The winners

The 2023 edition of the Central American and Caribbean Games ended in host country El Salvador on July 8, after 16 days of competition.  Today we look at some of the winners from having the games take place on Salvadoran soil.

Winners: Sports fans in El Salvador

Sports fans in El Salvador were treated to more than 2 weeks of international athletes competing in 37 sports in 53 disciplines.   (Competitions for seven of the sports took place in the Dominican Republic as a sub-venue for the games). 

El Salvador won 28 total medals during the course of the games including 8 gold medals, which tied the country for 8th place in the number of gold medals and 9th place in overall medals.  Overall medal counts were dominated by regional sports powerhouses Mexico, Colombia and Cuba.

Winner: The Bukele Public Image Machine  

El Salvador became the host of the games after Panama withdrew its commitment in 2020 during the pandemic to be host country. The president of Centro Caribe Sports heaped praise on El Salvador for "rescuing" the games.

Sports coverage and government social media channels were filled with flattering images of top athletes competing in venues across the country.   The government celebrated with pride each Salvadoran who mounted the medals podium.

President Nayib Bukele wasted no time in taking advantage of the audience for the games and the international media gathered to cover the events. He boasted of the success of his government in improving public security and encouraged journalists to ask local citizens how they felt about their government and the supposed "dictatorship":

The government was carefully watching how it would be portrayed during the games.   As the games approached and it did not appear that construction on all the venues would be completed on time, the president's brother Yamil Bukele suggested that it would be "unpatriotic" for the media to suggest the country would fall short of being ready.

But critics of the Bukele government were quick to label hosting the games as a blatant attempt to polish the image of the country which has been roundly criticized internationally for its human rights record and the autocratic concentration of power in the president.  From the Associated Press:
Observers worry events including the games – drawing athletes from 35 countries across the region – will allow Bukele to save face internationally and show voters he has global support as he seeks reelection despite a constitutional ban on terms of more than five years.

Often referred to as “sportswashing” – the use of sports to divert attention from controversy and improve reputations amid wrongdoing – the tactic has been wielded by autocratic governments across the world for decades. The accusation was most recently slung at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his investment in golf, the World Cup and other international sporting events.

The AP noted that the games were taking place while the country was under a "state of exception" and overlapped with the not unexpected official announcement that Bukele would be seeking reelection as a candidate from his Nuevas Ideas party.   The PR value of the games was readily apparent:

The rise of social media has made it harder for leaders to present large sporting events as apolitical, but sportswashing usually works because athletic events are both highly visible and seen as a distraction from daily problems and politics, said Alan McDougall, a sports historian at the University of Guelph in Canada.

“Successfully hosting an international event can give a regime confidence to kind of to act with impunity. Sport is a bit of a shortcut way to win yourself, not even popularity, just an acceptance,” said McDougall, who dates the use of athletics as a political tool to the 1930s, when a Mussolini-run Italy hosted the World Cup and the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany.

And while many in El Salvador celebrate a new reality marked by roaring stadiums and fireworks, those suffering amid Bukele’s crackdown feel forgotten by the rest of their country.

Winners: the suppliers and construction companies

Hosting the 16 day games was an enormous expense of the government, which spent $180 million or more on the games.  $115 million came from an loan from the Bank for Central American integration (BCIE) which was used for remodeling sports venues.  The remaining funds came from general revenues appropriated by the Legislative Assembly.

An investigation by RevistaFactum revealed that while projects funded by the BCIE loan were conducted through public contracting processes, the contracts funded directly by the government without the need to follow BCIE regulations were done by direct contracting with little, if any, transparency.  Often, technical requirements of contracting were ignored.

For example, the Mexican company Promoción y Distribución Cinco, S.A. de C.V. (Prodisa) won $39.4 million of public funds for remodeling of the José Adolfo Pineda National Gymnasium and the Jorge Mágico González Stadium but neither was ready in time for opening day on June 23. Three events needed to change venues because the renovations were not complete. In total, Prodisa won more than $54 million in contacts.  Yet on the day the contracts were initially awarded, Prodisa was not legally registered to do business in El Salvador.

The Organizing Committee also awarded a contract for food services for more than four million dollars to the Colombian company Servicios de Alimentación NPSA, known as La Vianda.  The Colombian company provided food for 5,000 athletes and 3,000 sports delegates in a provisional, tent-type dining room installed at the University of El Salvador (UES).  Like Prodisa, La Vianda was not initially registered to do business in El Salvador.  In Colombia, that company was investigated for selling overpriced food baskets to the Barranquilla mayor's office during the Covid pandemic.

Other large contracts went to Omni S.A. de C.V., the firm that had worked on other signature projects of the Bukele regime, including the Chico Pets veterinary hospital, and the CECOT 40,000 inmate mega-prison.

The Factum article points out that requests for public information about the large majority of these contracts produced responses that contracting information was either non-existent or secret.   Although it is not possible to know if these contracts involved corruption, inflated prices, or misspending public dollars, the removal of systems for public oversight and contracting outside of prescribed processes, makes such consequences a real possibility.  


Anyone who is a fan of Salvadoran sports, had to love seeing national soccer hero Jorge “El Mágico” González mount the steps, in the stadium that bears his name, with the torch to inaugurate the games.