Human Rights Groups Sound the Alarm as El Salvador President Deploys Military to Commandeer Legislature
On Friday, February 7, President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, issued an executive order to convene the Salvadoran legislature for an extraordinary special Sunday session with the sole purpose of approving a $109 million loan that was solicited from the multilateral Central American Economic Integration Bank (BCIE) to fund "Phase Three" of his Territorial Control national security plan, which intends to "modernize" the police and armed forces with advanced weapons, tactical gear, aircraft, drones, surveillance equipment including facial recognition, and other materials.
Bukele delivered the order via Twitter alongside threats that legislators who did not attend would “face consequences” for “breaking constitutional order” and incited the public to exercise their constitutional right to popular insurrection if the legislators did not comply. Meanwhile, the Salvadoran Armed Forces tweeted official statements reminding the population that “all our troops have sworn loyalty to the President.”
On Saturday, Bukele removed the personal security detail for all legislators and subsequently deployed the National Civilian Police and the Armed Forces to surround and enter the Assembly. The scene at the Assembly over the weekend, with heavily armed soldiers at the gates and–for the first time since the civil war–occupying the legislative session, was a chilling flashback to decades of severe political repression in El Salvador.
The deployment of the Armed Forces for expressly political aims also appears to be gross violation of the 1992 Peace Accords that brought an end to El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war and drastically curbed the military’s role in society. Under the Peace Accords, the executive office has the power to deploy the military domestically only in the case of an exceptional public security crisis.
To convene the legislative session, Bukele invoked the constitutional authority granted to the Council of Ministers to do so “when the interests of the Republic demand it.” But as the Foundation for the Application and Study of the Law (FESPAD) responded, “the impossibility of the [executive] obtaining financing from the Legislative Assembly [for its initiatives] is nothing out of the ordinary and doesn’t meet the criteria that the [Constitution] establishes.”
Indeed, on numerous occasions over the past decade, the right-wing dominated legislature blocked funding for security initiatives, including proposals for historic levels of funding for violence prevention and rehabilitation, during consecutive FMLN presidential terms, while the Supreme Court blocked other initiatives even after they had been approved in the legislature.
In this rare instance, the left and the right agreed. Representatives from El Salvador’s two largest legislative blocs–the arch-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the FMLN, who are usually at odds–both objected to the executive order, saying it violated the separation of powers; the Legislative Assembly also issued a formal response saying the order did not meet the constitutional criteria. Both parties also condemned the president for using military force to intervene in legislative decisions, while legislators also reported being harassed by National Civilian Police agents.
Reflective of broader social movement concerns, the Salvadoran Coordinator of Popular Movements described President Bukele's order as "anti-dialogue and authoritarian” and deemed his call to insurrection "a coup against the Legislative Assembly.” Other voices have called on the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court to immediately address the militarization of the Legislative Assembly and Bukele’s unconstitutional calls for insurrection.
As the Jesuit University of Central America Jose Simeon Cañas (UCA) in El Salvador wrote in its statement, “The members of the National Civilian Police should not lose sight of their mission, which is to maintain internal peace, tranquility, order, and public security. For their part, the Armed Forces should comply with its constitutional mission to serve the nation in an obedient, professional, apolitical manner.”
Over the weekend, international bodies echoed the concerns of Salvadoran social movement and civil society organizations. On Sunday, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alerted the international community to President Bukele's abuse of power, calling for dialogue and respect for democratic institutions, including the independence of the branches of government in accordance with national and international obligations. Amnesty International warned that, “The ostentatious police and military deployment in the Legislative Assembly reminds us of the darkest times in El Salvador’s history and raises international alarm over the future of human rights in the country. President Nayib Bukele must safeguard the crucial legacy of the peace accords.”
The European Union issued a statement urging “respect for institutionality and separation of powers,” warning that “disregard for constitutional order would break with 28 years of democratic stability and would cause grave damage to the harmony and international image of the country.”
In contrast, the Organization of American States and U.S. Ambassador Ron Johnson initially responded with statements of support for the Territorial Control Plan and President Bukele. Subsequent posts from the U.S. Embassy, however, invoked the Peace Accords and called on “both sides” to remain calm and seek dialogue. This revision points to the problems the United States would face in maintaining unquestioned support for Bukele (who has thus far proven loyal to many U.S. dictates) in light of the international condemnation he is now receiving.
Meanwhile, social movement organizations and independent media outlets in El Salvador have also questioned whether Bukele’s order—and the media spectacle it’s generated since Friday—is political theater, an intentional attempt to distract from increasing criticism his administration has faced in recent weeks. They advise, that, like Trump, Bukele and his communications team are extremely adept at manipulating news cycles and social media. Indeed, recent headlines hammering the government for failing to resolve an acute drinking water crisis in San Salvador, as well as revelations that the Attorney General is investigating members of the administration for collusion with gangs during his tenure as mayor of San Salvador, have all but disappeared.
On Saturday, Legislative Assembly President Mario Ponce of the right-wing PCN party summoned the plenary session for 3:00 pm on Sunday but only 28 legislators appeared. Failing to reach quorum, the session was been left open to be taken up Monday. In his public address to supporters outside the assembly that afternoon, Bukele announced, “If we wanted to press the button, we would press the button [and remove lawmakers from the legislature]…But I asked God, and God told me: patience, patience, patience.”
CISPES is following the situation closely, but for daily, Spanish-language coverage, we recommend following El Salvador's community radio collective ARPAS. Stay tuned for opportunities to take action!