Political Chaos Reigns in El Salvador

A water truck makes deliveries in a locked-down village in rural El Salvador in the days before the left- and right-wing parties joined forces to lift the nationwide lockdown. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

SAN SALVADOR (CN) — Last December the head of El Salvador’s extreme right-wing party, Arena, tried to persuade the National Legislature to cancel the immunity of President Nayib Bukele so that Arena boss Gustavo López Davidson could sue the president for defamation. Bukele president had said publicly that López Davidson was a crook.

On Sunday night, López Davidson was arrested and shown to the press handcuffed with a helmet, a bulletproof vest, mask and goggles. He is in jail awaiting his bond hearing, according to La Prensa Gráfica, a struggling right-wing daily.

Charges against López Davidson include embezzlement and swindling the government. He was an arms dealer and is accused of collecting $2 million for shabby old used guns he sold as new. El Salvador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.

Arrested along with López Davidson were two former ministers of defense during the previous administration of the nominally leftist FMLN party. Both parties were and are filled with kleptocrats; an ex-president of the Arena party is doing 12 years in prison for stealing $250 million and an ex-president of the FMLN has fled the country and is a fugitive accused of stealing $351 million.

The former minister of defense, David Minguia Payes, is on home arrest on charges of secretly giving the country’s major street gangs cash to slow down the murder rate. Seeking fewer homicides during the 2014 presidential campaign, the FMLN is said to have given the gangs cash as well as phone privileges in the prison, along with wild parties with vodka and women.

The gangs cut their grisly killing in half. Running on its record of less violence, the FMLN won the presidency for the second time, edging Arena by 1% of the vote.

Arena also was paying the gangs to do their bidding, which included getting out the vote in gang territory. Its former presidential candidate has been charged with gang affiliation but is immune from arrest because he is an elected deputy in congress. 

Aware of the links between the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, the voters finally ditched both corrupt ruling parties last year and elected Bukele, a young and rich businessman who ran on a platform of honest government. 

In another startling development this week, Bukele went to a previously abandoned dam and reservoir project that had run out of money and announced the continuation of the project. Bukele also demanded that the attorney general do the job and charge those who had made off with the missing $40 million.

Also this week, more charges were filed against ex-President Mauricio Funes (2009–14) and one of his coffee baron friends who already is in prison. Funes fled the country and was awarded asylum and citizenship in Nicaragua to void the extradition attempt, according to court records and press reports. He now works in Nicaragua’s foreign ministry. The $40 million apparently went from an Italian bank to a Panamanian bank account controlled by FMLN President Funes.

Public reaction to these events is skeptical that any serious time will be imposed on the embezzlers. In El Salvador the courts start handing out compassion releases from prison at age 60, so the guilty will are likely to be confined to their mansions, with a wink.

María, a politically involved middle-aged woman, explained why nobody seemed to be excited that major figures in government and business and the military had been charged and arrested.

“By the time the arrests are made, the deals have already been made and the arrested know what the outcome will be,” she said. “It’s a show: The bond money has already been negotiated and gathered. They may even take the passport from one or two.  But it will be home detention, and they’ll have to rely on their servants to pick up the pizza, the wine and the Scotch.”

The courts may be lenient with the wealthy and connected, but for the street thugs the punishment is severe. On Monday a young man with facial tattoos was sentenced to 10 years in a brutal gang prison for extorting $10 a week for 36 weeks from a small business. He also was ordered to pay $360 in restitution.   

Carlos spent eight months in a prison controlled by gangs. Because he was merely a clerk in a hardware store, the prison gangs ignored him after a few days of grilling. He was charged as a gang member because he had lost his phone and someone used it to call a farmer and demand $49 in exchange for his life.

Even after he was acquitted at trial, his attorney, a former judge, has to keep prepared in case the prosecutor decides to appeal. Carlos now is studying Flemish in Ghent, Belgium, in a refugee education program that provides room and board and schooling for asylum seekers. He says that Dutch was harder to learn than the French he studied in Brussels, and he wears a mask wherever he goes.

The Salvadoran courts say the constitution prevents the government from requiring masks to be worn but does permit the health ministry to suggest it. The courts also have ruled that the constitution prevents the police from enforcing any order that prevents anyone from going anywhere they want, day or night.

Most significant is that the courts say quarantines are unconstitutional and Covid-19-positive people cannot be isolated against their will.

As a result the virus is everywhere and the dead keep piling up faster than the gravediggers can dispose of them. On Sunday night one hospital had not a single emergency Covid case, and the medical staff took to the streets for lengthy applause. 

Although infection and mortality rates are lower than the neighboring countries, the situation is out of control. The refusal to let Bukele use his executive authority to battle the coronavirus has ensured that his efforts will not succeed. As national elections approach, in February, the two disgraced parties will campaign on the damage they have done and attribute it to the president they both have nicknamed the “dictator.”


Courthouse News correspondent Miguel Patricio is based in El Salvador.

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