On April 23rd the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, ordered the immediate dismissal of Claudia Liduvina Escobar Campos, then Commissioner of the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP), accusing her of committing “probable acts [that] seriously affect the operation of the IAIP and breach of its functions.” Prior to her removal from office, Escobar issued a statement denouncing attacks from fellow IAIP commissioners appointed by President Bukele, calling it “a strategy of pressure and harassment.” She believes that her public statements regarding setbacks in transparency during the current administration and her ongoing defense of public access to information have been interpreted as a threat by administration officials.

Escobar was appointed as a Commissioner to IAIP in 2019 through a democratic, participatory and transparent process. She is also known for her work with Las Febes, a feminist union organization that focuses on unionizing informal sector workers and fighting for gender equity in the work force. From the beginning of her appointment as commissioner she has led efforts in gender and transparency at the institute and with the Bukele administration’s consistent attacks against unions, it is no surprise that having a pro-union commissioner in the IAIP would be seen as a threat. Escobar has been forthcoming during interviews with news outlets about the drop in hearings, resolutions and the weakened state of the Institute. According to Escobar, she has been the victim of constant persecution since the month of February, at the hands of president-appointed IAIP commissioners behind closed doors.

However, this attack on Escobar is not an isolated incident. The dismissal occurred during a post-electoral period that has been marked by an increase in political persecution with misogynistic undertones against people who have denounced setbacks in transparency, human rights and democracy in the country. Following the February 28th legislative, municipal and Central American parliamentary elections, a New Ideas activist targeted two women candidates from the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the final vote count. The New Ideas activist sexually harassed and verbally assaulted Daniela Genovés, candidate for the Legislative Assembly, and Karina Sosa, candidate for the Central American Parliament. This was captured in a video shared online by the perpetrator where Genovés is seen being followed and verbally harassed. After the video was published, he and others continued to attack and threaten Genovés and Sosa online. 

Members of the Asociación de Mujeres Sindicalistas Febe Elizabeth Velásquez march in El Salvador. Courtesy: CISPES

Soon after, Salvadoran feminists took to the streets on March 7 for the yearly International Women’s Day march. During the march, police attempted to detain two women, injuring one, while the government deployed military contingents and members of the riot police. Online, Bukele administration officials took to social media to discredit and disparage the march. 

This highly militarized response is deeply concerning and has been denounced by organizers as an intent to stifle collective action to demand justice and an end to misogynistic violence. Unfortunately, gender-based violence is as prevalent in the Legislative Assembly as it is on the streets with consistent attacks on labor, programs and bills that provide the women of El Salvador with more health, safety and autonomy. Since President Bukele’s appointment into office, he dissolved five state secretariats without approval from the legislature, which resulted in the dismissal of 1,000 public employees, 80% of which were women. Additionally, drastic budget cuts to community programs disproportionately affects women. One of the affected programs was Ciudad Mujer which offered women healthcare services and career training, as well as support for survivors of sexual assault. Feminists also denounced the government’s nationwide quarantine order and pandemic response for lacking a feminist lens, as the cases of violence against women rose during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Furthermore, the recently elected, New Ideas led, Legislative Assembly has dismissed legislation that would have protected cis and trans women’s rights. The decriminalization of abortion in El Salvador has been a constant fight for the last decade, demanding relief from the harshest abortion laws in the world. While gender rights activists worked tirelessly to end this form of state-sanctioned violence through their proposed legislation, the New Ideas lawmakers completely scrapped the bill, choosing to deny Salvadoran women’s right to bodily autonomy. In that same meeting, lawmakers also rejected the Gender Identity Law which would have allowed trans and nonbinary people to change their names and gender identity in their legal documents. In scrapping this law as well, the New Ideas contingent made it clear that they do not prioritize the safety and wellness of trans women and the larger trans and nonbinary community.

Feminists march against state-sanctioned violence in El Salvador. Courtesy: CISPES

President Bukele’s consistent support for increased policing and militarization in the country has dire consequences for cis and trans women, especially for the latter who are most often the targets of police violence. Just in 2019, three police officers were convicted for the murder of Camila Díaz Córdova, a trans woman who had been deported from the US after seeking asylum because she feared for her life in El Salvador. Sadly, Camila’s case is not the only one and there are many cases of trans women who have experienced violence at the hands of police. Recently there was a horrific discovery of more that 40 bodies, majority women, on the property of former police officer Hugo Osorio Chavez. Nine other suspects who may have been accomplices were arrested, including former officers, soldiers and people smugglers. And while mainstream media would like to paint Chavez and the police officers who killed Camila Diaz Córdova as a few “bad apples”, the reality is that gender-based violence is deeply intertwined with law enforcement. Yet despite these cases and many more, President Bukele continues to prioritize funding for security forces and deprioritize legislation and funding for resources that could pave the way for gender justice in El Salvador.

Within his short time in office, President Bukele and his supporters are quickly undoing decades worth of progress for gender liberation in the country. And while the incidents described in this article may seem like one-off events, they all point to the systemic misogyny that has historically existed in El Salvador and is now personified by the president of the republic.  Bukele and his administration’s actions perpetuate the idea that to be a feminist and to publicly criticize the president is a punishable criminal act. The administration has a consistent pattern of attacking any political opposition, especially if it comes from women. This public disdain and disrespect against women fuels a social environment that condones misogynism, enabling people, especially men, to feel like they can attack women with impunity, in the streets, in their homes, at work or online. 

As we watch this quick reversal of women’s rights unfold from a far, the international community has a duty to act in solidarity with the women and feminist movements in El Salvador, who are in constant threat of attacks for denouncing the President and his administration. We need to let them know that we have not put feminist issues to the side and that we will not let this administration continue to dismantle the progress that has been made!

Follow CISPES for updates on how you can support the Salvadoran feminist movement. You can also support CISPES’ campaign to cut harmful US aid to El Salavdor, Guatemala & Honduras by visiting cispes.org/takeaction.