Salvadoran Defense Minister Merino Monroy Testifies Regarding Military Takeover of Legislature in February

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Credit: Presidential Press Secretary of El Salvador

On August 21, Defense Minister of El Salvador, René Merino Monroy, testified before legislators to give an official account of the military takeover of the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador on February 9, colloquially referred to as ‘9F.’ The entry of the military into the “Blue Room” or voting chamber of the Legislative Assembly on February 9 to intimidate legislators into approving a $109 million loan for President Nayib Bukele’s Territorial Control national security plan was broadly condemned by human rights organizations in El Salvador and international bodies including the UN High Commission on Human Rights. President Bukele’s deployment of the Armed Forces (FAES), including in the early days of the pandemic, as well as the inevitable politicisation of the military following the ‘9F’ events, continues to be a major concern to human rights defenders and US officials.

On Sunday, February 9, President Bukele ordered the National Civil Police and the FAES to surround the Legislature in an attempt to pressure political parties into approving a $109 million loan that was solicited from the multilateral Central American Economic Integration Bank (BCIE). This loan was to be used to fund "Phase Three" of the Bukele Administration's Territorial Control plan and would "modernize" the police and armed forces with advanced weapons, tactical gear, surveillance equipment, and more. In addition to the military takeover of the legislature, there were denouncements of removal of legislative security personnel and the deployment of military and police forces to legislators’ homes. Following this, the Political Commission of the Legislative Assembly scheduled a session of questioning for the Defense Minister, but due to the pandemic, it was rescheduled for August 21.

Over the course of 11 hours, Defense Minister Merino Monroy responded to an initial, pre-prepared list of 17 questions followed by a cross-examination from all of the political parties with representation in the legislature. Minister Merino Monroy framed the events of February 9 not as a military operation, as legislators had, but rather as a “major security procedure” with the intention of protecting President Bukele. When asked what unique threat presented itself on February 9 that warranted the military, Merino Monroy cited the crowd outside the Legislative Assembly building, that interestingly enough had been convened by the President himself in a “call for insurrection” against the Legislature.

In search of the intellectual authors of the 9F events, the Defense Minister was asked if he received an order to occupy the Legislative Assembly. In response, Minister Merino Monroy clarified that the deployment and number of troops was coordinated by the Presidential General Staff (EMP), the military unit tasked with protecting the president. He further denied any participation in the design and execution of the military operation, claiming that the head of the EMP, without mentioning their name, was the person responsible for the actions of the military at the Legislative Assembly. Legislators from the right-wing political party Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) expressed that they would subpoena the EMP official to testify before the special commission created to investigate the events of February 9.

While Merino Monroy admitted the President’s behavior at the Legislative Assembly was a “political act,” he refused to comment further on it, making himself accountable only to questions related to the FAES. In fact, when asked, "Minister, having taken a political stance in the events of February 9, 2020; have you considered resigning?" Merino Monroy responded, "No, I haven't considered it. I totally disagree with the assertion that you have made regarding my person and the institution having adopted a political position. Categorically not true." In response to a different question about the extent of the military's obedience to the president, the Defense Minister reiterated again that he did not believe that the FAES engaged in politics by accompanying the president on February 9, affirming, "As military personnel, we submit to what is established by the Constitution and the Laws of the Republic. It must be remembered that the President is the Commander in Chief and we owe him obedience and respect to all his orders. The [President] has not given any illegal order."

During the hearing, Karina Sosa, Legislator for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) upbraided the Defense Minister, saying, “The events were known internationally, generated harsh criticism and have affected the image of El Salvador.” In February, following the attempted self-coup, Sosa held meetings with human rights defenders in DC and Members of Congress to warn about the impending constitutional crisis.

In another instance during the hearing, FMLN legislator Dina Argueta asked for the name and rank of the person in charge of the February 9th operation. In his reluctance to answer, Merino Monroy responded that he had already explained the basic structure of the Army before offensively saying, “not paying attention or not having the ability to understand is what causes situations like this to occur." Following this exchange, during a recess, FMLN legislators Dina Argueta and Cristina Cornejo, accompanied by other women legislators from the opposition, handed copies of the ‘Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence against Women’ (LEIV) to the Defense Minister considering that his remarks towards Legislator Argueta had sexist undertones.

Prior to the hearing, on August 20, Attorney General Raúl Melara expressed in an interview, “So far we have done a large number of procedures, we have had statements, we have taken videos, we have done all the procedures that can be done since that day, and today, we do not have the necessary elements to charge a crime.” This was referenced in the hearing by the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) legislator Adelmo Rivas, who publicly reassured the Defense Minister, "Do not worry, even the Prosecutor's Office said that there is nothing to investigate.” Various civil society organizations have heavily criticized the Attorney General’s decision not to prosecute anyone for the events of February 9, with Sonia Rubio Padilla, director for El Salvador of the Due Process of Law Foundation, saying, "Given the seriousness of what happened, for the Attorney General to stop investigating these events or superficially discard them, the commission of crimes would be a terrible precedent for democracy and the judicial system." While the Attorney General and Defense Minister may not see the militarization of the Legislative Assembly as something of major importance, the Bukele administration is feeling the heat from Washington over his February 9 actions.

According to the Associated Press, members of the Bukele administration cabinet have even considered hiring lobbyist Robert Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group, which also represents the governments of Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for government and media relations work in the United States, to clean up the administration’s reputation in the halls of Congress.

Recent concerns have been raised by Democratic Members of Congress and U.S. government officials regarding the confrontational attitude of the Bukele administration towards the other branches of government, the frequent attacks on the media, and recent revelations by the investigative outlet ‘El Faro’ that the Bukele administration has had a quid pro quo with MS-13 for the past year. On September 10, House and Senate Democrats issued a call to the Salvadoran government, “While disagreements between government officials and the media are bound to occur in any democracy, we believe that governments must always ensure full respect for press freedom.  We urge you to treat our concerns with the seriousness in which we convey them.“ In addition, it has just come to light that the Vice President of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Thomas Kelly, in private correspondence, warned the Bukele administration months ago that development aid from the U.S. was at risk due to its pattern of authoritarian behavior.

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