Arrests of Former FMLN Cabinet Members are Illegal and Politically-Motivated
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Media contact: Alexis Stoumbelis, [email protected] or (202) 521-2510 ext. 205
Human Rights Organizations in El Salvador Denounce Arbitrary Detentions of Former Government Officials as Illegal and Politically Motivated
Bukele regime scrambles to cast aspersions amidst scrutiny on corruption in his administration and growing discontent among the population
In an aggressive show of force Thursday night, operatives of the National Civilian Police (PNC) illegally detained a number of former cabinet members from previous Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) administrations. Social movement and civil society organizations in El Salvador are denouncing the detentions, which were carried out without a judicial order, as politically motivated and are calling for the immediate release of those detained.
The initial targets of Bukele’s latest political attack were Dr. Violeta Menjívar, former Minister of Health and former mayor of the capital city of San Salvador, and Erlinda Handal, former Vice-Minister of Science and Technology, and daughter of FMLN founder Schafik Handal. Also detained were Calixto Mejía, former Vice-Minister of Labor and former FMLN legislator, Hugo Flores, former Vice-Minister of Agriculture, and Carlos Cáceres, former Treasury Minister.
After carrying out the detentions, representatives of the PNC and Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado announced that the FMLN functionaries were being accused of embezzlement and money laundering, though none of those detained were aware that they were being investigated, let alone facing charges.
Delgado announced arrest warrants for other former officials as well, including former president Salvador Sánchez Cerén (2014-2019). Delgado added that he would seek international assistance in his crusade, as the former president has been living outside the country for some time.
Immediately following the detentions, the government's powerful communications apparatus activated a campaign to defame those detained by publicizing unsubstantiated evidence in an effort to try them in the court of public opinion.
Critics in El Salvador say the arrests and the accompanying media show are Bukele’s response to recent blows to his image, including widespread discontent over his imposition of a new law obligating the use of Bitcoin as a national currency, the appearance of high-level cabinet members and leaders of his New Ideas party on the U.S. State Department’s recently published list of individuals accused of corruption, and, just last week, revelations from former President Antonio Saca of secret payments made during his administration to the father of a New Ideas legislator as well as to other legislators currently allied with the governing party.
Human rights and opposition groups in El Salvador issued a public statement declaring, “What is clear is the enormous corruption of the current government, which hides information about how public funds are spent and is currently impeding the Accounting Court from auditing $1 billion dollars from the 2020 budget. Evidence of public corruption in this government is constantly springing forth. These illegal actions demonstrate the weakness of a regime that resorts to violence and defamation in order to prop up its public image, which has been deteriorating due to the aggravation of problems for the population. In the last two years, unemployment and poverty have risen, health care is worsening, and violence against women is increasing, among many other social ills.”
They also note that “no action by the self-proclaimed Attorney General of the Republic has legal validity as his appointment was the result of illegal actions by legislators from the governing party, who installed him without following constitutional procedures.”
Statement from Samantha Pineda, Program Director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador:
“The illegal detention of former FMLN government officials have many trademarks of the Bukele regime. With his administration coming under fire for widespread corruption and misuse of COVID-19 pandemic emergency funds, it’s not a surprise that he would abuse his control over the police and the Attorney General to cast blame elsewhere and rile up the population on unsubstantiated claims of corruption by his predecessors.
Nor is it a surprise that Bukele would unleash his wrath on the FMLN, the only political party in El Salvador willing to challenge his plans to sell off the country piece by piece to investors and benefactors.
But what is particularly concerning is the fact that the police rounded people up without a judicial order in place and without giving them any information about why they were being detained or where they were being taken. This is further evidence that his administration relies on secrecy and illegality to function. It is also frighteningly reminiscent of previous eras of state repression.
We are witnessing a dangerous pattern of political intimidation and harassment in El Salvador right now. On Tuesday night, the headquarters of COMADRES, an organization founded by the mothers and siblings of people who were forcibly disappeared during the armed conflict in the 1980s, were raided and archives stolen. There is little confidence that the current Attorney General will pursue these and other attacks on human rights organizations.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador should immediately call for the release of the political prisoners and for an end to illegal raids, seizures, and political intimidation of the president’s political adversaries.
This is an important opportunity for chargé d'affaires for the U.S. Embassy, Jean Manes, to right the wrongs of the past, given her unabashed support during her previous tenure as U.S. Ambassador for similarly motivated actions by former Attorney General, Douglas Meléndez, who also chose not to act on evidence indicating upwards of $4 billion in embezzlement of public funds during ARENA’s twenty years in office.
Given their illegal actions, the U.S. Senate should also immediately withdraw funding and support for the National Civilian Police in the upcoming appropriations bill, which the House failed to do in its recent vote. U.S. support for the police and military is fueling this type of political repression throughout Central America.”