Why are human rights organizations so critical of the Bukele administration?

Are Salvadorans concerned about their criticism of Bukele?

By Eddie Galdamez  |  Mar 20th, 2023
Salvadoran Armed ForcesSoyapango City.

The Government of El Salvador, under the direction of President Nayib Bukele (an authoritarian president to some and a great president to others), has declared a frontal attack on gangs and violence, which has significantly reduced homicides in what was, not long ago, one of the most violent countries in the world!

But local and international human rights organizations continue to criticize the actions taken by the Bukele administration; they argue that these security policies violate individuals’ human rights and create more problems instead of solving them.

The non-governmental organizations at the forefront of this criticism are Human Rights Watch and Cristosal. Other NGOs take positions against the Salvadoran government; however, the two listed above are the most vocal that regularly engage the Bukele administration on their policies and decisions.

Tamara Taraciuk and Juan Pappier are the two individuals from Human Rights Watch that often denounce the Salvadoran government. Locally Cristosal is the most critical organization calling out the Bukele administration; Ruth Eleonor Lopes and Zaira Navas are the most vocal Cristosal individuals.

The principal reasons these NGOs are critical of the Bukele administration are abuses during the State of Exception, judicial independence, transparency/corruption, freedom of the press, and Bukele’s possible re-election. There are other reasons! However, the five listed above are the most predominant.

Human rights organizations on the State of Exception

Human Rights Watch and Cristosal claim that the Salvadoran government is involved in severe Human Rights violations while implementing the controversial State of Exception.

These NGOs have documented serious abuses by security forces during the state of emergency, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and due process violations.

The government claims that they are not violating individuals’ human rights and that the State of Exception targets only criminals; the security measure has resulted in the arrest of over 65,000 alleged gang members. Also, it is a principal reason why El Salvador’s homicide rate has reached such low numbers.

The NGOs also argue that “Salvadoran authorities have inhumanely packed detainees, including hundreds of children, in crowded detention sites. They have also condemned the new maximum security Mega-prison (CECOT) for inhumane conditions.

The government stipulates that this Mega-Prison has these conditions because it is a maximum security facility that will accommodate the worst criminals and is for gang members only; they said that it will not be for regular inmates and will help to relieve the already overcrowded prison.

Judicial independence

HRW and Cristosal argue that President Bukele and his allies have taken steps to effectively co-opt the Salvadoran Justice department. To begin with, in May 2021, legislators removed and replaced all five judges on the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber.

Then in June 2021, the Legislative Assembly appointed five new judges to the Supreme Court for a total of 10 out of 15 Supreme Court judges. Even though under the law, each newly elected legislature is allowed to appoint only five judges to the court. Lastly, In September 2021, lawmakers passed laws allowing the Supreme Court to retire judges over 60.

The NGOs see these moves from the Bukele-controlled Legislative Assembly as an undemocratic way of taking control of the Judicial system; therefore, ending judicial independence in El Salvador.

In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele openly intimidates judges who do not decide how he sees fit. One more demonstration of his absolute contempt for the rule of law. Juan Pappier HRW.

Transparency and corruption

According to the NGOs, the Bukele administration is not being transparent to conceal corruption cases. The Bukele government has classified as secret for several years information about Bitcoin purchases, purchases during the pandemic, construction of the CECOT prison, and funds for the Chivo wallet, among others.

Media outlets have reported that former Attorney General Melara was investigating government officials for alleged corruption regarding funds allocated for Covid-19, negotiation with gangs, prison system corruption, and use of aid food packages during the 2021 campaign, which were intended to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

The name given to the Melara investigation was Cathedral; however, that investigation, and others, ended when Melara was removed from his position on May 1, 2021.

The Bukele administration has not responded directly to any allegations made by Human Rights Watch or Cristosal regarding transparency and corruption cases.

Freedom of the press

Human Rights Watch stated in their 2023 world report that the Salvadoran government has created a hostile environment for the media. Also, the Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) reported 421 violations against press freedom between 2019 and 2021.

These violations against reporters included physical attacks, digital harassment, restrictions on journalists’ work, access to public information, and espionage.

The Bukele administration claims that El Salvador has freedom of the press. Also, members of the Bukele political inner circle remark that journalists who claim that there is no freedom of the press in El Salvador are political activists and not reporters.

The menu for authoritarian leaders to limit press freedom is vast. Bukele’s includes:
-Harass independent media. -Promote laws that put press freedom at risk. -Criminal investigations against media. -Restrict access to public information. Tamara Taraciuk.

Bukele’s possible re-election

Bukele’s possible re-election has been and will continue to be a hot topic of discussion until the February 4, 2024, presidential elections. HRW and Cristosal argue that the Salvadoran constitution clearly defines that there is no presidential re-election in El Salvador.

On the other hand, supporters of Bukele argue that the constitution does allow the president the ability to participate as a presidential candidate. They stipulate that it will be up to the Salvadoran population to decide if he wins re-election.

Are Salvadorans concerned about these NGOs’ criticism of the Bukele administration?

It seems that most Salvadorans are not concerned or don’t care about the criticisms of these non-governmental organizations towards the Bukele administration or institutions that support them.

To put it in context, based on their publications, the NGOs argue that President Bukele, the Salvadoran Armed Forces, the National Police, the Central Government, the Legislative Assembly, and the Prison System are the individuals and institutions violating individual human rights the most. Also that they are corrupt, not transparent, and don’t respect the constitution.

However, these individuals and institutions are some of the best evaluated by the Salvadoran population. For example, the 2022 evaluation by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), which assesses the situation in El Salvador, gave them high approval ratings.

Level of trust in institutions and social organizations.
A lot
Total Some
President of the Republic 63.5 15.6 79.1 14.2 6.6 20.8
Armed Forces 59.3 17.8 77.1 16.7 4.9 21.6
Civil National Police 52.6 20.8 73.4 20.8 5.8 26.6
Central Government
(Executive branch)
50.7 19.9 70.6 19.6 7.6 27.2
Legislative Assembly 33.0 21.5 54.5 27.2 15.0 42.2
Evangelical Churches 35.7 16.3 52.0 17.8 19.8 37.6
Catholic Church 33.9 17.8 51.7 21.2 17.4 38.6
General Prosecutor of the Republic 29.4 22.2 51.6 24.5 11.1 35.6
Prison system 30.5 18.6 49.1 23.6 12.9 36.5
Media Outlets 23.5 24.4 47.9 32.8 15.4 48.2
Attorney General of the Republic 20.8 23.6 44.4 27.4 9.8 37.2
Supreme Court of Justice 20.3 23.7 44.0 28.1 10.0 38.1
Human Rights Ombudsman 22.1 21.8 43.9 28.3 13.5 41.8
Supreme Electoral Tribunal 19.1 21.3 40.4 32.3 13.9 46.2
Local Governments 21.7 16.1 37.8 32.7 28.3 61.0
Businessmen 9.2 21.0 30.2 34.5 22.2 56.7
Political parties 9.9 16.5 26.4 31.3 36.0 67.3
Source: IUDOP

The two institutions implementing the State of Exceptions are the National Police and the Salvadoran armed forces. Even though they are constantly denounced by these local and international human rights organizations, the population seems to approve of them.

In 2019, the National police positive approval was 55.4; by 2023, it had grown to 73.4, an increment of 18.0. Likewise, the Salvadoran armed force’s acceptance increased by 17.1; it rose from 60.4 in 2019 to 77.1 in 2023.

At the end of the day, it seems that Salvadorans have a high level of trust in the institutions being criticized by local and international human rights organizations. The NGOs’ criticisms of the Bukele administration might not affect local’s opinions; however, internationally, they are having an impact!