Bukele created CICIES, now it investigates his government

Investigators from the office of the Attorney General of El Salvador ("FGR" for its initials in Spanish) raided the offices of various government ministries between November 9 and 12 to gather documents and computer files. The investigators held a judicial order in an investigation of possible corruption in pandemic-related contracting by the government.   The transactions in question total as much as $155 million according to reporting by RevistaFactum.    Reportedly two thirds of the contracts used to purchase medical supplies during the pandemic are under investigation.

While the Ministry of Health was the primary focus, investigators also showed up at the Ministry of the Treasury, the Ministry of Agriculture and the water authority ANDA, as well as several businesses tied to government officials or their families. 

Among the questioned contracts are ones purchasing $12.6 million in PPE at inflated prices from a Spanish auto parts distributor which had no background in medical supplies.   The distributor actually received millions in advance payments without a guaranty of performance.   Questions about this and several other contracts had already been raised by investigative journalists.  

When agents of the FGR arrived at the Ministry of Health offices, officers of the National Civilian Police (PNC) appeared to block their entrance.   The Ministry of Health complained that the raid was threatening the ministry's ability to save lives in the pandemic.  At one point, the head of the anti-corruption unit of the FGR, German Arriaza, arrived and simply pushed his way past the burly police officer standing guard at the entrance.   The police, normally responsible for acting at the direction of the FGR in its operations, instead played a security role for the files of the Ministry of Health and threatened to block the operation.       

Attorney General Raul Melara told the public that this investigation was performed in coordination with the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador or the "CICIES."  Creation of the CICIES was a major campaign promise of Bukele in 2019.  This anti-corruption body was formed under an agreement between the Organization of American States and the Bukele government and operates to provide technical expertise and consultation to the FGR.   Only the FGR can actually bring a prosecution, however.

The counter-attack by Nayib Bukele and his allies against the FGR was immediate.   Although Bukele has regularly highlighted prosecutions by Melara when officials from previous governments were brought to court for corruption, now that his own government was being investigated Bukele accused Melara of being a member of ARENA who was only acting to further partisan political interests. 

Bukele pointed to Melara’s appointment three years ago in a negotiated deal between ARENA and the FMLN:

This isn't news.  Even his brother is a council member for ARENA in the Santa Tecla municipal government.   We all know that @MelaraRaul is an ARENA prosecutor and for that reason unconstitutional.   The only news is that now he has begun the election campaign.   Do what you will Attorney General.   He who owes nothing, fears nothing.

In reaction to the actions of the PNC to hamper the raids, Washington, D.C. got into the act as Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted

Chairman @RepEliotEngel: I strongly support Salvadoran AG @MelaraRaul's bold actions against corruption and impunity. Government institutions, including the National Police, must allow him to do his job without interference.

Bukele upped his disdain for members of the US Congress, however, tweeting that his Congressional critics were beholden to George Soros.

In response, Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs Michael Kozak tweeted:
Minister of Health Francisco Alabí responded to press questions asserting that there may have been problems with some “formalities” but there was no underlying illegal activity.   He blamed any failure in procedures on the numbers of contracts which needed to be done in a very short time.   Alabí asserted that the CICIES as an entity had not complained about contract irregularities, but one of its members had acted in his personal capacity to complain.  

Will this make a difference?  The reaction of Bukele and his ministers to disparage the investigators and dismiss the concerns is problematic.   It would be better, of course, if leaders committed themselves to cooperation and transparency in these investigations for the integrity of the institutions, but Bukele is showing himself to believe that anti-corruption measures are only useful when attacking his opponents from prior administrations.   An investigation of ARENA or the FMLN, los mismos de siempre, is acceptable, but not one aimed at Bukele’s team of officials.   Despite coverage of these events, Bukele’s political support seems as strong as ever.  

The role of the CICIES is the most intriguing part of this story.   In its early days, the CICIES let Bukele say he had kept a campaign promise to fight corruption, but in reality it started as nothing but words on paper and a rented office.  The revelation that the CICIES is playing a role in uncovering corruption at the heart of Bukele’s high profile efforts to respond to the pandemic is a welcome surprise, and probably came as a surprise to Bukele as well.