SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Two former guerrilla soldiers aligned with a leftist opposition party were killed in an armed attack on Sunday night in San Salvador in the worst political violence seen in the Central American nation in decades.
Minutes after the attack against the members of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or the FMLN, El Salvador's popular and controversial President Nayib Bukele made comments on Twitter seemingly suggesting that the attack had been staged by the FMLN as part of its campaign for upcoming legislative and local elections.
“It seems that the dying parties have implemented their latest plan. What desperation not to lose their privileges and corruption. I thought they couldn't fall any lower, but they fell,” Bukele tweeted.
Yet within hours, three people were arrested in connection with the attack who—according to reports from the investigative outlet El Faro—were bodyguards connected to the Health Ministry of Bukele's government. El Faro has been attacked repeatedly by Bukele's administration.
Several members of the FMLN were returning home after a campaign event in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, when they were intercepted by a blue sedan, according to the initial investigation. Three armed men got out of the sedan and opened fire on the other vehicle, in which children as well as elderly men and women were traveling, said witnesses. The attack left two people dead—an elderly man and woman who were both veterans of the country’s civil war. Two other men sustained minor injuries, and the attackers fled the scene.
The victims were rushed to a hospital emergency room in the capital, and representatives of the FMLN leadership gave a press conference out front. They attacked President Bukele’s response to the incident.
"We possibly have the most violent person, who is the president of the republic, inciting violence, hatred, confrontation, not only through his tweets but also through an electoral campaign, advertising, and different media on behalf of the ruling party, where what is most evident is hatred and confrontation,” said Óscar Ortiz, secretary general of the FMLN.
Ortiz said: “I can't say exactly when, but this is an incident that I haven't seen since… I don't know when. Because we have had events where someone has hit someone, but this is a savage incident."
Bukele, who is prolific on social media, has been criticized by the opposition for preaching a discourse of hate towards the traditional parties. In an incident last week, he was accused of abusing his power to protect an ally who attacked a critic and rival politician. Bukele’s presidential win in 2019 on the GANA party ticket was a blow to the nation’s two dominant political parties. The president’s current political party is Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, which was formed in 2017.
On Sunday morning, before the attack took place, El Salvador’s vice president Félix Ulloa gave a speech at a public event where he said that the country had entered “a new war” in regards to the upcoming legislative elections that will be held on February 28.
"We remember that this new war with new actors has already started and we started it by winning on February 3, 2019 and we will continue to win it on February 28," said Ulloa.
After criticism on social media, President Bukele retracted his initial statement and claimed that the National Police had initiated a search operation to find those responsible for the incident. He subsequently said that the three attackers had been captured and suggested that the event had been a shootout. "All those responsible will pay for their actions, whoever they are," he tweeted.
However, the National Police contradicted the president’s claim in another tweet: "As the investigations progress, the participation of a fourth and fifth person has been ruled out."
Around midnight Sunday, FMLN party members who were outside of the hospital where the victims were staying reported that the police tried to arrest one of the wounded who had just been discharged. "They want to take him away, supposedly to testify, but now they have changed that version and say that they are detaining him, but the man got sick and they had to put him back in the hospital," said the FMLN deputy municipal secretary in San Salvador, Rubenia Castro.
The attack was condemned both at home and abroad.
“We urge the authorities to carry out a thorough investigation of what happened,” tweeted Birgit Gerstenberg, the United Nations coordinator in El Salvador and Belize. Brendan O'Brien, Chargé d'Affaires of the United States Embassy in El Salvador, tweeted: “As the United States Embassy, we express our sincere condolences to the victims of tonight's attacks. Any violence is unacceptable and those responsible must be brought to justice.”