Corruption Cries Mount Over Pandemic Spending in El Salvador

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On August 9, the website on which the El Salvador government publishes all of the country’s contract expenditures suddenly went dark. The shutdown came amid allegations of corruption by the administration of President Nayib Bukele related to coronavirus spending.

When the website came back online, all information pertaining to the Bukele presidency had been eliminated, El Diario De Hoy reported. The information was removed a day after Salud Con Lupa, an investigative news site focused on health care in Latin America, published a report alleging that Bukele’s health minister, Francisco Alabí, had spent $50,000 to remodel his office during the pandemic.

An investigation by Gato Encerrado also revealed that Alabí gave a $225,000 contract for rubber boots to an auto parts company of which his aunt is president. The boots were part of emergency spending measures for medical supplies.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating six officials in Bukele’s administration, including Alabí, for corruption and improper purchases, El Diario De Hoy reported.

El Salvador’s Government Ethics Tribunal (El Tribunal de Ética Gubernamental -TEG) has registered 124 complaints of improper management of pandemic-related funds, Néstor Castaneda, the agency’s director, told the program República TV. Some 90 percent of the complaints involve the executive branch, he said.

The corruption allegations have touched various officials in Bukele’s administration, including José Alejandro Zelaya, his finance minister and longtime advisor. Zelaya is under investigation for his links to a company that sold 300,000 masks to the health agency for $750,000 — a cost of $2.50 per unit, or double the manufacturer’s price, according to an El Diario De Hoy investigation.  The company — which had been in existence just seven months when it received the contract — is owned by two associates who also occupy high-level positions in a company founded by Zelaya.

The health ministry also bought 100,000 overpriced masks at a cost of $250,000 from a recycling company owned by Jorge Aguilar, head of the country’s Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental), according to Salud con Lupa.  Bukele later fired Aguilar, the only official in his administration to lose his job over corruption allegations.

In total, the 400,000 masks were overpriced by half a million dollars, according to Salud con Lupa. The health ministry also bought some $3 million in masks from a Miami business whose owner is an interior decorator and sells ceramics, according to an El Faro investigation.

Questions have also been raised about the construction of a $13 million hospital for COVID-19 patients, and a lack of information provided to auditors about the project.

Civil society organizations have spoken out against Bukele for blocking spending information.

“It’s an action that shows that there is no commitment to transparency or to accountability, and it also would be against the law,” Javier Castro of the non-governmental organization Fusades, told El Diario De Hoy.

Bukele has also attacked journalists reporting on corruption during the pandemic. Members of the Salvadoran media reported to the Interamerican Press Society (La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa – SIP) — a Miami-based press freedom organization — an increase in attacks by the government, the blocking of selective information and the use of internet trolls to smear the press.

InSight Crime Analysis

President Bukele has made every effort to hide government spending during the pandemic, as allegations of profiteering by his administration have proliferated.

One of the first fights between the president and congress during the coronavirus crisis was over the accountability of emergency spending. In March, Bukele received approval from congress to spend existing health funds and hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign loans, but legislators demanded that Bukele and his ministers provide periodic reports.

The funding was delayed until the administration agreed to form an auditing committee. But the five business and academic leaders on the committee quit when the government refused to provide information about its spending.

By May, Bukele’s administration had provided reports on only $36 million of the $179 million of pandemic funds spent, according to El Faro.

SEE ALSO: Corruption and Graft Afflict Latin America’s Pandemic Response

In May, congress refused to approve extensions to emergency measures to deal with the pandemic. Since then, Bukele has tried to extend them but has been blocked by the Supreme Court.

Bukele has also suspended public information requests, including COVID-19 testing results, data on positive cases, detention measures, and conditions at quarantine facilities. José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that these actions jeopardized people’s health.

Even prior to the pandemic, Bukele’s administration had been alleged to have misused funds, and he too has come under scrutiny for questionable financial dealings.

Corruption watchdog Transparency International warned in an August 11 report that the massive influx of cash afforded Bukele’s administration for pandemic relief and the government’s refusal for any oversight of its spending is “a recipe for corruption.”

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