Central America, in Brief: As world leaders met for Biden’s Democracy Summit, the U.S. delivered a major blow to the Bukele administration by sanctioning senior officials for leading covert gang negotiations and accusing his chief of cabinet of spearheading a “multiple-ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme.” Not invited to the Summit, Guatemala’s Giammattei made his own trip to D.C. to court support from the U.S. right wing.
Corruption Rings in Bukele Administration
In just two days, the U.S. Treasury Department has handed down hefty financial sanctions against three key officials in Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s government.
The first move came Wednesday when the Treasury Department accused two key Salvadoran officials of brokering a secret agreement with gangs MS-13 and 18 Street to secure a nationwide reduction in homicides and gang violence, covert support for the President’s party in the 2021 legislative elections, and enforcement of the government’s COVID-19 quarantine in gang territory.
In exchange, according to the Treasury Department., Bukele’s administration paid “financial incentives” to the gangs and granted cell phones and access to sex workers to the imprisoned leaders involved in the negotiations. El Faro uncovered the negotiations in September 2020, the existence of which the Bukele administration fervently denies. This August, El Faro reported evidence of a government cover-up of the talks based on an official investigation carried out by the former Attorney General’s Office.
The Treasury Department placed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions —a freeze of U.S. assets and ban on doing business in the U.S. or with U.S. nationals— on the Bukele administration’s two lead negotiators, including Vice Minister of Justice and Director of Prisons Osiris Luna. The department also sanctioned Luna’s mother for helping her son in a separate scheme to steal and resell $1.6 million in food destined for families affected by the pandemic. An El Faro investigation revealed evidence of the embezzlement two months ago.
On Thursday the Treasury Department added Bukele’s chief of cabinet, Carolina Recinos, to its Magnitsky list for orchestrating “a multi-ministry, multi-million dollar corruption scheme” including by directing ministers to authorize inflated or suspicious contracts related to the government pandemic response and the mid-pandemic construction of the flagship Hospital El Salvador. In return, “Salvadoran government officials and some of President Bukele’s advisors” received “kickbacks.”
The department also accused Recinos of coordinating the diversion of government COVID-19 food baskets “for the use of specific Nuevas Ideas candidates to garner support in the February 2021 municipal and legislative elections.” Just two weeks ago, El Faro reported that the mayor of San Salvador and Bukele’s former minister of governance converted government food relief into handouts for his 2021 mayoral campaign.
One lingering question is whether, in referencing “kickbacks” in the Recinos-led scheme to “some of President Bukele’s advisors,” the Treasury Department was referring to the shadow cabinet of Venezuelans in the Salvadoran government with ties to Juan Guaidó.
“It’s clear that the U.S. government doesn’t accept collaboration, friendship, or alliances,” responded Bukele on Twitter on Thursday, adding: “It’s absolute submission or nothing.” He later shared screenshots of an apparent conversation over WhatsApp with former interim ambassador Jean Manes, in a failed attempt to claim that she had asked for the release of an opposition politician involved in previous gang negotiations.
Much of the evidence from the corruption cases included in these new sanctions has been in the hands of El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office for over a year, based on the investigations of a special prosecutors’ unit created by former Attorney General Raúl Melara to investigate illicit negotiations with gangs and corruption in the current administration.
After the Legislative Assembly, controlled by Bukele’s party, illegally removed Melara from office in May, de facto Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado disbanded the prosecutors’ unit, and the investigations haven’t advanced since.
It’s also unclear how the Treasury Department’s moves against the officials leading the Bukele administration’s gang negotiations will affect Congressional Republicans’ postures toward Bukele, given that as president, Donald Trump called MS-13 one of the principal threats to U.S. national security. Bukele has invested millions of dollars in white-shoe D.C. lobbying firms to promote the notion that his rift is solely with the Democratic Party.
Unwanted at the Democracy Summit
The exclusion of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua from the Democracy Summit from December 8 to 10 is the latest effort by the White House to assert that the undemocratic trends in the isthmus have not gone unnoticed, and will have isolation consequences in the international arena.
In a press briefing on December 2, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Juan Gonzalez cited Central American governments’ “concerning actions,” particularly in El Salvador. Illegally replacing judges with Bukele loyalists, restricting access to public information, and refusing to fight corruption were all reasons Bukele did not receive an invite, according to Gonzalez.
Gonzalez warned of “confusing popularity with a mandate to change democratic institutions” and said he worried El Salvador is not ready or willing to “contribute productively to the conversation that we’re going to have.”
As a plan B to attending the conference, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei traveled to Washington this week to speak about the bilateral relationship at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation and minimized the non-invite to the Summit as a partisan slight. “We are the last strategic ally left for the U.S. in the region, even though some people in this administration don’t understand it,” Giammattei said.
In his Heritage Foundation speech, Giammattei emphasized his government’s cooperation in fighting drug trafficking and granting extradition requests, as well as its support for Taiwan and relocation of its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He also declared that Guatemala will become in March the “pro-life capital of Iberoamerica,” another example of a Central American government appealing to conservative religious interests while facing scrutiny for anti-democratic actions.
The Heritage Foundation used the visit as a political barb against the White House. “The Biden Administration is imposing a partisan and highly politicized agenda on Guatemala,” wrote the foundation, “demonstrated with its failed ‘root causes’ strategy and its most recent decision to exclude Guatemala from the Summit for Democracy.”
Republican senators bit their tongues last week when Congressional Democrats asked the Biden administration to go further against some countries in Central America. On November 30, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested that Biden consider suspending the participation of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). He said it’s a “strong action” and that the Biden administration should “think about using all the possible tools.”
Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo criticized the lack of invitation to the summit and asked the Biden administration to “respect Nicaragua’s participation in all international forums.”
One academic suggests a broader multilateral strategy in the region is needed. Biden “should consider inviting rival parties —including incumbents, opposition blocs, civil society, and the private sector— to pursue a series of multilateral ‘Democracy Accords,’” writes Lucas Perelló, of Marymount Manhattan College, in an opinion column for El Faro English.
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