SANTA TECLA, El Salvador — Critics of President Nayib Bukele aren’t surprised by his allied lawmakers’ May 1 vote to remove top judges from the country’s highest court, which has drawn criticism at home and abroad. Observers have long warned about the possibility of the young president using authoritarian tactics to govern if his party won a majority in the legislature.
“The administration, from the (chief) executive to ministers to high-ranking officials, with respect to the state of legal rights … hasn’t ceased to place us on a bit of alert, and perhaps raise wariness in some sectors,” Leonardo Ramírez Murcia, the president magistrate of El Salvador’s Criminal Supreme Court, told U.S. News in April.
Lawmakers from Bukele’s New Ideas party passed a motion to remove the five judges from the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber. New Ideas lawmakers, who have held a majority — 56 of 84 seats — in the Legislative Assembly since landslide election victories in February, allege the judges were deterring Bukele’s ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hours later, lawmakers voted to remove the country’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Raul Melara. Ruling party lawmakers claimed Melara, whose office carries out investigations into crime and corruption, lacks independence. Members of the assembly then voted to appoint five new magistrates to the court and a new attorney general seen as more friendly to Bukele’s initiatives.
The removed judges, the most powerful on El Salvador‘s 15-seat Supreme Court, were among the last checks on Bukele’s power.
“We have deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy, in light of the National Assembly’s vote to remove constitutional court judges,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris wrote on Sunday on Twitter. “An independent judiciary is critical to a healthy democracy — and to a strong economy.” Condemnations also came from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the general secretariat of the Organization of American States and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Diego García-Sayán.
But Bukele posted a defiant response on Twitter just hours after the legislature’s vote: “We want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other, and work together on what we can. Our doors are more open than ever. But with all respect: We are cleaning house. …and that is not your responsibility.”
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Later, Bukele has held fast to his party’s revamping of the judiciary. “Everyone, absolutely everyone criticizing from other countries, would even ask for jail for officials of a regime that kept them in misery for 30 years,” he tweeted. “Stop the hypocrisies. Seventy-five percent of the Salvadoran public voted in free elections for the changes that we’re seeing.”
On Feb. 9, 2020 — when Bukele’s allies in the legislature constituted a small minority — the president interrupted an Assembly session, storming the national legislature with armed forces and seating himself in the Speaker’s chair, demanding lawmakers approve a plan to equip police and military units to combat gang violence in the country. Critics called the move an attempted coup.
And when the pandemic struck in March 2020, one ex-government minister who spoke to U.S. News on the condition of anonymity, accused the Bukele government of reneging on its fiscal responsibilities, leaving citizens in the dark on the government’s spending priorities.
“During the first seven months of the new government, before the pandemic struck, there was no (fiscal) plan,” the former official said. “A fiscal responsibility law was indefinitely suspended. According to the government, that happened because we were under (a state of) emergency due to the pandemic.”
“In terms of fiscal progression,” the former official continued, “the government has no strategic plan in place for us as a nation. … And there’s no five-year plan, nor is there an annual plan. For some reason, the Bukele government hasn’t deemed it important.”
Bukele handily won the country’s presidential election in 2019, and his party and allied groups won the most votes in each of the country’s 14 departments during the Feb. 28 elections, according to El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
However, a March 30 U.S. State Department report criticized the administration for a decree allowing members of the military to assist police with arrest and detention of suspects of organized crime. The report also noted various alleged human rights abuses, including the unlawful killings of suspected gang members, torture and cruel punishment of detainees, a tenuous independence of the judiciary, restrictions on freedom of the press, acts of government corruption, and a lack of consistent enforcement against violence against women.
El Salvador has struggled to install strong foundations for democracy and civil society while also battling endemic corruption across society since a 12-year civil war ended in 1992. The country finished ninth worst among 78 countries assessed as being seen as “not corrupt” in the 2021 Best Countries report, an annual global survey of people’s perceptions of countries.
Both sources who spoke to U.S. News about the state of democracy and transparency in El Salvador cite the report as cause for concern over the stability of democratic government in the country.
“With respect to the state of (legal) rights, and constitutional (matters), we’ve borne witness to unnecessary confrontation between the executive (branch) and the Constitutional Court within the Supreme Court,” says Ramírez of El Salvador’s Criminal Supreme Court.
He cited a February ruling issued by the now-deposed Constitutional Supreme Court that ordered the government to remit outstanding debts to all 262 mayoralties in the country, and said it has not been paid.
“It’s been two months since that ruling was issued,” and as of early April, “it still hasn’t been carried out,” he said. “The Constitutional Court ordered both the legislative and executive branches to put forth a comprehensive law to deal with the pandemic. Even so, it wasn’t done.”
The past week’s moves against Supreme Court judges and the country’s top prosecutor mark a serious regression in El Salvador’s democracy, say international observers. Ramírez says that despite disagreements with rulings by the Supreme Court in the past, neither the executive nor the legislative branches had refused to follow court orders.
Meanwhile, the Bukele government has not shown any indication that it intends to address the concerns of domestic and international critics.
“I’d like to know how many of those who today tear their clothes and cry out for the rule of law and separation of powers in El Salvador raised their voice in protest when the former president of the United States ‘seized’ the Supreme Court,” Salvadoran Vice President Felix Ulloa tweeted on Monday in reference to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the American high court last October.
And on Wednesday, Bukele posted a tweet warning against alleged threats by “the same people as always” to his allies in the Legislative Assembly: “1. To threaten is a crime. 2. Nobody has done anything illegal, on the contrary, they’re fixing your illegalities. 3. You all no longer have the power to do anything to them.”
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El Salvador Government Defiant After Ousting Supreme Court Judges originally appeared on usnews.com