Current events in El Salvador
Armed Forces to double in size
President Nayib Bukele has announced that “Phase IV” of his Territorial Control Plan will include doubling the size of El Salvador’s military from 20,000 to 40,000 soldiers over the next 5 years. The announcement was made at the induction ceremony for the newest group of soldiers in the army. At a time when the murder rate has hit post war lows in El Salvador, Bukele professes to need a massive increase in his military to fight gangs.
Under Bukele, the army has been used more broadly in internal affairs of the country than at any time since the civil war. Soldiers have delivered food relief packages, enforced sanitary quarantines, hunted agricultural pests, and patrolled streets with and without the civilian police. The defense budget has grown significantly, and it was the slow action of the old Legislative Assembly to approve a $109 million loan package for military spending which prompted Bukele to enter the legislative chamber on February 9, 2020 along with armed troops.
Human right advocates immediately expressed concern in light of the country’s decades of military repression and human rights abuses which which continued up to and through the civil war.Corruption hearings
Nayib Bukele promised to fight corruption in his presidential campaign, but he abolished the CICIES anti-corruption commission which operated with the OAS when the CICIES turned its sights on his own administration.
With the CICIES gone, the new anti-corruption show in town is the Legislative Assembly controlled by Nuevas Ideas. Two special committees have been created. One is investigating public funds delivered to nongovernmental organizations by prior administrations. The other special committee is investigating “sobresueldos” – the “off-the-books” additional compensation paid to government officials in prior administrations.
The existence of sobresueldos and phantom ONGs as sources of corruption has been known for years thanks to the work of investigative journalists. For example, I wrote about investigative reports here and here.
Wednesday saw two ex-presidents being questioned by the sobresueldos committee. Alfredo Cristiani, a president from ARENA at the end of the civil war from 1989-1994, and Antonio Saca, president from 2004-2009. Saca was brought to the hearing from prison where he is already serving a sentence for corruption. The presidents acknowledged that their offices made payments out of a confidential slush fund operated by the executive branch, but contend there was nothing illegal since the money in the slush fund was appropriated by the legislature.
Nuevas Ideas and its allies have shown little interest in investigating the possibility of current corruption in the country. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado, appointed May 1 when the prior AG was fired, has said he has no basis to investigate the officials described as corrupt by the US on the Engel List. None of those officials have been removed from office. The Legislative Assembly has not set up any special committees to investigate corruption in pandemic contracting or whether the US State Department "Engel List" might actually point to illegal activity. The government has yet to make proposals to prevent the corruption of the past from recurring today or tomorrow.
Doubts continue to be raised about Bukele’s Bitcoin plans. With 7 weeks left before the effective date of the Bitcoin Law, skeptics are pointing out concerns. Meanwhile El Faro has reported that Nayib Bukele’s brothers engaged in discussions with crypto-currency types about the possibility of El Salvador creating its own digital currency. The Bukele administration does not deny the report, but indicated that these were just concepts which never became an actual plan. Bitcoin continues to fluctuate in currency markets where its value has fluctuated from as low as $29,500 and as high as $36,500 in the past 30 days. Fitch Ratings issued a report which indicated the Bitcoin law as one of a number of factors weighing negatively on the country's debt rating. Others have pointed out the misinformation about the cost of family remittances frequently used by Bukele and Bitcoin promoters to support their plans.
There are more signs of concern over El Salvador’s third wave of COVID cases. The past two days have seen double digit numbers of confirmed deaths for the first time in 2021. The number of people listed as having “moderate” cases of the disease has reached numbers not seen since last September. El Salvador received another 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine from the US via the COVAX mechanism. At this point, approximately 1.4 million people are fully vaccinated and 2.4 million or more than half of adults have received at least one dose. Vaccinations are currently running at a pace of approximately 73,000 per day according to official government data. After initially saying that sporting events could not have fans for the next 90 days, the government has now said that fully vaccinated adults will be able to get tickets.
Ongoing impunity for crimes against humanity
Five years have now passed since the Constitutional Chamber declared the 1993 Amnesty Law null and void. That law had prevented the prosecution of those responsible for massacres, disappearances and other crimes against humanity during El Salvador's bloody civil war. Despite that ruling, there remains practical immunity from prosecution in El Salvador for former military leaders as no part of the judicial system is advancing cases of massacres and other human rights abuses. The sole exception is the El Mozote massacre trial.