*Editor’s Note: This is the current situation as of press time. However, it is rapidly evolving. For real-time updates, follow @CISPES on twitter, @cispes_solidarity on instagram, or go to our website www.cispes.org

On July 22, the National Civilian Police (PNC) in El Salvador illegally detained a number of former government officials from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party. Social movement and civil society organizations in El Salvador are denouncing the detentions, which were carried out without a judicial order, as politically motivated and are calling for the immediate release of those detained.

Those arrested were Dr. Violeta Menjívar, former Minister of Health and former mayor of the capital city of San Salvador, and Erlinda Handal, former Vice-Minister of Science and Technology, and daughter of FMLN founder Schafik Handal. Also detained were Calixto Mejía, former Vice-Minister of Labor and former FMLN legislator, Hugo Flores, former Vice-Minister of Agriculture, and Carlos Cáceres, former Treasury Minister. They are currently being held in prison while they wait for the court to issue further instructions on how they can appeal their case. 

After carrying out the detentions, police representatives and Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado announced that the FMLN functionaries were being accused of embezzlement and money laundering, though none of those detained were aware that they were being investigated, let alone facing charges.

Delgado announced arrest warrants for other former officials as well, including former Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019). Delgado added that he would seek international assistance in his crusade, as the former president has been living outside the country for some time.

Immediately following the detentions, the government’s powerful communications apparatus activated a campaign to defame those detained by publicizing unsubstantiated evidence in an effort to try them in the court of public opinion.

Critics in El Salvador say the arrests and the accompanying media show are President Nayib Bukele’s response to recent blows to his image, including widespread discontent over his imposition of a new law obligating the use of Bitcoin as a national currency, the appearance of high-level cabinet members and leaders of his New Ideas party on the U.S. State Department’s recently published list of individuals accused of corruption, and revelations from former President Antonio Saca of secret payments made during his administration to the father of a New Ideas legislator as well as to other legislators currently allied with the governing party.

Community members demonstrate in front of the Salvadoran consulate in Los Angeles in response to Nayib Bukele’s technical coup on May 23, 2021. Courtesy: CISPES

Human rights and opposition groups in El Salvador issued a public statement declaring, “What is clear is the enormous corruption of the current government, which hides information about how public funds are spent and is currently impeding the Accounting Court from auditing $1 billion dollars from the 2020 budget. Evidence of public corruption in this government is constantly springing forth. These illegal actions demonstrate the weakness of a regime that resorts to violence and defamation in order to prop up its public image, which has been deteriorating due to the aggravation of problems for the population. In the last two years, unemployment and poverty have risen, health care is worsening, and violence against women is increasing, among many other social ills.”

They also note that “no action by the self-proclaimed Attorney General of the Republic has legal validity as his appointment was the result of illegal actions by legislators from the governing party, who installed him without following constitutional procedures.”

Similarly, in a public statement by the American Association of Jurists – El Salvador Branch (AAJ-ES) condemning the arrests, they wrote “Every day the violation of the Constitutional State of Law of El Salvador is more evident – it is publically and internationally known; all facilitated through the absolute control that the President of the Republic has of all organs of the State, including the Office of the Attorney General of the Republic.”

Given the growing criticism of the Bukele administration for corruption and misuse of COVID-19 pandemic emergency funds, it is no surprise that he would utilize his control over the police and the Attorney General to cast blame elsewhere and rile up the population on unsubstantiated claims of corruption by his predecessors. Nor is it a surprise that Bukele would target the FMLN, the only political party in El Salvador that has challenged his plans to further private investments in the country.

The fact that the police arrested people without a judicial order and without giving them any information about why they were being detained or where they were being taken is a red flag that signals the weakening of democratic processes. It falls neatly into the administration’s pattern of governing with a disregard for existing laws and institutions. A pattern all too reminiscent of previous eras of state repression.

There is currently a turn towards political intimidation and harassment in El Salvador. A few days before the illegal arrests, the headquarters of COMADRES, an organization founded by the mothers and siblings of people who were forcibly disappeared during the armed conflict in the 1980s, were raided and archives were stolen. There is little confidence that the current Attorney General will pursue these and other attacks on human rights organizations.

The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador should immediately call for the release of the political prisoners and for an end to illegal raids, seizures, and political intimidation of the president’s political adversaries.

This is an important opportunity for chargé d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy, Jean Manes, to right the wrongs of the past, given her unabashed support during her previous tenure as U.S. Ambassador for similarly motivated actions by former Attorney General, Douglas Meléndez, who chose not to act on evidence indicating upwards of $4 billion in embezzlement of public funds during ARENA’s twenty years in office.

Given these illegal actions, the U.S. Senate should immediately withdraw funding and support for the National Civilian Police in the upcoming appropriations bill, which the House failed to do in its recent vote. U.S. support for the police and military is fueling this type of political repression throughout Central America.

Here in the United States, CISPES and other allied organizations are working to amplify the demands and calls to action being shouted by social movements and grassroots organizations from the ground in El Salvador. This includes pressuring Congress to denounce the actions taken by New Ideas leader, President Nayib Bukele, as well as military aid that is being used to silence any opposition to the actions taken by the President. CISPES is calling on the El Tecolote readers to take action in this urgent situation! You can help by sending a pre-written email to the U.S. Embassy to break its silence and end its complicity in political persecution at bit.ly/freepoliticalprisoners. You can also tweet at the Salvadoran Supreme Court and the President to urge them to respect due process and democratic processes in the country. You can find sample tweets at bit.ly/sampletweetsSV. Please email bayareacispes@gmail.com if you want to get involved locally.