Bertha Deleón: ex-lawyer to El Salvador’s president calls him ‘immature and vindictive’

She was part of Nayib Bukele’s legal team, then became an opposition candidate. In late 2021 she was forced to flee the country due to persecution by the government and its allies

Bertha María Deleón, activist and former lawyer of Nayib Bukele, in Mexico City.
Bertha María Deleón, activist and former lawyer of Nayib Bukele, in Mexico City.Iñaki Malvido
Eliezer Budasoff

The day she lost the elections as candidate for a seat in El Salvador’s Assembly, on February 28, 2021, the lawyer and activist Bertha Deleón spoke with a close friend to evaluate her situation. “Look, you have to go, and you have to go now,” her friend told her. This was not news to Deleón.

“They followed me on a motorcycle, they tapped my phones, they hacked my email, they snuck drones inside my backyard. In a matter of three months, I lost 80% of my clients”, says Deleón, speaking one afternoon in mid-July in Mexico City, where she eventually fled. Although she was already a well-regarded lawyer, nobody wanted problems with the president. Deleón, who had represented Nayib Bukele in a variety of processes between 2016 and 2019, confronted him during the campaign. “You said that there’s enough money when no one steals, but you don’t have enough money,” she said in a video that she posted on social networks a week before the vote. In it, she accused Bukele of having filled the government with friends and relatives, blamed him for corruption cases and asked voters not to allow “an incapable person, a liar and a manipulator to gain more power.”

This would be a normal provocation in any electoral fight in other democracies, but it was an unimaginable confrontation for Bukele, a politician obsessed with social media and with the image he’s perpetuated of himself: as someone who does not tolerate being publicly questioned. “[He is] 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 down a year before, and that forced the lawyer to flee El Salvador and seek refuge in another country.

‘You threw shit at me on Twitter’’

The relationship between Deleón and Bukele came to an end in the same place where it was initiated at the end of 2015: on Twitter. Bukele was then the mayor of San Salvador and a rising star in Salvadorian politics. Deleón had a high profile and not only on the social network: that year she had managed, along with other colleagues, to include the crime of money laundering in an open legal battle against former President Francisco Flores, as a plaintiff in the case. “He began to write to me by DM [Direct Message] 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, and he seemed to me to be a progressive,” says Deleón.

She had built a reputation as a litigator in a country where “criminal law is a jungle,” and soon won 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 complex legal proceedings. In 2019, when Bukele had already won the presidential elections but had not yet taken office, Deleón represented him in the hearings for a defamation case. They had open communication, says the lawyer, and sometimes they talked about his next government. On one of those occasions, she told him that she was interested in being Minister of Security and that she was ready to present him with a plan.

“Why would anyone want to be the Minister of Security?”

“Firstly because I genuinely thought that Nayib was going to pursue a different policy. I believed that he was progressive, that he was capable of innovation, for example, that he was going to instigate dialogues with criminal gangs in an open way. I mean, now that I say it, it hurts 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 in El Salvador; I’ve worked in court. Since 2005, when I began my career, I’ve moved in the criminal law environment. I know that security is not just a criminology issue but also encompasses other things, but in El Salvador the problem is that nobody wants to get involved with it. I know the prison system, I know prison law, I know the underworld and all that it entails, and I thought I could deal with it.”

In June 2019, Bukele took office as president. Deleón was not part of the cabinet. For many in the government – and outside of it – this was the precise reason for the rupture, which led the lawyer to become a critical voice. Deleón maintains, however, that following this, she and the president still spoke in confidence. She wrote to him on WhatsApp two days before Sunday, February 9, 2020, after he’d announced that his government was planning to take over the Assembly if a security loan that they wanted wasn’t approved. She asked him why he was doing this. She wrote to him again the same Sunday, when she saw that he had arrived at the Assembly with the military and was making a show of force in front of the cameras. “You screwed up,” Deleón wrote. She posted on Twitter exactly what she thought that afternoon. “This is just one example of what awaits us when he has the majority in the @AsambleaSV. We’ll need to have the patience to put up with four years of tantrums and outrage from the coolest president.”

The president was not so cool when it came to Twitter, his favorite digital habitat, the platform where he fired people and gave orders to his officials. Deleón remembers that Bukele took a screenshot of her tweet and sent it to her on WhatsApp. “He told me: ‘you threw shit at me on Twitter, I will never forgive you for this.’ It was the last time I had direct contact with him.” For someone so concerned with his image, this was unacceptable. The president blocked his former lawyer on Twitter and on his phones; the person who had stood up for him in court and gotten him out of trouble on multiple occasions. From then on, other employees were in charge of putting her in her place.

The harassment against Deleón grew and deepened when she began to campaign as a candidate for assembly member in the legislative elections of February 2021, a year later. More than 19,000 people marked her name on the ballot on voting day, but this was not enough to claim victory. Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, won an unprecedented number of seats, which gave it an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly. That day Deleón talked to her friend and listened to her advice, but she resisted the idea of fleeing the country. There were her two children to think of. She believed that she could wait until the end of the year. Her friend didn’t agree.

Two months later, on May 1, when the new Assembly took office, its first action was to dismiss the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and then also sacked the Attorney General of the Republic, who was replaced by a man Bukele trusted. 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 removing the separation of powers. Before the end of May, Deleón was summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office. “I was read five different charges,” she says. They had already opened criminal investigations. “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 inconvenient.” Soon, even her mother began to tell her that she had to go.

The time that passed until she left El Salvador, in August of last year, was a period of exhaustion and paranoia, says the lawyer. “I no longer slept.” Deleón explains that she had to go to the Prosecutor’s Office three times a week, that she was followed, and that harassment on social networks was relentless. In September, when she was in a safe house in southern Mexico, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted her precautionary measures, given that she was in “a serious and urgent situation of risk of irreparable damage to her rights in El Salvador.” Surveillance with drones, monitoring and harassment by officials and people related to the government, amounted to “a situation of risk to her life and integrity.”

The reasons why she had to leave the country seemed clear. But it was a little more difficult to understand the viciousness of her persecution. It is not that it was unprecedented: Bukelism was already attacking the journalists who revealed the misdeeds of the government, civil organizations, politicians from other parties and diplomats, but it was evident that Deleón did not have any powerful organization behind her.

“What political risk could you represent if you had lost the election? What would be the use of the government putting you 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 doing it all alone. And he knows it. But the problem with a person like Bukele is that he is very immature, very visceral and vindictive.”

Deleón never believed that the persecution would reach this point: “I always thought that he would respect the professional relationship I had with him and the results I gave him,” she explains. In August 2021, she left El Salvador with her daughter for California, and was advised not to return. The Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders helped her find a place to stay in southern Mexico, while she applied for asylum in the country. At first it was very hard, she says: the uprooting, being away from her teenage son, explaining to her six-year-old daughter that they were on the run. “And she asked me: But why are we going to run away? Did you steal something?” They focused on small pleasures: the taste of tortillas, hot chocolate, making 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 residency in Mexico. It’s finally time for her to start over.

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