A Special Forces officer of the Grupo Reacion Policial (GRP) guards an alley during a raid against gang members on November 19, 2007 in El Salvador.
Appointed to office June 1, 2019, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, brought hope to the corrupt and gang-ridden country through the campaign slogan “there’s enough money when no one steals.” However, the news website El Faro published an article accusing Bukele of negotiating with one of the country’s most prominent gangs to lower their murder rate and win political support in exchange for prison privileges. After this revelation, Bukele’s commitment to ending the country’s corruption is being questioned.
Nayib Bukele is the first Salvadoran president from outside of two major parties that have dominated Salvadoran politics since El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. The two political parties, FMLN and Arena, have been continuously marred by scandals, and neither have adequately addressed the severe gang-violence that plagues El Salvador. Bukele’s campaign, which centered around promises of ending gang-violence and corruption, made him a promising figure during the election. Bukele’s public approval has remained positive, even as various news outlets have released information against his hopeful policies.
El Faro, a “regional stalwart for independent, transparent and reliable journalism,” according to the Global Investigative Journalism Network, provides daily coverage on Central American events and in-depth investigations into corruption, human-rights abuses, and gang violence. El Faro has published numerous investigations into Bukele, including alleged corruption, his growing authoritarianism, his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most recently, forming a secret truce with the MS-13 gang, which is considered a terrorist organization in El Salvador.
With about 67,000 Salvadoran gang members, the acts of terrorism MS-13 gangs commit in their communities cannot be dealt with lightly. To properly approach this issue, El Salvador’s president must deal with gang-violence at its roots, a feat no past president has done so far. Presidents should act to deal with gang-violence by investing in youth disengagement from gangs and embracing second chances for ex-gang members, rather than making corrupt deals with gangs. Now, it appears Bukele is following in their footsteps. El Faro has claimed to have “obtained copies of hundreds of prison reports confirming dozens of covert meetings between government officials and gang leaders since 2019, as well as intelligence reports detailing the outcomes of the encounters.” The outcomes include representatives of MS-13 agreeing to reduce homicides and accepting prison privileges which although not specified, may consist of entertainment access, work, money, and other freedoms. MS-13 also pledged to Bukele promising results of congressional elections in 2021. Bukele has denied these claims, but the accusation and Bukele’s unusual response have not gone unnoticed.
Bukele’s growing anti-press rhetoric has amplified the suspicions of journalists questioning Bukele’s actions. Within his first six months in office, journalists began to report exclusion from presidential press conferences. Bukele’s high social media usage has resulted in ample Twitter attacks against journalism and spreading rumors against the press. Bukele’s response to El Faro’s accusations has gone beyond Twitter-banter, though.
Upon first hearing the damaging accusations, state-run news site La Pagina accused an El Faro reporter of sexual assault. Only two days later, the supposed victim publicly denied the claims. Regardless, the Finance Ministry audited El Faro, beginning a months-long presence researching El Faro’s business history. The Finance Ministry has been unable to prove any financial mishaps, and speculators believe the government is trying to uncover private information harmful to the news site. Bukele has publicly announced that El Faro is being investigated for money laundering without providing evidence.
Due to El Faro’s suspicion that The Ministry has perpetrated a “deviation of powers”—the governmental use of a legitimate tool for which the result is different from what is stated— the publication has appealed before the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court. Attorney General Raúl Melara, who practices independent of Bukele’s presidency, announced that he would investigate the allegations reported by El Faro. Melara stated, “there are politicians and ex-politicians prosecuted for negotiations with the gangs. Rumors have arisen that this situation is happening again and we are going to investigate. No one can take advantage of the institutionality to negotiate with terrorists.”
Bukele’s attitude towards the press and investigation into El Faro provides a more startling reality of what freedom of speech and democratic institutions entail on a global scale. While Bukele, a close ally of President Donald Trump, has received Trump’s expressed support in the investigation, not all United States political figures agree. In September, House of Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel and Senator Patrick Leahy wrote directly to Bukele about their concerns about El Faro’s accusations. Bukele dismissed this letter. In response to El Faro’s accusations of President Bukele’s secret truce with Salvadoran gang MS-13, Bukele’s administration has accused El Faro of money laundering. With no evidence and an ill-ridden track record of anti-press rhetoric, Bukele risks reneging his anti-corruption campaign promises. Thus, Salvadoran citizens are beginning to doubt his intentions.
Photo from Shutterstock.
By Lorelei McCampbell