Raids on independent groups in El Salvador raise fears of repression

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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Authorities in El Salvador have raided the offices of seven social services and advocacy groups in an embezzlement investigation that rights activists accuse is part of a politically motivated crackdown on independent voices.

The speeches on Monday came when the country’s legislature considered a bill that would require all groups or individuals who receive funding from abroad to register with the Ministry of the Interior as foreign agents, a condition that critics say can greatly limit the work of journalists and civil society.

IN a statement, The prosecutor’s office said the raid had been carried out as part of an investigation launched by the assembly into “a series of discrepancies that may have arisen in the process of sentencing, 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 attack on democratic norms and institutions, critics say, as the charismatic young leader increasingly uses his party’s control of the assembly to tear down legal independence and undermine the opposition.

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

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

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

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2019, was elected president at the age of 38 as a candidate for a new party of his creation that promised a break from “outdated ideologies.”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

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

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

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

“There is no democratic institution, there are no real controls and balances for Bukele’s exercise of power,” said José Miguel Vivanco, America’s director at Human Rights Watch. He said the bill on foreign agents “makes it virtually impossible for independent media and civil society to operate in El Salvador.”

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

In July, the Bukele administration expelled from the country a Mexican editor of one of Salvadora’s top news sites, El Faro, said he could not prove he was a reporter or editor.

The bill on foreign agents, which would impose a 40 percent tax on foreign donations that stores like El Faro receive, could be a nail in the coffin for the organization, said its editor-in-chief, Óscar Martínez. “To remove 40 percent of the funds given to a media would mean, commercially, to put it into bankruptcy,” Martínez said.

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

On Monday, the best American diplomat in the country announced that she would leave. Diplomats, Jean Manes, a former ambassador to El Salvador who returned earlier this year, said Bukele’s government “showed no signs of interest” in improving relations between the two countries.

“We bid a bridge, and the government has decided not to take it, ”Manes said in an interview on a television network, Telecorporación Salvadoreña. El Salvador’s deputy chief of staff, 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 bill on foreign agents and “avoid undermining the activities of independent NGOs.”

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

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