MEXICO CITY — In a rebuff to the Biden administration, political leaders in El Salvador and Guatemala have forced out several senior judges known for their independence and anti-corruption zeal, underscoring the difficulties facing Washington’s new Central America policy.
The administration is readying measures to increase pressure on El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle countries — including a name-and-shame list of corrupt politicians who would be denied U.S. visas.
The efforts come as human rights groups warn of democratic backsliding in Central America, where the judiciary had emerged as a key check on presidential power.
In El Salvador, after President Nayib Bukele’s party won a supermajority in Congress, lawmakers voted this month to dismiss the attorney general and all five judges in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber. Two weeks earlier, Guatemala’s legislature had refused to swear in the president of the Constitutional Court, a graft-fighting judge named Gloria Porras, after she was reelected.
Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, noted that fighting corruption in Central America wasn’t a priority for former president Donald Trump.
“Now Biden comes in, and what we’re seeing in the region is traditional elites and their traditional allies feeling somewhat empowered in pushing back,” he said.
Trump became a strong ally of the Northern Triangle leaders after they agreed to crack down on migration and take in asylum seekers who were turned away from the U.S. border. He did not object when Guatemala dismantled an anti-corruption commission that had received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid. Trump praised Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández even after prosecutors in New York implicated him in cocaine trafficking. (Hernández has not been charged and has denied wrongdoing.)
Trump argued that his approach got results. Migration plummeted in the summer of 2019 — although it began a steady rise a year later. Biden, who has ended many of his predecessor’s hard-line policies, is grappling with a sharp increase in migrants and asylum seekers.
U.S. officials maintain that government corruption in the Northern Triangle isn’t simply an internal matter but affects the United States by prompting people to leave home.
“They feel like they don’t have a future,” Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s special envoy to the region, told The Washington Post.
Central American elites “who are comfortable with the status quo, and in comfortable positions, are essentially exporting their problem to us,” he said.
Officials are particularly concerned about El Salvador. Bukele, 39, has dominated political life since winning a landslide victory in 2019. He has won high marks for his management of the coronavirus pandemic and a reduction in violence. But he has been criticized for disregarding Supreme Court rulings and sending soldiers into El Salvador’s congress to pressure lawmakers into approving a security measure.
The ouster of the country’s top constitutional judges and the attorney general raised fears that the country is moving toward authoritarian rule.
“It’s an attack on the democratic system and judicial independence,” said Abraham Abrego, director of strategic litigation at the Salvadoran human rights organization Cristosal. “It’s a coup.”
Human rights groups fear that Bukele sought to replace the judges as part of a bid to overhaul the constitution and scrap the ban on consecutive presidential terms. The removal of Attorney General Raúl Melara, who was pursuing several government corruption cases, “blocks any possible investigation and trial” of people in the Bukele administration, said Eduardo Escobar, director of the Citizen Action Association, a civic group.
Harris last week expressed “deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy.” Bukele has shown no sign of backing down.
“We are cleaning house,” Bukele said in a tweet addressed to the international community. “And that is not your concern.”
Bukele’s followers argue that his confrontation with the judicial branch was justified. “The thing is that in all this time in El Salvador, there has never been an attorney general or Constitutional Court that has been for the benefit of the people,” said Amadeo Lopez, a 57-year-old teacher from the northern department of Chalatenango. “It’s always been for the elites.”
Zúñiga acknowledged that Bukele had broad public support. And migration from El Salvador has not surged as much as it has from Honduras or Guatemala. “The challenge is that the Salvadoran economy is not in good shape,” Zúñiga said. Gross domestic product shrank by about 8.6 percent last year during the pandemic. As much as Salvadorans like their president, Zúñiga said, “if they don’t have a job, and inflation is moving up, then they’re going to leave.”
In neighboring Guatemala, the government also appears to be testing the Biden administration. On April 13, its legislature refused to swear in Porras, citing challenges to some of her rulings and alleged irregularities in her election. Just days earlier, Zúñiga had met with Porras and voiced “our full support” for the country’s anti-corruption judges.
“This is not an isolated act,” Porras said in a phone interview. “It’s a part of a strategy by a group of people to try to assure impunity, to block the functioning of a real democracy.”
Stephen McFarland, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, said the lawmakers “think the U.S. is bluffing” or can’t do much to retaliate — particularly because the Biden administration needs the government’s help on curbing migration. (A Guatemalan presidential spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.)
Zúñiga said the administration wants to work with Central American countries to reduce corruption and improve transparency, which officials say will help attract more investment. But Washington could use sticks as well as carrots. Congress has ordered the Biden administration to produce a list by the end of June of “corrupt and undemocratic actors” in the Northern Triangle who would be barred from the United States. Zúñiga also noted that U.S. authorities “make our concerns clear” to multilateral banks about countries that lack good-government practices. El Salvador is currently seeking a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Escobar said U.S. actions have become increasingly important in El Salvador because domestic political or civic groups have little power to influence Bukele. “Only the international community is left,” he said.
Brigida reported from Managua, Nicaragua.