El Salvador authorities have launched a criminal investigation into the government’s coronavirus pandemic spending, marking the severest legal action to date taken against the administration of President Nayib Bukele.
Starting on November 9 and continuing for multiple days, the El Salvador Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República – FGR) conducted over 20 raids on various branches of government in capital San Salvador, including the country’s health and finance ministries.
The operations aimed at gathering evidence on possible irregular purchases made with emergency pandemic funds, including a $225,000 contract for rubber boots granted to an auto parts company owned by the aunt of current health minister, Francisco Alabí, first reported by Gato Encerrado.
There are other questionable dealings which have seen lucrative contracts for supplying medical equipment handed to businesses owned by relatives of government officials or companies which do not specialize in medical provisions.
Out of $31 million assigned to nine medical supply contracts, $20 million are now being investigated for suspected irregularities, according to information from the FGR cited by El Faro. Among those investigated is Bukele’s Finance Minister, Alejandro Zelaya, who is linked to a company that sold 300,000 masks to the health ministry for a total of $750,000, double the manufacturer’s price.
The health ministry also purchased $250,000 in overpriced masks from a recycling company owned by Jorge Aguilar, then head of the country’s Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental), according to Salud con Lupa.
Throughout the pandemic, members of the Bukele administration have repeatedly refused to provide details on transactions made from almost $2 billion of emergency funds approved by the country’s legislative assembly.
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Though the Bukele government has previously found itself embroiled in corruption scandals, this is the first time that the Attorney General’s Office has levied a major investigation into alleged malpractice within the administration.
The raids drew immediate backlash from the president, who on Twitter accused El Salvador’s Attorney General, Raúl Melara, of political campaigning. Bukele also appeared to threaten the prosecutor, saying “you reap what you sow.”
The Bukele administration was also put on the defensive when, in September, El Faro reported that that the government is “negotiating” with street gangs to keep homicide levels low. Later that month, a separate report linked Bukele officials and associates to a multi-million dollar money-laundering scheme involving Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA.
Despite these allegations and others, the Bukele administration had so far weathered the storm. But the FGR raids have set a new precedent for how judicial authorities might tackle suspected government corruption from here on in.
What’s more, the initial reports that alerted prosecutors to the alleged pandemic misspending were sent to the FGR by Nayib Bukele’s flagship anti-corruption body, the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador — CICIES), prosecutors confirmed.
It is the first time that information provided by the CICIES, created in September 2019 by Bukele to crack down on cases of corruption and impunity among the country’s political and economic elite, has led to a high-profile FGR operation.