4/4 © Reuters. Salvadoran Congress votes in favor of the dismissal of the Attorney General’s Office, in Antiguo Cuscatlán 2/4
By Nelson Renteria SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele’s party voted early Sunday to remove the country’s chief prosecutor, part of an increasingly intense political drama that has rocked the Central American country and generated international criticism. The vote shortly after midnight to remove Attorney General Raúl Melara followed the votes of a new legislative majority on Saturday night to expel all the judges who make up the constitutional chamber of the nation’s supreme court. The vote drew reprimands from opposition lawmakers, as well as some international rights organizations. After a call with Bukele later Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “grave concern” over the removal of the judges and the prosecutor in a statement. Legislators from the ruling party accused Melara, whose office wields significant investigative power, of lack of independence, while Blinken cited what it described as the chief prosecutor’s effective record in fighting corruption and impunity. The government of United States President Joe Biden has cited corruption in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras as one of the root causes, along with gang violence and poverty, of the increased flow of migrants to the border between United States and Mexico. The Biden administration is pressuring those governments to do more to fight crime. A shrewd and consistent user of social media, the popular Bukele emphasized his desire to work with all parties, but insisted the layoffs were justified in a series of Twitter posts over the weekend. “With all due respect, we are cleaning our house and this is not your responsibility,” the 39-year-old president wrote, specifically addressing “the international community.” (Bukele tweet) https://twitter.com/nayibbukele/status/1388705685689540615?s=20 PEACEFUL PROTEST Some 200 protesters, almost all masked, gathered around the monument to the constitution of San Salvador on Sunday, peacefully chanting anti-slogans. Bukele as they expressed their frustration at the sudden dismissal of officials. “We have to show that a large part of the population does not agree with this,” protester Mauricio Valladares, 25, said. International rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have already intervened and denounced the dismissals as a dangerous takeover. Just minutes after the vote to remove them on Saturday night, the five judges issued a ruling invalidating the legislative action, declaring it an unconstitutional attack on democracy and plunging the country into an uncertain political and legal battle. But over the course of the next few hours, lawmakers representing the president’s recently emboldened New Ideas party voted to replace the judges and the attorney general. The police were then called in to escort the new judges and the prosecutor to their new offices. The five ousted judges, the most powerful jurists in the 15-member court, were among the few remaining checks on Bukele’s power. Bukele and his party accused them of hindering the government‘s health strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Later Sunday, one of the five judges abruptly resigned from his post, according to a resignation letter posted on his Twitter account. The nearly three-year-old Ideas New party took control of Congress after midterm elections in February gave it a large majority in the unicameral legislature and freed it from the need to negotiate with the opposition. Saturday marked the first session of the new legislature, and lawmakers will meet on Monday. Motions to remove the judges and the prosecutor were passed with 64 legislators in favor, or nearly 80% of the 84-seat legislature, significantly more than the two-thirds of the votes required by the constitution.