Bukele kills off anti-corruption commission CICIES

Last week Nayib Bukele took steps to terminate the agreement between his government and the Secretary General of the Organization of American States ("OAS") under which the OAS sponsors the Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in El Salvador  ("CICIES" for its initials in Spanish).  Creating such a commission was one of the central promises of Bukele's 2019 campaign for the presidency of El Salvador when he told voters "there's enough money when nobody steals."  Today the OAS and others assert that Bukele is kicking CICIES out of the country because the commission spent too much time investigating potential corruption in Bukele's own government, and not enough time pursuing Bukele's political opponents. 

Ostensibly, the termination of CICIES under the auspices of the OAS centers around the person of Ernesto Muyshondt, Bukele's successor as mayor of San Salvador from 2018-2021.  Muyshondt was recently defeated in his reelection bid by Mario Duran, the candidate of Nuevas Ideas and a close associate of Bukele. Muyshondt has been under formal criminal investigation since February 2020 for delivering more than sixty thousand dollars to El Salvador gangs for political support for the ARENA party.  His delivery of stacks of $20 bills is captured on video which has been shown in a Salvadoran courtroom.  Despite the formal proceedings against him, Muyshondt continued with his term as mayor, was allowed to compete for reelection, and until this week remained a free man.  

On June 3, Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS announced on Twitter that Muyshondt had agreed to join with the Secretary General as a consultant.  The next day, newly appointed Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, announced that he was terminating the working agreement between his office and the CICIES, citing Almagro's retention of Muyshondt at a time when Muyshondt was under criminal investigation.  

Bukele announced in a press conference the next day that, in addition to the Attorney General's office terminating its relationship with the OAS and CICIES, the government would terminate its separate agreement with the OAS Secretary General.  Bukele claimed Almagro was attempting to protect Muyshondt from prosecution by offering him the consulting role. From Reuters:

"We've decided the presidency is also going to break our agreement with the OAS CICIES because it's nonsense for us trying to fight impunity with the very people who are promoting impunity in El Salvador," Bukele told a news conference.

At the same time, Bukele announced that the new attorney general had obtained an order to have Muyshondt detained and that new charges were being filed against Muyshondt for failure to pay taxes.

The reason given by Bukele for termination - the prospective consulting relationship between Muyshondt and the Secretary General - seems pretextual.  For example, at a time when Muyshondt's dealings with gang members were already known and he was under criminal investigation, Bukele invited the mayor to meet with him on May 20, 2020, to discuss implementation of measures against COVID being blocked by the Legislative Assembly. 

Bukele and Muyshondt exchange greeting on May 20, 2020

Similarly, Bukele did not object on November 13, 2020 when the CICIES signed an agreement with Muyshondt as mayor of San Salvador to assist the city with anti-corruption efforts.

Others believe the real reason to pull the plug on CICIES was the fact that CICIES had been looking at cases involving corruption in contracts used by the current Ministry of Health and other government agencies to acquire resources to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Investigators from the office of Attorney General Raul Melara, supported by CICIES, raided the offices of various government ministries between November 9 and 12, 2020 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.

Melara was subsequently deposed as Attorney General by the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Legislative Assembly on May 1, and since that time, newly appointed Attorney General Delgado transferred the lead prosecutor working on the pandemic contracting cases (who subsequently quit), and the Legislative Assembly passed a law providing immunity involved for officials involved in purchases related to the pandemic.

The OAS General Secretariat Monday issued a statement in response to Bukele's termination of the CICIES.   With respect to Muyshondt, the statement claims, despite the wording of Almagro's tweet, that Muyshondt was only offered an "honorary" position which was never executed and that the government of El Salvador had been notified in advance without objection.  The OAS statement also asserted that under diplomatic law such an offer would not have created any immunity from prosecution for Muyshondt.   

The OAS rebuttal went on to state that it had a number of significant differences with the government of Bukele:

Therefore, and in view of the foregoing, we completely reject the argument formulated and we consider it our duty to make public our differences with the Government of El Salvador regarding the CICIES. These differences were known to donors and the Government of El Salvador itself, who had been told that they made it impossible to continue the work of the Commission.

First, the approval of the Law for the use of products for medical treatments in exceptional public health situations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, promulgated by means of legislative decree No. 7 dated May 5, 2011 and published in the Official Gazette. Nº 85 Volume 431 of the same date May 5, 2021; it eventually benefits people who could have participated in acts of corruption due to the immunity established in Art. 4 of said law and the CICIES could not continue working within a framework of eventual impunity.

Second, the government decision not to publish the First Descriptive Report on the Quality, Effectiveness and Legitimacy of the use of Public Funds in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In said Report, a series of irregularities with a criminal appearance are found that must be investigated.

Third, the smothering by the general prosecutor's office on the CICIES in recent weeks, completely curtailing its investigative possibilities.

Fourth, the government's actions aimed at preventing progress in the investigations into allegations of corruption by the current administration.

Fifth, and based on the foregoing, the need for the approval of a reform to the criminal procedure code so that intergovernmental organizations such as the CICIES could be plaintiffs in the criminal proceedings and investigations that the Attorney General's Office carried out in those cases of corruption that affect the various rights of the population.

Sixth, the recurrent attitude of the Government of trying to induce the CICIES to investigate actions of opposition politicians exclusively. This is absolutely inappropriate and contrary to the commitment that the General Secretariat assumed that the CICIES would never be an instrument of political persecution by the Government.

The OAS General Secretariat considered, and made it known to the Government and donors, that without these elements "the fight against corruption" is more a rhetorical effort than a political and ethical objective, which makes it impossible for the CICIES to accompany this process.

What happens next?  According to Reuters:

Bukele said he would not work with the OAS to fight graft but would find some other international organization instead.

"Something that, seeing how the waters are moving in the international community, and seeing all the rubbish and rot that's behind these institutions, will definitely be difficult, but we'll manage it," said the 39-year-old Bukele.

Clearly the OAS bumbled with the announcement of a consulting role for Muyshondt.  That announcement gave Bukele and his new attorney general an easy excuse for terminating the mandate of CICIES in its present form.  In so doing, Bukele rids his government of the last arguably independent body which could bring to light corruption within his administration. Bukele says he will look for another international organization to partner with to tackle corruption and impunity, but at the moment it is difficult to imagine who that would be.  

"There's enough money if nobody steals" -- this phrase of Bukele will only come true if there are actual watchdogs on the lookout for potential thieves in his own administration.  Since May 1, however, Bukele has been evicting those watchdogs, with CICIES the latest casualty.