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US anti-corruption list will not bring down popular Salvadoran President Bukele

US ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes, left, meets with El Salvador's then-President-elect Nayib Bukele, February 7, 2019. Photo: Douglas Tobar on Flickr, Office of Public Affairs of the US Embassy, El Salvador, under public domain.

This story was originally published on ElSalvadorinfo.net and an edited version is republished by Global Voices.

On Thursday, July 1, the highly anticipated corruption list, or the “Engel List,” was made public by the U.S. State Department. The released report includes four top Salvadoran officials currently part of the Nayib Bukele administration and two of President Bukele's former ministers. They are accused of corruption and impeding democracy and may face sanctions and be denied entry to the U.S.

The so-called Engel List gets its name from then-U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, the sponsor and architect of a law—the Engel U.S.-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act—that requires the State Department to assemble a list of high-profile individuals regarded as corrupt in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Corruption in public office is a problem that has consumed El Salvador for decades. A clear example of the country's corruption at the highest level is that three of the previous four Salvadoran presidents have faced legal issues related to corruption. Paco Flores died awaiting corruption trial, Tony Saca is in jail serving a 10-year sentence for corruption, and Mauricio Funes is in Nicaragua, hiding from Salvadoran and Guatemalan extradition requests.

Internationally, the Engel List will make the Bukele administration's popularity take another hit. Bukele has been denounced on many occasions for his authoritarian tendencies. However, in El Salvador, the damage this list will do to the popular Nayib Bukele administration will be minimal. The list left out individuals who needed to be included and President Bukele still has a high approval rating within the country.

For instance, politicians Norman Quijano, Ernesto Muyshondt, Benito Lara and Aristides Valencia allegedly paid money to criminal organizations in exchange for votes in the 2014 presidential elections and 2015 municipal and legislative elections; however, they were left out of the list. There is video and audio evidence against them; also, their case is at the trial stage.

Former President Mauricio Funes is not on the list either, even though he allegedly stole millions of dollars from El Salvador. Funes is facing many corruption charges in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Lastly, there have been politicians who received illegal bonuses under the Tony Saca administration. Margarita Escobar, a member of the right-wing political party ARENA and currently a legislator, admitted in a TV interview to receiving illegal bonuses. Why isn't she on the list?

In response, Jean Manes, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, made it clear that this list is a living document meant to be updated at least once a year. “At any time, more names could be included,” she said. 

Yet, by leaving some alleged corrupt individuals out, the U.S. State Department's corruption list could look more like an attack on the popular Nayib Bukele administration than an attack on corruption. Some U.S. officials, such as Norma Torres, the U.S. Representative for California's 35th District, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have long criticized the Bukele administration. Relations between the U.S. and El Salvador have been diminishing this year, especially since Bukele has been criticized for corroding El Salvador's democratic institutions.

Still, with an approval rate of over 75 per cent, the Bukele administration will not have a hard time justifying the position that this list is just plain politics and not an attack on corruption. 

In fact, President Nayib Bukele has already reacted to the Engel List by saying, “Thanks for the list, but in El Salvador, we have our own list.” Bukele also wrote a lengthy response on his Facebook page.”Can you take seriously a list that clearly was made for purely political reasons and that has nothing to do with the real fight against corruption?” he asked.

So, instead of hurting Bukele's image, the list may actually ensure the continued popularity of his administration.

Most Salvadorans continue to approve Bukele's administration and the work done in the last two years; this has been confirmed by the many polls conducted by reputable organizations. It includes polls conducted by the UCA and Francisco Gavidia University, two universities critical of Bukele.

The reduction in the homicide rate is one of the main reasons why most Salvadorans approve of Bukele; since taking office, the country has seen a sharp decline in recorded homicides. Additionally, most Salvadorans acknowledge that Bukele has done an excellent job managing the pandemic, from shutting things down at the beginning to the vaccination process.  

The Engel List is part of U.S. President Joe Biden's anti-corruption measures aimed at strengthening democracy and reducing corruption in the Central American region. Less corruption and stronger democratic institutions could reduce irregular immigration to the United States. Lately, the number of migrants at the U.S. border has hit a new high

For the list to have an effect in the country, the U.S. State Department should present evidence to the Salvadoran attorney-general so that charges against these individuals can be filed.

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