Drastic Measures and Lack of Accountability in El Salvador

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 51

El Salvador is by far the smallest of the three countries, covering only 21,041 square kilometers with a population of 6.5 million with the following ethnic-racial breakdown: 86.3% mestizo, 12.7% white, .2% indigenous (Lenca, Kakawira, and Nahua-Pipil), 0.1% black, and 0.6% other. Consequently, El Salvador has the smallest economy among the three countries, producing $56.6 billion of GDP, and has the worst balance of trade, exporting only 49% ($4,662 billion) of what it imports ($9,499 billion).  Salvadorans do, however, produce and benefit from more GDP per capita ($8539) than Guatemalans, despite their much smaller economy.  They also depend on remittances for 20.93%, Foreign Direct Investment for 2.7%, and Development Assistance for 1% of their GDP.  El Salvador also benefits the most of the 3 countries from the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement and a Millenium Challenge Corporation compact. It is significantly more urban (with 73.4% of its population living in cities) than Guatemala and Honduras and with 29.2% of its population below the poverty line and an 88.5% literacy rate, it has poverty indicators between the other two countries. Its lowland climate is tropical with marked rainy and dry seasons and more temperate mountainous areas.

Debt and Economies Woes

El Salvador has continued to accrue debt in its attempts to allocate funds to address the pandemic situation. On February 2, 2021, an allocation of $705 million out of $999.3 million of funds earmarked for COVID relief represented foreign debt financed by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank. Furthermore, El Salvador has reallocated such funds from other intended uses, such as poverty reduction, gas subsidy, and local development programs.

In hopes of stimulating economic growth within the context of the pandemic, Salvadoran authorities have targeted the following sectors for major investments in 2021: energy, highways and airport transportation infrastructure; hospital and health clinics infrastructure, including adequate spaces for vaccination; urban youth centers to encourage reading and other activities with the aim of preventing violence; tourist projects; technology and biosecurity; residential real estate projects suspended during the pandemic; athletic facilities to host the XII Central American Games in November 2022; and the INnovaLab, a joint venture of the Termoencogibles corporation, USAID and the Salvadoran Association of Industrialists, which has the goal of stimulating business practice by providing equipment and resources, multimedia meeting rooms, and individual and common spaces.  

Quarantine Detentions and COVID-Related Corruption

El Salvador and Honduras have more visibly failed to treat COVID victims or protect health workers than Guatemala.  In these two countries, such inadequate response to the pandemic has not simply been financial or logistic, it has taken the form of human rights violations and abuse of power in the form of exploiting the crisis for political purposes and corruption.  Along with Venezuela and Paraguay, El Salvador has been called out for the fact that it has arrested and imprisoned quarantine violators, responded harshly to prison uprisings, and “held tens of thousands of people in … state-run quarantine centers” characterized by “insanitary and sometimes inhumane conditions without adequate food, water and medical care” putting occupants at a higher risk of contracting, and a lower chance of recovering from COVID-19.

By the end of August 2020, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s government had “quarantined more than 16,000 people, including those accused of breaking the mandatory national lockdown, people returning from overseas, or those suspected of having been in contact with anyone who had tested positive for COVID-19.”  A disproportionate number of these were “migrants, refugees, people returning to their countries of origin, and low-income communities.”  Such quarantined citizens were held “well beyond the 14 days … recommended by the WHO, and sometimes for more than a month” in warehouses, sports stadiums, and other facilities.  They “did not have sufficient access to information about how long they would be detained … or the scientific criteria that would be used at any given time to determine their discharge…”  One Salvadoran woman spent “40 days sleeping on a dirty mattress on the floor” after being detained for “breaking the national lockdown … buying groceries and medicine, an activity … considered essential and allowed at the time.” Jailed gang members have also been victims of these practices, which violate international human rights agreements, protocols, and law. Bukele has tried to discredit Human Rights organizations reporting on this situation with unfounded claims that “human rights organizations … work to make sure more people die[,]…ignor[ing] the fact that the highest expert body on health, the WHO, specifically indicates that ‘violations or lack of attention to human rights can have serious health consequences.’” 

An example of COVID-related corruption in El Salvador is found in the national Court of Accounts of the Republic (CCR) claim that the government violated parameters for paying US$300 vouchers to families affected by the pandemic, by giving each spouse in [some] married relationship[s] … voucher[s] and “not comply[ing] with regulations when hiring … banks assigned to deliver the vouchers or …companies that set up call centres to receive complaints”.

Social organizations have recently asked the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly to pass a series of reforms to grant the International Commission against Impunity (CICIES) the authority to collaborate with Guatemala’s Attorney General in order to take appropriate action in response to the findings of current investigations of allegations of corruption in 105 state entities, one of them including irregularities in managing funds allocated to address COVID related issues. 

Bukele’s ability to deny such accusations and suppress reporting and public awareness of them is assisted by attacks on the press and freedom of expression.  El Diario de Hoy Online and other news outlets reported the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES)’s statement that “government officials, the National Civilian Police (PNC), and the expanded health cabinet,” committed 125 attacks on the media in 2020.  APES President Angelica Carcamo emphasized her concern that “compared to other years, when attacks on journalists were due to social violence, whether by gangs, organised crime, or local governments, now more than 90 per cent of the attacks come from state entities, where officials have restricted the right to information and have attacked journalists”.

At the same time, Bukele has made contradictory statements calling “health workers ‘heroes’ and denounc[ing] the attacks and discrimination they … fac[e]” days before “veto[ing] decrees by El Salvador’s National Assembly that would have strengthened the safety of health workers at work, providing the population with disinformation that could undermine their own safety… [A] few weeks later Bukele publicly called health workers ‘heroes’ and denounced the attacks and discrimination they were facing.”  Bukele changed his messaging yet again a few days later “by vetoing two decrees by the National Assembly that would have strengthened the safety of health workers at work, giv[ing] them and their families social protections and ensur[ing] better training for them to face the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

By Sarah Buck Kachaluba

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