The decision by legislators aligned with El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele to oust the country’s top prosecutor may spell the end of several crucial organized crime cases.
On May 1, Congress voted to remove Attorney General Raúl Melara during the first session of El Salvador’s new National Assembly. Melara had previously publicly announced that the Attorney General’s Office had opened investigations looking into the Bukele administration's alleged profiteering related to pandemic spending and negotiations with MS13 gang members.
Congress, which Bukele’s party controls, also voted to remove five constitutional court justices, with 64 out of 84 legislators approving both decisions, El Faro reported. Shortly after the congressional vote, the constitutional court judges responded that the vote was unconstitutional.
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Bukele’s party, New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas), holds a supermajority of 56 legislators in the National Assembly.
Ruling lawmakers defended the decision, claiming that the judges had violated the constitution when they ruled against the government's pandemic measures. Bukele had sought to put in place a rigid quarantine and expand emergency spending last year. In August 2020, the judges ruled that the measures violated human rights and lacked transparency.
Opposition legislators – with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) – denounced the ousting of the judges, calling the decision undemocratic and a violation of the country’s constitution.
The decision drew sharp criticism from human rights groups and US officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who said in a tweet that the United States had “deep concerns” about El Salvador’s democracy following the vote.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with Bukele by phone after the legislative session, also expressed concern regarding the removal of Melara, who assumed the top spot in the Attorney General’s Office in 2019. Melara “is fighting corruption and impunity and is an effective partner of efforts to combat crime in both the United States and El Salvador,” Blinken said in a statement.
Bukele blasted such criticisms from the international community, saying in a tweet that “we are cleaning our house” and that “it’s none of your business.”
Attorney Rodolfo Delgado has replaced Melara. Under past FMLN and ARENA administrations, Delgado served for 13 years as the director of the organized crime unit in the Attorney General’s Office, leaving in 2014. Minutes after he was named attorney general, Delgado said he had no links to Bukele's ruling party.
InSight Crime Analysis
While critics of the judges' ouster fear for the future of El Salvador’s democracy, the moves made by congress could also have dire consequences for the rule of law.
By law, El Salvador’s attorney general and president operate independently from each other. But since taking office, Bukele had gotten into the habit of publicly pressuring Melara, including on Twitter.
The two had been at loggerheads since Melara began investigating Bukele's government. The investigations are potentially damning for Bukele, who came to office vowing to fight corruption and to take on the country's gangs.
In September 2020, El Faro revealed multiple secret meetings between Bukele's prison director, Osiris Luna, and jailed MS13 gang leaders. The government was allegedly negotiating with the gang to lower the country's homicide rate in exchange for benefits. After the report, Melara said he had launched an investigation into the negotiations.
Bukele himself has previously called for similar investigations, including when Melara charged politicians and officials in the country’s main political parties with electoral fraud and conspiracy for negotiating with gangs to curry political favor.
Under Melara, the Attorney General’s Office also launched a criminal probe into the Bukele administration’s coronavirus pandemic spending. In November 2020, prosecutors conducted a series of raids aimed at gathering evidence on possible irregular purchases made with emergency funds.
The investigation implicates the current health minister, Francisco Alabí, who allegedly purchased $250,000 in rubber boots from a company owned by his aunt. Bukele's finance minister, Alejandro Zelaya, is also under investigation for alleged links to a company that sold 300,000 face masks to the health ministry at double the manufacturer’s price.
Initial reports on the pandemic misspending were compiled by Bukele’s flagship anti-corruption body, the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador - CICIES). Set up in September 2019 to investigate cases of corruption, the body has since been hamstrung by Bukele.
Now, responsibility for corruption investigations falls on Delgado, who has already cast doubt on the future of CICIES by announcing plans to “review" El Salvador's agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS), which supported the creation of CICIES.
Tiziano Breda, Central America Analyst for the International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime that Delgado’s appointment “raises concerns about more leniency towards government misconduct."
The analyst pointed to Delgado's statements on CICIES and his cozy relationship with officials in the National Police, an institution Breda said has been criticized for acting arbitrarily on behalf of Bukele.
Delgado previously defended Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, director-general of the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil – PNC), when the previous congress sought to strip Chicas' immunity so that he could face charges of failing to complete official duties. Arriaza Chicas had refused a congressional order to bring the aforementioned ministers, Alabí and Zelaya, to answer questions about expenditures during the pandemic.
Melara’s ousting portends that the president will have influence over current and future cases implicating his administration.
After all, Bukele has shown little respect for the separation of powers in the past.
In February 2020, he effectively stormed the legislative assembly, surrounded by armed police and military personnel, in a staged effort to pressure legislators to vote on a $109 million loan for his security plan.
"The main concern is that these steps are only the first in a broader intention of Bukele and allies to extend control over State institutions," Breda said.