Raids on Independent Groups in El Salvador Raise Fears of Repression

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — The authorities in El Salvador have raided the offices of seven social service and advocacy groups in an embezzlement investigation that rights advocates charge is part of a politically motivated crackdown on independent voices.

The raids on Monday came as the country’s Legislative Assembly ​​considered a bill that would require any groups or individuals who receive funding from abroad to register with the Interior Ministry as foreign agents, a condition that critics say could severely limit the work of journalists and civil society.

In a statement, the attorney general’s office said the raids had been carried out as part of an investigation launched by the Assembly into “a series of abnormalities that may have arisen in the process of adjudication, execution and monitoring of funds from the Salvadoran state.” A spokesman for the president’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The raids are the latest example of President Nayib Bukele’s assault on democratic norms and institutions, critics say, with the charismatic young leader increasingly using his party’s control of the Assembly to chip away at judicial independence and undermine opposition.

“Things are moving very quickly in the direction that is very familiar to people who have studied democratic backsliding,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College and an expert on Latin America.

Mr. Bukele, he said, “has been able to check off so many of the boxes that make this process now hard to slow down or contain.”

Among the groups that were raided was one that works on literary programs for women, Las Mélidas. Its founder, Nery Díaz, said the government’s actions signal “a desire to criminalize social organizations.”

Mr. Bukele soared to power in 2019, elected president at age 38 as the candidate of a new party of his creation that promised a break from “obsolete ideologies.” He has billed himself as an enterprising reformer, a millennial president taking on the establishment.

In September, El Salvador became the first country in the world to adopt the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender, despite warnings from economists over its volatility. And on Saturday, Mr. Bukele announced the creation of the world’s first “Bitcoin city,” taking the stage at a Bitcoin conference amid a shower of fireworks and smoke, loud rock music blaring in the background.

Mr. Bukele announcing the creation of a “Bitcoin city.”Credit…Marvin Recinos/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Critics say that Mr. Bukele, whose Twitter profile calls him the “CEO of El Salvador,” has shown an authoritarian streak behind his online trolling, tech-savvy persona and rebellious attitude.

This year alone, Mr. Bukele and his New Ideas party have dismissed dozens of judges and prosecutors, while also replacing all five magistrates of the country’s Constitutional Court. In September, that same court ruled that presidents can run for a second consecutive term, all but clearing the way for Mr. Bukele to seek re-election in 2024.

“There is not a democratic institution, there are no real checks and balances on the exercise of power of Bukele,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. He said the foreign agents bill “makes it virtually impossible for independent media and civil society to operate in El Salvador.”

A similar law in Russia has become a potent tool for suppressing opposition groups and independent media.

In July, the Bukele administration expelled from the country a Mexican editor at one of the top Salvadoran news sites, El Faro, saying he was unable to prove he was a reporter or editor.

The foreign agents bill, which would impose a 40 percent tax on foreign donations that outlets like El Faro receive, could be a nail in the coffin for the organization, said its editor in chief, Óscar Martínez. “Taking away 40 percent of the funds that are given to a media outlet would mean, speaking purely in business terms, bringing it to bankruptcy,” Mr. Martínez said.

The political repression in El Salvador has strained relations with Washington.

On Monday, the top U.S. diplomat in the country announced that she was leaving. The diplomat, Jean Manes, a former ambassador to El Salvador who returned there earlier this year, said that Mr. Bukele’s government was “not showing any signs of interest” in improving the relationship between the two countries.

“We were offeringa bridge, and the government has decided not to take it,” Ms. Manes said in an interview on a television network, Telecorporación Salvadoreña. The deputy chief of mission in El Salvador, Brendan O’Brien, will take over her duties, she said.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in the United States called on the Salvadoran Assembly to reconsider the foreign agents bill and “avoid undermining the operations of independent nongovernmental organizations.”

Bryan Avelar reported from San Salvador, and Oscar Lopez from Mexico City.

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