SAN SALVADOR — In early June, a family of seven was buried alive when a landslide destroyed their home in the town of Santo Tomas, southeast of the capital. Workers braved the rain and mud for two days, but only managed to rescue the family pet, a dog named Oso. The rest were among at least 30 victims of tropical storms Amanda and Cristobal, which marked the beginning of hurricane season. Family members reported that the dead had been aware of the danger, and had been huddled together in the house waiting to evacuate in the morning. By then, it was too late.
Still, President Nayib Bukele’s advisers searched for a political win: Amid pouring rain, they erected a podium on the muddy street for a news conference. It never took place—but a photo of the empty podium went viral among Bukele’s critics, who saw the move as another cynical attempt to use tragedy for political gain.
The back-to-back tropical storms battered a country already struggling with the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the human casualties, floods and landslides caused millions of dollars of damage to homes, infrastructure and crops. Meanwhile, more than 13,300 people sought protection in 358 government-run shelters.
But afraid of potential infection, many of those affected were reluctant to relocate to government-run facilities. Since the beginning of the pandemic, “containment centers,” along with nursing and children’s homes, have become hotbeds of COVID-19. Official quarantine centers, which also house deportees arriving from the United States, were already using space that could otherwise have provided shelter to the displaced. Existing shelters, which include converted schools and other government buildings, struggled to keep up while maintaining social distancing and other protocols.
The aftermath of the storms is yet another example of what Bukele’s detractors claim is his administration’s improvised or even negligent approach to governing, which has inhibited disaster response efforts and increased the devastation for El Salvador’s poor.
El Salvador’s environmental vulnerability
El Salvador has long been highly vulnerable to damage caused by natural disasters. Sitting at an intersection of tectonic plates that cause frequent earthquakes, the country is home to 20 volcanoes, five of which are still active.
The land has also been severely compromised by what geographer David Browning called “the imprint of man upon every part of this landscape” in his 1971 classic El Salvador: Landscape and Society. Since the late 19th century, El Salvador has experienced massive deforestation and farming methods that have eroded the soil. Overpopulation, combined with virtually unchecked development, has further exacerbated the problem.
That pattern has continued during the Bukele administration. After taking office last year, he directed the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (MARN) to “streamline” the permitting process to encourage economic development and investment. During the administration’s first 100 days, MARN had approved nearly $1.5 billion in construction permits—extending a long tradition of government officials “see[ing] the environment as a resource to exploit, not as a human right,” according to Roberto Alfaro, a human rights attorney with the Archbishop’s Office in San Salvador.
Indeed, Santo Tomas—where the landslide killed Oso’s family—was the site of a highly contested construction project in 2015 that left a large tract of land deforested. Other areas that suffered the brunt of the damage in the recent storms, such as the La Cuchilla community across from the luxurious Multiplaza mall, have also raised concerns about construction projects that put residents at risk and threaten to displace them.
Those communities are primarily poor and marginalized. Many were improvised by families displaced by rural poverty or civil war violence. Some neighborhoods consist of makeshift buildings constructed from metal sheets and other rough materials. Others, like the Santa Lucía neighborhood in the town of Ilopango, are on the borders of sinkholes and other precarious terrain.
The US National Hurricane Center warned about a possible Hurricane Amanda as early as April 25. El Salvador’s Environmental Observatory “followed all of the protocols for a timely alert” five days before the rains started, according to a report by the environmentalist Carolina Amaya. On the morning of Tuesday, May 26, the Environmental Observatory tweeted the NHC warning, which MARN retweeted that night. At 11:00 p.m., President Bukele tweeted a decree declaring a “yellow alert” due to projected rains. That turned out to be a vast underestimation of the danger.
The warning level was converted to an “orange alert” when the rains began on Friday, May 29. It rained heavily through the night and all day Saturday. On Sunday morning, Salvadorans woke to leaky rooves, power and cell phone outages and roads blocked by fallen rocks and tree limbs. That morning, a “red alert” was finally declared although much of the damage had already been done.
Despite early warnings, the civil protection agency was slow to act and mayors across the country (and from various political parties) said that they were left to fend for themselves. Informal and formal non-governmental networks stepped up to provide aid and help evacuate compromised areas. Salvadorans across the country violated stay-at-home orders to bring donations of food and dry clothing to the hardest hit communities and help each other repair damaged homes.
Bukele’s political appointments
Responding to a natural crisis requires coordination among several government agencies. But Bukele continues to refuse to work together with the other branches of government, fueling accusations of autocratic tendencies. He has cut agencies and declined to fill important positions, sometimes in contravention of the law.
The failure of the civil protection agency is a prime example. Created in 2005 to prevent and mitigate disasters, the body is supposed to have three branches all working in lockstep: a national office reporting directly to the Interior Ministry, departmental commissions headed by their own governors and local commissions led by mayors’ offices in each municipality.
Responding to a natural crisis requires coordination among several government agencies. But Bukele continues to refuse to work together with the other branches of government, fueling accusations of autocratic tendencies.
However, Bukele has refused to appoint departmental governors, as required by law, claiming they are a waste of money and that his own team can handle the task by itself. That provoked ire from mayors across the country, who reported that the absence of department governors hampered disaster response efforts. Parliament tried, but failed, to force Bukele to follow the law in October 2019 by passing a “recommendation” that he fill those posts.
Experts have criticized the legal framework for prioritizing disaster response over prevention. But some believe the civil protection agency has also been weakened by politically motivated firings. In a tweet just two days after taking office last June, Bukele demanded the removal of the longtime agency head Jorge Meléndez, a former guerrilla leader and widely respected public servant who was the face of the government during natural disasters. Along with fellow guerrilla leader Joaquín Villalobos, he had been accused and later acquitted of helping assassinate a beloved Salvadoran communist poet named Roque Dalton in May 1975.
Meléndez was swiftly replaced by a consultant who lasted only a few months in the job, followed by the current 32-year-old director, Willian Hernández Arevalo. Bukele went on to purge the government of family members of the outgoing FMLN administration, accusing the previous administration of nepotism and vowing to put an end to corruption.
However, Bukele went on to fill other political posts with his own family members, friends and cronies, angering critics who accuse his administration of hypocrisy as well as nepotism. To name a couple, MARN chief Fernando Andrés López Larreynaga was a close childhood friend and private school classmate. The Public Works Ministry, responsible for rebuilding damaged infrastructure, is headed by Romeo Rodríguez Herrera, a college classmate of Bukele’s brother whose only significant work experience since graduating in 2014 was as a manager at Yamaha Motors—a Bukele family company.
Accusations of nepotism in political appointments spiraled into full-fledged corruption scandals in the weeks after the storms. On June 20, the head of the Salvadoran Environmental Fund (FONAES), businessman Jorge “Koky” Aguilar Zarco, was removed after a journalist found that one of his recycling businesses had a $250,000 contract to provide face masks to the Bukele administration at a significant markup. There have been several more accusations of inappropriate contracts and ethics violations since then. Most recently, the health minister himself, Francisco Alabi, admitted signing a contract for $225,000 worth of rubber boots to be supplied by his own family’s auto parts business.
A landslide in the town of Santa Tecla near San Salvador following a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 2001 (AP Photo/La Prensa Grafica)
Before the rains ended, government resources were already being directed away from the agencies tasked with disaster response. On June 4, while search and rescue teams were still active, Bukele’s government worked with parliament to pass a law redirecting $16 million from various government agencies—including $1.6 million from MARN—to cover the salaries of the national water service, which had suffered losses from not being able to collect on water bills during the lockdown. The cuts to MARN included 97.5 percent of the budget for protected land and wildlife, and 63 percent of the budget for national risk prevention and reduction.
Although the hurricane season has just begun and will last until November, the tropical storms are no longer in the headlines. Many families continue living in makeshift shelters over a month after being displaced. The Public Works Ministry is busy rebuilding damaged roads as well as constructing Hospital El Salvador, an ambitious project intended to treat the growing number of Covid-19 patients. Meanwhile, Bukele continues to clash with parliament, the courts, civil society and the press.
Construction was among the first activities permitted during El Salvador’s partial reopening from lockdown in mid-June. Now as politicians fight for control and more trees are felled to make way for development, it is the poor and marginalized who will continue to suffer most.