The day she lost the elections as a candidate for deputy in El Salvador, on February 28, 2021, the lawyer and activist Bertha Deleon spoke with a close friend to discuss her situation. “Look, you have to go, and you have to go now,” her friend told her. Not that she didn’t know.
“They were following me on a motorcycle, they tapped my phones, they hacked my email, they put drones in my patio. In a matter of three months, I lost 80% of my clients”, says Deleon now, one afternoon in mid-July, in Mexico City. Although she was already a recognized lawyer, nobody wanted problems with the president. And she, who had represented Nayib Bukele in different processes between 2016 and 2019, fully confronted him during the campaign. “You said that money is enough when no one steals, your money is no longer enough for you,” she began by saying in a video posted online a week before the vote. In the spot he accused Bukele of having filled the government with friends and family, blamed him for corruption cases and asked voters not to allow “an incapable person, a liar and a manipulator to accumulate more power.”
A regular affront in any electoral fight in other democracies, but an unimaginable challenge for Bukele, a politician obsessed with social networks and with the image he has built of himself, who does not tolerate being publicly questioned. “A teenager with power, incapable of having a conversation about the most important issues without constantly looking at his phone,” Deleón described him at the time, two days before the elections. It was the end point of a relationship that had broken a year ago, and that led the lawyer to have to flee El Salvador and seek refuge in another country.
‘You threw shit at me on Twitter’
The link between Deleon and Bukele was broken in the same place where it was born at the end of 2015: on Twitter. Bukele was then the mayor of San Salvador and a rising star in Salvadoran politics. Deleon had a high profile and not only on the social network: that year he had managed, along with other colleagues, to include the crime of money laundering in an open process against former President Francisco Flores, by appearing as a plaintiff. “He started writing me by DM [Mensaje Directo] on Twitter and asked me questions about that case and other cases, and I answered him as I answered others. I had never seen him in person, he seemed to me to be someone progressive”, says Deleon.
She had built a reputation as a litigator in a country where “criminal law is a jungle,” and soon gained the trust of Bukele, who in 2016 invited her to be part of his legal team. She was the only woman in a group of 12 lawyers and became the figure who accompanied him during complicated legal proceedings. In 2019, when Bukele had already won the presidential elections but had not yet taken office, Deleon represented him in the hearings for a defamation case. They had an open dialogue, says the lawyer, and sometimes they talked about her next government. On one of those occasions, she told him that she was interested in being Minister of Security, that she could present him with a plan, that she was ready for that.
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
“Why would anyone want to be security minister?”
—First because I genuinely thought that Nayib was going to pursue a different policy. In other words, I believed that he was progressive, that he was going to be capable of innovating and that, for example, he was going to open up to dialogue with the gangs in an… open way. I mean, now that I say it, it hurts me to say that, because I feel so stupid… But that was it: I genuinely believed that it was going to be a new beginning and that maybe I was going to have the chance to try something that hadn’t been done before. . I know the prison system of El Salvador, I worked in the courts… Since 2005, when I started to make a career, I have moved in the criminal environment. I know that security is not only the criminological issue, which encompasses other things, but in El Salvador that is a large part of the problem and it is what nobody wants to get into. And I know the prison system, I know prison law, I know the underworld of all that that entails and I thought I could deal with it.
In June 2019, Bukele took office as president. Deleon was not part of the cabinet. For many in the government – and outside of it – that was the reason for the breakup, which led the lawyer to become a critical voice. But Deleon says that after that they still spoke with confidence. That is why he wrote to him on WhatsApp two days before Sunday, February 9, 2020, when he began to say that they were going to take over the Assembly if they did not approve a security loan that the Government wanted, and asked him why he was doing that. And that he wrote to him again the same Sunday, when he saw that Bukele arrived at the Assembly with the military and made a great staging, an exhibition of authoritarianism in front of the cameras. “You screwed up,” Deleon wrote. And she turned on and posted on Twitter what she thought. “This is just a sample of what awaits us when you have the majority in the @AsambleaSV”, Deleon wrote that afternoon. “We have to have patience to put up with four years of tantrums and excesses from the president more cool”.
The president was not cool when it was Twitter, his favorite digital habitat, the platform where he fired people and gave orders to his officials. Deleon remembers that Bukele took a screenshot of his tweet and sent it to him on Whatsapp. “He told me: you already threw shit at me on Twitter, I will never forgive you for this. It was the last time I had a direct exchange.” For someone so concerned with his image, that was unacceptable. The president blocked his former lawyer on Twitter and on his phones, who had stood up for him in court and gotten him out of trouble, and from then on other errand boys were in charge of trying to put her in her place.
The harassment against her grew and deepened when Delón began to campaign to stand as a candidate for deputy in the legislative elections of February 2021, a year later. More than 19,000 people marked her face on the ballot on voting day, but she was not enough to get in. Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, won an unprecedented number of seats, which gave it an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly. That day Deleon spoke with her friend and listened to her advice, but she resisted the idea of running out of the country. First there were her two children. And she believed that she could wait until the end of the year. Her friend didn’t think the same.
Two months later, on May 1, the new Assembly took office and the first thing it did was dismiss the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and then the Attorney General of the Republic, who was replaced by a man faithful to Bukele. When some countries condemned the authoritarian turn that his government had taken, the president summoned the diplomats to tell them that there was nothing to condemn, that his positive image had grown two points after sweeping away the separation of powers. Before the end of May, Deleon was summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office. “I was read five different charges,” she says. She had already opened criminal investigation files. “The de facto prosecutor,” she denounced at the time, “has begun to fulfill the role of persecuting those whom the government or the president considers uncomfortable.” Soon, even her mother began to tell her that she had to go.
The time that passed until he left El Salvador, in August of last year, was a period of exhaustion and paranoia, says the lawyer. “I no longer slept, do you understand me?” Deleón explains that she had to go to the Prosecutor’s Office three times a week, that they followed her explicitly to intimidate her, that the harassment on the networks did not stop. In September, when he was already in a safe house in southern Mexico, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted him precautionary measures, considering that he was in “a serious and urgent situation of risk of irreparable damage to his rights in El Savior”. Surveillance with drones, monitoring and harassment in networks of officials and people related to the Government, estimated the IACHR, translated into “a situation of risk to life and her integrity.”
The reasons why he had to leave the country seemed clear. But it was a little more difficult to understand the viciousness of the persecution. It is not that it was unprecedented: bukelism was already attacking the journalism that took out the dirty laundry of the government from him, against civil organizations, against politicians from other parties, against diplomats, but it was evident that Deleon did not have a structure behind.
—What political risk could you represent, if you had lost the election? What was the use of the government putting her in jail?
—Look, if we think about it reasonably, with common sense, then there is no point in wasting time and resources like that. I have never held any kind of power, neither economic nor social, because I have been an independent activist. I have never been in a human rights organization as such. I mean, I was fajando alone. And he knows it. But the problem with a person like Bukele is that he is very immature, very visceral and vindictive.
Deleon never believed that the persecution would reach that point: “I always thought that he would respect the professional relationship I had with him and the results I gave him,” he explains. In August 2021, he left El Salvador with his daughter for California, and they advised him not to return. The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders helped her find a place to shelter in southern Mexico, while she applied for refuge in the country. At the beginning it was very hard, she says: the uprooting, being away from her teenage son, explaining to her six-year-old daughter that they were running away from her. “And she told me: But why are we going to run away? Did you steal something?” They clung to the smallest: the taste of tortillas, hot chocolate, two new friends, some motorcycle rides. In February of this year, two years after Bukele stormed the Assembly, she was notified that she had been granted refugee status and permanent residence in this country. She now she has to start over.