With a new law granting immunity to El Salvador officials accused of mismanaging coronavirus funds and the resignation of a prosecutor looking into pandemic-related spending, President Nayib Bukele and allies are wasting no time undermining a major corruption investigation aimed at his administration.
The National Assembly has approved legislation that makes it impossible to scrutinize direct purchases related to the pandemic and shields officials from corruption allegations linked to acquiring COVID-19 supplies.
The law, submitted to congress on Bukele's instruction, was approved May 5, just days after congress voted to oust the country's Attorney General, Raúl Melara, who in November 2020 had launched a criminal investigation into irregular purchases made by Bukele officials using emergency funds. Bukele’s party, New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas), holds a supermajority of 56 legislators in the National Assembly, where the law was passed with 64 out of 84 votes.
Two days after the law's approval, on May 7, a top anti-corruption prosecutor reportedly working on investigations into the alleged misspending resigned from his post after rejecting a transfer out of the Attorney General's Office anti-corruption unit.
Under Article 4 of the new legislation, health sector workers and contractors are protected from any criminal and administrative accusations related to the acquisition of medical supplies required for combating COVID-19.
The health ministry and other branches of the national health system (Sistema Integrado de Salud Pública) are now also free to purchase medical supplies directly without adhering to El Salvador's national contract law, according to Article 8 of the new rule.
The law is also retroactive, which means it would protect officials accused of wrongdoing dating back to when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, in March 2020.
The government argues that the legislation will help "set up efficient mechanisms for acquiring medicine to fight the adverse effects of COVID-19." The law drew immediate criticism from opposition lawmakers.
"We will not support measures aimed at guaranteeing impunity for officials or businesspeople who have benefitted illegally from purchases during the pandemic," tweeted Anabel Belloso, a congresswoman for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN).
Those concerns were echoed by Johnny Wright Sol, a legislator for Nuestro Tiempo (Our Time), who in a tweet said "the pandemic should not be a justification to manage public funds in the dark."
The Bukele government has come under intense criticism from foreign officials following the removal of Attorney General Melara, including from US Vice President Kamala Harris, who expressed "deep concerns" about El Salvador's democracy and judicial independence in a May 2 tweet.
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By approving the new measures, legislators have heightened concerns that Bukele plans to use his party's dominance in congress to shelve corruption investigations that could hurt his administration.
Under the new legislation, it is now far more difficult for the Attorney General's Office to continue its investigations into over $155 million in purchases made by the government during the pandemic.
That includes investigations into the health ministry, led by Francisco Alabí, who allegedly purchased $225,000 in rubber boots from a company owned by his aunt.
Alabí's health ministry also purchased $250,000 worth of overpriced masks from a recycling company owned by the head of the country’s Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental), according to Salud con Lupa.
The Attorney General's Office was also investigating state contracts assigned to companies with no experience providing medical supplies, including a $12 million contract the health ministry awarded to an automotive company in Madrid, and another worth $5.6 million that went to a tile store in Miami, El Faro reported.
Under the new legislation, neither the government nor domestic and foreign contractors will assume any financial or legal responsibility for this type of deal.
Also under investigation was Bukele’s finance minister, José Alejandro Zelaya, who is linked to a company that sold 300,000 masks to the health ministry for a total of $750,000, double the manufacturer’s price.
Michael Paarlberg, an assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told InSight Crime that the new law is "a harbinger of the obstruction of future corruption cases, as well as more abuse of the judicial system for partisan ends, as Bukele seeks to control or shut down any institutions that may look too closely into his administration and its finances."