In case you missed it

April has brought much to read in English about El Salvador, especially in the area of US relations in the context of the ongoing suspension of constitutional rights in El Salvador and in the area of government finances and the economy.   

The State of Exception and US Relations

 After making a visit to El Salvador and meeting with Bukele, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote an editorial in Compact Magazine proclaiming:

Bukele is a democratically elected leader who has enacted reforms with the collaboration of legislators and the people who elected him. I would be the first to condemn any tyrannical move from Bukele, but I also think it’s absurd to criticize him for giving Salvadoran people their freedom back....

This isn’t a call to make a celebrity out of Nayib Bukele or to ignore the fragility of his nation’s democratic institutions. It’s simply a call to inject some common sense into our treatment of friendly nations. President Biden seems to think he can lecture and sanction anyone he wants without detriment to our own national security. He couldn’t be further from the truth.

Rubio joins a chorus of US conservatives who see Bukele as a model for getting tough on crime, and who care little for whether democratic institutions are undermined by the strongman ruler.

In contrast, a 117 members of the US Congress sent a letter to the Biden administration asking it to re-designate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador and Honduras. The TPS program protects from deportation approximately 195,000 Salvadorans who have been in the US for more than 20 years.  The program is in legal peril today unless "re-designated" for an additional term by Biden. Among the reasons given in the letter were:

Since the State of Exception’s implementation, security officials have committed widespread human rights violations, including arbitrary detentions, torture, inhumane treatment, and deaths in custody, specifically targeting young people in poor neighborhoods. Furthermore, the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights named El Salvador the most dangerous Latin American country for women as it reported the highest number of murders of women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each of these human rights violations mean that Salvadorans living outside of the country are unable to return to the country safely at this time.     

(Ironically, if TPS is re-designated for El Salvador, Bukele is likely to claim it as a success of his team's diplomatic efforts).

Echoing similar concerns, in a podcast episode from Americas Quarterly titled Bukelismo Rising: Security Versus Freedom In Latin America, Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch, responds to the questions of "Is Bukelismo the wave of the future throughout the region? How should those who disagree with Bukele’s strategy react and provide an antidote within the boundaries of the rule of law?"

The Los Angeles Times has a long feature article written by Leila Miller, titled They left gangs and found God. But they weren’t spared in El Salvador’s crackdown.   The article describes the impact of the year-old State of Exception on the evangelical pastors whose ministry involved converting gang members from their lives of crime. Now those pastors find that all their former gang member converts are being sent sent into the country's prisons, regardless of whether they had turned from a life of crime.   My only criticism of the article is that it does not distinguish between gang member parishioners who had converted but never been caught and tried for former crimes, and those who converted inside prison while serving their sentences and had lived honest lives on the outside following release.  The former can rightly still face justice, while the latter have already served out their punishment. Both categories are now being rounded up into Bukele's prisons.

Although more than 66,000 have been arrested and charged with gang affiliations in Bukele's war on gangs, there are numerous reports that some gang members and leaders have fled El Salvador into countries like Mexico.  Axios outlines what is known in an article titled Salvadoran gang leaders fleeing crackdown pose threat to region, officials say.

At least one prominent Salvadoran leader of the MS-13 gang has been removed from hiding in Mexico.  In a press release, the US Justice Department announced the capture of Jose Wilfredo Ayala-Alcantara, also known as “Indio de Hollywood,” a high-ranking leader of MS-13.  He is part of the MS-13 leadership which has been indicted in federal court in New York.   Other members of MS-13 indicted by US authorities are either in prison in El Salvador, or in hiding.   InsightCrime explains the Mexcican connections to MS-13 in El Salvador in this article.

Government Finances

The Salvadoran government needs loans from international sources in order to meets its obligations.  One potential source of lending has been the International Monetary Fund, but talks with the IMF stalled in early 2022 after Bukele made Bitcoin legal tender in the country.    

Now it appears that talks with the IMF might resume, after Bloomberg reported that a former IMF official had been retained to advise El Salvador on a loan.  The news led to a rise in the price of Salvadoran sovereign bonds which come due in 2025, as investors factored in the possibility that a new IMF loan would allow the government to retire the remaining debt at face value.

But there was also some contradictory news. Nelson Rauda, writing in El Faro English, reported that the Bukele administration had blocked release of the IMF's annual report on the economy of the country.  The Financial Times noted El Salvador hasn’t defaulted. Don’t thank Bitcoin

Causes like an economy which does not generate opportunity, like government corruption, insecurity and a repressive regime can all push people to leave their home country and migrate.  A coalition of faith based and civil society organizations under the name the Root Causes Initiative issued a report on the US government's Biden-Harris "root causes strategy" to address the underlying factors which lead to migration from the Northern Tringle of Central America towards the US. The report finds numerous weaknesses in execution of the US strategy including a lack of clarity and transparency with private sector investment, insufficient support of local NGOs working in the local context, and insufficient teeth in the sanctions of corrupt actors in the governments.