, thieving, and criminal behavior in their pacts with the gangs. And the new parties, although some of them are making a very democratic, very arduous effort, are small parties that have struggled to grow in the middle of a dictatorship in construction and have been devoured by the institutions, crushed under the weight of a government that serves the designs of one man. And all the rest of the little parties function as the regime’s docile slaves.

Nayib Bukele will win, and he’s going to govern for the next five years. And possibly he’s going to decide he wants to govern for more years than that.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.


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Elmer Rivas

Periodista y productor general de los programas Esta Semana, Esta Noche y Confidencial Radio, dirigidos por Carlos F. Chamorro. Exiliado en Costa Rica desde junio de 2021.


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