The announcement of the end of El Salvador’s anti-graft commission, which had been backed by the Organization of American States, could be the nail in the coffin for international investigative bodies in the region.
On June 7, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro confirmed the dissolution of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador – CICIES), launched jointly by the OAS and El Salvador’s government in 2019.
Almagro said in a statement that "public differences" with the government of El Salvador, including the "smothering" of the CICIES in recent weeks by the Attorney General’s Office, "made it impossible" for work to continue.
Days earlier, El Salvador Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado announced that the country had ended its anti-corruption accord with the OAS.
In a news conference on June 4, President Nayib Bukele criticized the OAS, saying that it “could not be trusted.” He also attacked Almagro over the agency's appointment of Ernesto Muyshondt, a Salvadoran politician under investigation, to an advisory role within that agency. Muyshondt is among several officials charged with conspiracy and electoral fraud for negotiating with gang bosses for political benefit.
“How can we combat impunity with someone who obviously has a political agenda and is offering impunity to a criminal for political reasons?” Bukele said.
Almagro countered that Muyshondt's appointment did not grant him immunity and that it had never been contested by El Salvador's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The offer to Muyshondt has since been withdrawn to avoid it being used as an "excuse” to end the CICIES, Almagro said.
Almagro also listed six points that he claimed made the CICIES' work impossible, including a new law granting immunity to officials accused of mismanaging coronavirus funds. He also cited actions aimed at “preventing progress” of corruption probes into the Bukele administration and attempts to "induce" the CICIES to investigate political opponents.
The CICIES was a signature part of Bukele’s presidential campaign, in which he posited himself as a reformer who would root out corruption.
At his news conference announcing the end of the anti-corruption body, Bukele said that partnering with another international organization on anti-impunity efforts was not out of the question. But he then attacked those very organizations, saying that “seeing all the garbage and all the rot behind these institutions is going to be difficult.”
Muyshondt, a politician with the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - Arena) and an outspoken critic of Bukele's, was placed under house arrest on June 4 on a new charge of tax evasion.
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While President Bukele blamed the decision to end El Salvador’s CICIES on Muyshondt’s appointment, the body’s fate was sealed when it began investigating his administration.
The CICIES was hamstrung from its outset in September 2019, raising questions about whether Bukele would allow it the jurisdiction to independently investigate high-profile corruption cases. Almagro mentioned in his statement that El Salvador had still not given the CICIES power to be plaintiffs in criminal proceedings.
The CICIES was also placed under the oversight of the executive branch, which limited its scope and weakened its capacity to investigate corruption at the highest levels of government.
Despite these limitations, in early 2020, the commission began a probe into the Bukele government's alleged misspending of emergency funds amid the pandemic. After receiving the commission’s findings, the Attorney General’s Office, then led by Raúl Melara, launched a criminal investigation of several officials.
That investigation quickly drew Bukele’s ire. Last month, legislators aligned with the president ousted Melara, replacing him with Delgado, who quickly announced plans to review the government's agreement with the OAS.
Bukele's and Almagro's statements "suggest that the relationship started to creak well before Almagro’s unfortunate appointment of Muyshondt,” Tiziano Breda, Central America Analyst for the International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime.
The decision to end the commission will likely cause further dismay among US officials who have made tackling graft a central priority in the region.
The demise of the CICIES – as with the anti-corruption commissions in Honduras and Guatemala before it – was a fait accompli when it began to investigate the president's inner circle.
The heralded United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which served as a template for the CICIES, shut its doors in 2019. Former Guatemala President Jimmy Morales orchestrated its ouster after it began to investigate his family and then the illegal funding of his 2015 presidential campaign.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández quietly allowed for the mandate of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras -- MACCIH) to lapse in January 2020. That body, too, had brought cases against political and business elites.
“The shutdown of international commissions in northern Central America points to the mounting aversion towards external interference in domestic affairs,” Breda told InSight Crime, noting that governments have faced few consequences for terminating these bodies.
“It is unlikely that similar commissions will be reinstalled,” Breda added.