A U.S. State Department report leaked this week made startling corruption accusations against a number of prominent politicians in El Salvador, including close allies of controversial President Nayib Bukele.
Tensions between El Salvador and the U.S. were already running especially high after Bukele removed a number of Supreme Court judges and the country’s attorney general in a move that was widely viewed as an attempt to consolidate his power and impede investigations into him and his party, called Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas.
The leaked document names five Salvadoran officials that have “engaged in significant acts of corruption.” At the top of the list is Carolina Recinos, Bukele’s current Chief of Cabinet and one of the president’s longtime confidantes since his political career began as a small-town mayor nine years ago. The document doesn’t specify the charges against her beyond corruption.
Bukele’s former security minister Rogelio Rivas is also on the list, which alleges that he awarded “his own private construction company several noncompetitive and unadvertised contracts to build police stations and other buildings that fall under his official capacity and inflated the cost of materials.” Political ally Guillermo Gallegos, and two former lawmakers from the FMLN party that preceded the Bukele administration, Sigfrido Reyes and Jose Luis Merino, are also named. The document alleges that Reyes “misappropriated public funds for personal benefit when he authorized and laundered fraudulent travel expenses.”
Bukele, who’s been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump, is infamous for his use of social media to both self-promote and attack his critics. He didn’t take the news well. He went on Twitter after the release of the list to mock the United States, sardonically referring to them as “Our ‘Friends’”.
He then took aim at how the list omitted politicians who “the whole country knows are the most corrupt in our history” and that the U.S. “protected over 40 years.”
“Look at the names they publish, who is promoting it, the media outlets publishing it, those sharing it. They’re the henchmen of George Soros. We already know their playbook and we know how to beat it,” he tweeted, along with a kissy-face emoji. Soros, a billionaire investor and philanthropist, has long been seen as a sort of global political puppet master and the subject of numerous antisemitic conspiracy theories related to coups around the world.
The 39-year-old Bukele rose to power in 2019 on a campaign based on combating corruption and gang violence, winning a landslide defeat over the opposition. Although he and the party he founded have faced accusations of negotiating with gangs and corruption themselves since entering office, he’s remained extremely popular, and his New Ideas party swept recent midterm elections in February.
That majority in the legislative assembly allowed for the removal of lawmakers who opposed him and will most likely serve to bury ongoing investigations into Bukele’s negotiation with gangs.
But Bukele’s continued consolidation of power hasn’t gone unnoticed in Washington and the move was widely condemned by U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle, including U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris who expressed “deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy”.
Bukele responded to U.S. condemnation at the time, saying that “we’re cleaning our house” and that it is “none of your business.”
Since entering office, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made strengthening democracy in Central America a central goal in their attempt to stem migration, which they believe is the result of endemic corruption across the region.
The list that names the five Salvadoran officials reportedly also includes 12 Honduran and Guatemalan politicians, although their names have yet to be released. Norma Torres, a California Democratic and chair of the Central America caucus, hinted on Twitter Monday that the rest could be released “mañana”, assumedly meaning sometime Tuesday.
The Associated Press claimed to have seen the full list and wrote that the “bulk” of the Guatemalan and Hondurans have already been indicted or sanctioned in the U.S. An image of the alleged list began circulating on Twitter on Tuesday morning.
In Honduras, a number of associates of beleaguered President Juan Orlando Hernández have faced trial in the U.S. and been found guilty of various drug trafficking and corruption charges, including his brother Tony. Others have been sanctioned. Hernández's name did not appear on the new list circulating of corrupt officials, and speculation continues to swirl that he could be charged by the U.S. when he leaves office in January 2022.