Bukele -- the courts and the gangs

I have written before that Nayib Bukele has to overcome many obstacles between now and February 3, 2019 before Salvadorans can cast any votes for him for president.    He appeared to have overcome one of them in June when he announced an alliance with the small party Cambio Democratico (CD).  That alliance would allow him to be nominated as  a candidate of that party if, as appears likely, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal rules that his own party, Nuevas Ideas, was formed too late to nominate a candidate for the 2019 elections.

Now, just days after Bukele announced his alliance with CD, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court has apparently decided to take up a previously dormant lawsuit which threatens to cancel the existence of CD as a political party. The action claims CD should have lost its legal standing for failure to achieve 50,000 votes in the 2015 legislative elections.  The Constitutional Chamber is expected to render a decision before July 15 when four of the five magistrates of the Chamber end their term.   If CD's existence as a political party is terminated by the court, Bukele's path to the presidential elections in 2019 becomes highly uncertain once again. 

In addition to the threat to CD from the Constitutional Chamber, Bukele has a series of open legal proceedings against him.  Those cases include a public integrity investigation against him which found more than $800,000 in income which he did not declare during his earlier stint as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan. There is as well a judicial case against Bukele for defamation by Eugenio Chicas, the president's communications secretary, whom Bukele accused of having sex with a minor and then marrying her to cover up what he had done.  Both Chicas and his partner deny Bukele's claim. And Bukele also faces prosecution for verbal harrassment of a female member of San Salvador city government.

Beyond his legal challenges, Bukele's image was also tarnished last week when the digital periodical El Faro published an investigative report detailing how Bukele's organization has negotiated with the country's major gangs. These negotiations with the gangs began during Bukele's campaign for mayor of San Salvador as his campaign procured safe passage for the candidate through barrios controlled by the gangs.   El Faro also reported that $20-$30,000 was paid to the gangs in cash just before election day to make sure they did not interfere with Bukele's voters.

According to El Faro, after Bukele took office, the mayor's office continued to reach agreements with the gangs.   These agreements, for example, allowed the transfer of the fairgrounds for the August patron saint festivals from a location in one gang cell territory to a new location by Cuscatlán stadium controlled by a different cell.  Bukele also needed accords with the gangs for his signature plans for renovation of San Salvador's historic center.  According to witnesses interviewed by El Faro, when Bukele opened his new municipal market, Mercado Cuscatlán, certain vendor stalls were set aside for family members of Barrio 18 Revolucionarios to recognize the gang's assistance.

As mayor, Bukele apparently made the decision that he could not move forward with projects in the historic center of San Salvador without dealing with the gangs holding the power in that zone.    He made the pragmatic, yet probably illegal, decision to deal with the gangs in order to get things done.  El Salvador's voters will have to decide if the ends justified the means. 

Bukele is certainly not the first politician to negotiate with El Salvador's gangs.   Bukele's successor as mayor of San Salvador, Ernesto Muyshondt, was video-recorded meeting with the gang leaders to help ARENA's presidential ambitions in the 2014 election.   The FMLN made cash payments to the gangs in the same contest.   No one has been prosecuted for those payoffs.

At the moment, it appears doubtful that the revelations of Bukele's contacts with the gangs or his legal woes will dampen the enthusiasm of his supporters.   So far those supporters view the allegations against Bukele as simply the attacks of entrenched political machines on the right and the left.    The peril for El Salvador's democracy lies in the reaction of those supporters if Bukele's presidential ambitions are blocked by the courts or the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.