Salvadoran politicians neuter one of the most prolific anti-corruption crusaders in Central America, Douglas Melendez, the now former Attorney General. It seems that the Salvadoran political class – including several former presidents – is content with crackdowns on violent crime and gang activity, as long as they can throw prosecutors and security forces off of their own scent.
The move is widely viewed as retaliation for Melendez’s anti-corruption crusade, which ensnared a number of high-profile Salvadoran political figures, including his predecessor as attorney general and several former presidents. In an interview with WPR, Eric Olson, a Latin America specialist at the Seattle International Foundation, discusses Melendez’s tenure as attorney general and the political impact of El Salvador’s “endemic” corruption, including on next month’s presidential election.
World Politics Review: How pervasive is corruption in El Salvador, and what are its political ramifications?
Eric Olson: Most public opinion surveys and assessments of corruption and the rule of law in El Salvador suggest it’s a very important political issue for El Salvador’s upcoming presidential election. El Salvador ranks 112th out of 185 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017, placing it in the bottom third both worldwide and among countries in the Western Hemisphere. A public opinion survey from El Salvador’s Technological University released in early December found that concerns about corruption where among the top five issues for Salvadoran voters heading into the presidential election, just behind security concerns and bread-and-butter issues like the economy and access to health care. It is likely not a coincidence that the presidential candidate leading in the polls, Nayib Bukele, is also rated the most honest candidate by those surveyed.
Roberto Canas Lopez, a leading political analyst and signer of the 1992 peace accords that ended El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, put it clearly in a recent opinion piece published in a Salvadoran daily: “Corruption is one of the factors that most damages democracy. It generates distrust of politicians among the population, it perverts the functioning of the state, and it diverts resources that could be used to improve security, hospitals, and education.”
Corruption has become such an important issue to Salvadorans in part because of revelations that three former presidents were allegedly involved in corruption schemes and possibly colluded among themselves to cover up their transgressions despite being from different political parties. Corruption has affected both the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, and the main opposition National Republican Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym ARENA. This is one key reason why the current presidential frontrunner, Bukele, does not represent either major party and has promised to clean house.