A Man Was Arrested Hours After He Criticized the El Salvador Government on Twitter

The fallout has led to renewed accusations that the authoritarian yet deeply popular President Nayib Bukele is escalating attacks against anyone who dares criticize him.
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Nayib Bukele, El Salvador's president, delivers a speech to Congress at the Legislative Assembly building in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. Photo: Camilo Freedman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A man sent a Tweet questioning why the family of El Salvador’s president needed a huge security detail at the beach. Hours later, he was tracked down and arrested.

The fallout from the tweet has caused an outcry among human rights activists in El Salvador and led to renewed accusations that the authoritarian yet deeply popular President Nayib Bukele is escalating attacks against anyone who dares criticize him, from established reporters to social media users. 

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The man who wrote the tweet, Luis Alexander Rivas Samayoa, 38, has been detained since Sunday evening. He told his lawyer that he’s being charged with contempt, Rivas’ brother, Carlos, told VICE World News.  

“The simple fact is the only crime he’s committed is being critical of the abuses that are being carried out by this government,” Carlos told VICE World News. 

President Bukele’s supporters have responded to the outcry with a litany of unfounded claims: That Rivas is a political operative funded by an opposition political party; that he has ties with the violent Barrio 18 street gang; and that his offending tweet and a corresponding photo put Bukele’s relatives at risk. They were photographed at Playa Dorada, an isolated but public beach dotted with private houses about two hours from the capital San Salvador. 

Rivas posted the controversial tweet at 10:10 a.m. on Sunday to his anonymous account @elcomisionado, or “the commissioner” in English, through which he frequently criticized the president’s administration and supporters, often with vulgar language.

“Tremendous security presence accompanying Karim, the girlfriend, the mother, and the other brother of Bukele. Luckily we live in the safest country in the world,” Rivas wrote. “You can no longer swim in peace on the beach, because a shit ton of security guards appear sons of bitches.” Karim is the president’s younger brother and a top adviser.

Rivas also posted a distant, grainy photo of at least four men in white shirts standing by the shoreline, ostensibly watching over Bukele’s family. He later deleted the photo but left the critical tweet. 

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Less than an hour after he posted the tweet on Sunday, agents from the Division for the Protection of Important People arrived at the Playa Dorada ranch where Rivas was celebrating a birthday with friends and his 10-year-old daughter, Carlos told VICE World News. They asked who had posted the photo, but nobody confessed. The agents returned to the ranch with police officers around 4:30 p.m. and made everyone present turn over their cell phones along with passwords, Carlos said. Rivas admitted to posting the photo after the police threatened to arrest everyone. They kept him inside the house until 8 p.m. and then informed the other party-goers that they would be taking Rivas to a police station to sign documents attesting that he was responsible for the photo.

On Monday, Rivas’ family went to the police station to look for him but nobody gave them any more information, Carlos said, which is when they started publicizing his arrest. That evening, Rivas made a phone call informing his family he had been taken  to a different police station. By Tuesday, the @elcomisionado Twitter account had been deleted entirely. The Salvadoran National Police didn’t respond to a request for comment from VICE World News confirming whether they were holding Rivas and under what charges. 

The very fact that Rivas is not a high-profile figure has heightened concerns about Bukele’s attacks on civil liberties, suggesting his administration will go after all critics, regardless of their profile. The 41-year-old president swept to power in 2019 on an anti-corruption platform, and as a social media darling with a massive following on Twitter. He has remained immensely popular, in part because of his tough-on-gangs approach. But critics soon denounced him for autocratic moves, including marching into Congress accompanied by heavily-armed soldiers in an effort to push through a bill.

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In late March, Bukele declared a 30-day state of emergency following the murders of 62 people in a single day. He has extended the state of emergency ever since—nearly six months on—empowering his government to tap the communications of Salvadorans without a court order, arrest people without evidence, and deny citizens the right to legal counsel and freedom of assembly. Salvadoran police have arrested more than 50,000 alleged gang members since declaring the state of emergency.  Bukele frequently claims that his hardline approach  has led to a dramatic decrease in murders

Following the outcry over Rivas’ arrest, Bukele supporters went on the offensive. They noted that Rivas works for the nonprofit FUSALMO, which supports vulnerable youths and adolescents—the accusation being that the nonprofit has received money from the opposition political party, ARENA. Others suggested he was “dangerous” and had ties to the Barrio 18 street gang. Still others dug up old tweets he had written referring to some female politicians as idiots and bitches, and called on people to seek charges against him. 

“This is the vulgar lout who was in charge of defaming and speaking words offensive to all of us,” wrote Deputy Walter Aleman on Twitter, along with a picture of Rivas.

Deputy Christian Guevara called on “any woman or person [who] has been offended or suffered gender-based violence” by Rivas to denounce him with the attorney general’s office or civil police. 

Rivas’ brother, Carlos, said Rivas dedicated his career to helping kids from low-income neighborhoods in vulnerable situations and has no connection to any political party. He said the family lives in a neighborhood controlled by Barrio 18, but has no ties to the gang. On Tuesday, he filed a complaint with El Salvador’s human rights agency protesting his brother’s treatment. His arrest, Carlos told VICE World News, is an “example of the repression being exerted against public opinion.”