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El Salvador: Bukele’s Second Term: From The War Against Gangs to the War Against Corruption?

On June 1, Nayib Bukele assumed a second presidential term, despite the constitutional prohibition of consecutive re-election, and reformed the electoral system to consolidate his power. The direction the country will take in the coming years is uncertain. While his populist-punitive security policies have been widely supported by the public, his administration has also been characterized by dismantling essential pillars of democracy and questioning the validity of human rights. Bukele’s current narrative and recent actions suggest his priorities and strategy for the second term: improving the country’s economic situation and shifting focus from the war against gangs to the fight against corruption.

In light of this, we analyze the state of the fight against corruption in El Salvador and the political-institutional challenges regarding transparency and access to information. We also explore potential actions from the international community.

Corruption remains a significant concern, with El Salvador's ranking on Transparency International’s index falling and a high public perception of corruption, particularly in municipalities and the Legislative Assembly. Bukele's anti-corruption efforts are seen as populist, with doubts about their impartiality due to the close connection between the attorney general and Bukele.

The right to access public information is restricted, impacting transparency. National organizations report that a majority of requests for information on public fund management are denied, and public procurement lacks transparency.

Recommendations for the international community include:

  1. Monitoring the election of the Attorney General and Supreme Court justices to ensure judicial independence.
  2. Promoting greater control by development banks and financial institutions over the use of public funds.
  3. Considering more individual financial sanctions against those linked to corruption.
  4. Urging the prosecutor’s office to pursue investigations initially handled by the expelled International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES).

Citizens are concerned about corruption

The main reason for Nayib Bukele’s popularity has been his control over gangs, leading to increased security. However, citizens have shown concern about the socio-economic situation, with 29.8 percent of the population living in poverty. Similarly, perception of corruption is high: Transparency International’s global index ranks El Salvador in a state of regression. The country has dropped 4 points in the index since 2021 (from 36/100 in 2021 to 31/100 in 2023). Additionally, Transparency International points out that at least 45 percent of the population perceives an increase in corruption in the last 12 months and 14 percent of public services users admitted to paying bribes.

While national surveys reflect confidence in the figure of Bukele as president, they reveal public concern about corruption in other public institutions. Municipalities show the highest perception of corruption (27.3 percent) and lack of confidence (32.4 percent). The Legislative Assembly also faces a high perception of corruption (20.9 percent) and low trust (16.4 percent).

Anti-corruption Populism

Efficiency, transparency and independence do not exist in El Salvador’s criminal justice system. In fact, for 2023, the World Justice Project ranks the country 139/142 globally. In addition, within the framework of the state of exception, criminal prosecution has focused on territorial control, militarization and gang persecution, which has also meant the collapse of the justice system, with no capacity to respond and act with due diligence.

Fighting corruption requires concrete actions, transparency and robust institutions free from political subordination, otherwise, any anti-corruption measures become mere populism. In the interest of maintaining popular support, the political opposition has been persecuted, but so have high ranking government officials. However, doubts arise about the impartiality and objectivity of investigations, since they are being conducted by an attorney general who is closely connected to President Bukele and who has even been accused of collaborating with one of the most important gangs.

Some emblematic cases of the private sector and former public officials linked to organized crime that were highlighted by the U.S. government have been prosecuted by the Attorney General’s Office. However other cases of large-scale corruption have remained in impunity. For example, with the expulsion of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) from the Organization of American States in 2021, several corruption cases involving President Nayib Bukele during the Covid-19 pandemic were left unfinished. Likewise, there has been no significant progress in investigating and prosecuting possible corruption in prisons.

There is also no policy to prosecute corruption-related crimes like influence peddling, possible violations of the constitution, or crimes committed by the authorities such as human rights abuses arising from “mano dura” policies.

Culture of Secrecy as an Obstacle in the Fight Against Corruption

The right of access to public information is instrumental for detecting, preventing and denouncing corruption. Currently, the government has a monopoly over information. As a result of the state of exception, the designation of information as “classified” has been abused under the excuse of being sensitive security information. However, much information outside of this area is also not public. National organizations report that at least 63 percent of requests for information on the management of public funds are denied. There is a clear lack of independence of the institutions that guarantee access to information. In fact, the U.S. State Department recently sanctioned -under section 353- three officials of the Institute of Access to Public Information for “blocking information”.

Apart from the impact on social auditing, there have been significant changes in the public procurement system and lack of transparency that may lead to discretionary spending of public funds. Specific decrees have also been approved for procurement guidelines in public interest projects such as the Penitentiary Centers and the Pacific Airport, limiting the bidding, publicity, and transparency inherent to any system of good governance.


Faced with this scenario, and due to the Bukele government’s lack of action on good governance, the international community, including multilateral and financial bodies, should consider the following measures:


it is important to generate counterbalances in the justice system and promote its independence. This year a new Attorney General and two thirds of the magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice will be elected, which, in a scenario of the concentration of power, becomes very important. Given that Bukele and his party Nuevas Ideas have a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly, it is important to monitor these elections and ensure the independence of the judiciary and the Attorney General.


The lack of transparency in the use of public funds should be of interest to international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Based on its legal framework, the Fund should demand minimum standards for good governance, transparency and good diligence in the procurement system, greater access to public information for citizen oversight, and concrete actions in the fight against corruption as conditions for any loan to the country.

On the other hand, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration should demand accountability for the loans granted, as there are allegations of misappropriation of $200 million dollars to finance the adoption of Bitcoin in El Salvador instead of supporting small and medium-sized businesses.


The U.S. Treasury Department could financially sanction individuals linked to corruption cases under the regulations of the Global Magnitsky Act. Currently, there are six Salvadoran individuals sanctioned under this Act, including two Bukele government officials for their role in negotiating with gangs, Bukele’s former chief of staff for her role in a corruption scheme during COVID-19, as well as Bukele’s legal secretary and Bukele’s Secretary of Labor, both for acts of corruption. New cases could be explored, such as investigating cases linked to banking or investment cooperatives. For example, cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Santa Victoria de Responsabilidad Limitada (Cosavi), a financing cooperative of the Nuevas Ideas party, has been accused of fraud and money laundering.


Bukele expelled CICIES to avoid investigations reaching close associates and who are part of his circle of power. At least 12 cases remain in the hands of the prosecutor’s office, but there has been no progress or results.