After winning re-election to her House seat, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., issued a Press release making a startling accusation: El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele engaged in “foreign electoral interference” in his career.
Bukele, whose government has said Torres has been interfering in its affairs, urged residents of California’s 35th District to vote against Torres in a tweet last year. In the months leading up to this year’s midterm elections, lawmakers from Bukele’s party openly supported their opponent on social media.
“Let’s say no to Norma Torres because she has done so much damage to El Salvador” one of many tweets read.
Torres told NBC News that members of the Bukele government openly supported her opponent at rallies and posts on social media, saying she was harassed in person and online with hateful and racist messages.
The State Department sees it as an attempt to influence the election.
“Throughout our last electoral process, we have noted with alarm increasingly direct attempts by some Salvadorans to directly influence certain election results in the United States,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “As we have repeatedly made clear, this is unacceptable, and we have repeatedly communicated this directly to the Government of El Salvador through official diplomatic channels.
“The integrity of our elections is a vital part of our democratic processes; the will of the people must not be undermined by foreign influence,” the spokesperson said.
When asked about the lawmakers’ tweets against Torres, Milena Mayorga, the Salvadoran ambassador to the US, said she could not comment on their actions because they represent a different branch of government. But she said that it was Torres who got into El Salvador by criticizing Bukele in Salvadoran. media during the months prior to the legislative elections of February 2021 in the country. Torres disputes the accusation.
Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, and its allies went on to win the largest majority in Congress in El Salvador’s history.
Richard Hasen, an election law expert and UCLA professor, said there’s a difference between a foreign person trying to influence the outcome of an election and breaking US law, which requires spending money.
“There is a technical difference. You can say that someone is interfering with the election; you can call it election interference. I think it’s fair to say that,” she said. “But calling something election interference doesn’t make it illegal election activity, which would require making campaign contributions or spending money to promote or oppose a candidate for federal office.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on whether election laws were violated.
Torres’ statement said she “was disappointed by the lack of compliance in our judicial system to address foreign interference,” saying she was “the subject of many threats, falsehoods, and harassment, both in person and online,” which she reiterated. in a recent interview.
“The fact that the ambassador still sits in her residence here in the US and hasn’t been kicked out of the country, the fact that the consuls general haven’t been kicked out of our country, I think that’s a story. revealing where the disconnect is,” said Torres, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala when she was 5 years old.
Torres, in office since 2015, won with 57.4% of the vote. His opponent, Republican Mike Cargile, got 42.6% of the vote, according to NBC News election results. It was the best showing in recent history by a Republican candidate in the district once held by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters.
The district, which is almost 70% Hispanic, has a large Mexican American population.
Torres chairs the Central America Congressional Caucus, which he co-founded during his first year in Congress.
Bukele, a millennial populist leader, is popular in El Salvador and among many diaspora communities, but critics say his government has taken authoritative measures. The United States denounced the Salvadoran Supreme Court decision last year that paved the way for Bukele to run for a second consecutive term, saying that undermines democracy. rights groups They say authorities have committed human rights abuses, resulting in arbitrary arrests and deaths in custody, following a strong crackdown on gangs following a spike in killings in March.
Mayorga said that ahead of El Salvador’s legislative elections, Torres spread false information by saying that Bukele had come to Washington to meet with government officials. Citing anonymous sources, The Associated Press reported at the time that President Joe Biden rejected a request to meet with Bukele.
“We never asked for a meeting with the Biden administration,” Mayorga said. Instead, he said, Bukele came to meet with the secretary general of the Organization of American States to request electoral observers before the Salvadoran elections.
Mayorga said the Bukele government did not say anything at the time, but has more recently used diplomatic channels to complain about Torres.
Bukele and Torres met once in 2019 when she was with a congressional delegation visiting El Salvador. The animosity between the two seems to have started after a spat on Twitter last year.
After smugglers threw two little sisters off a 14-foot wall on the US-Mexico border, Torres accused the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in a cheep of not doing enough to combat corruption and “el narco”.
The two girls were from Ecuador, not from any of the countries Torres mentioned. After a back and forth between the two, Torres referred to Bukele as a “narcissistic” dictatorand he responded with a tweet urging voters in her district not to vote for her: “She does not work for you but to keep all our countries underdeveloped.”
Torres said she was inundated with hate messages, including violent images and videos, and that her husband was harassed outside their home, so she he started having a gun in his house last year.
“This gun stays very close to me when I’m at home,” he said in an interview.
It is not the first time that Latin American politicians take sides in US elections and vice versa.
“It’s the transnationalization of American politics,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University. “The US elections are followed with an enormous amount of detail in every country in the world.”
Issues like remittances and immigration are domestic to the United States, but transnational to Salvadorans, he said.
In 2020, conservative Colombian senators endorsed then-President Donald Trump and Rep. María Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, on social media.
gustavo petrowho is now the president of Colombia, said in 2020 when he was a senator that if he could, he would vote for Biden.
Members of Congress have also taken sides in elections in Latin America. Members of Congress from South Florida expressed concern about Petro, a leftist, when he ran for office, calling him a “thief” and “terrorist”.
Gamarra said that as diaspora communities in the US grow, there will be more attempts to influence elections here.
“They understand that whoever goes to Congress has influence on American foreign policy,” he said. “I think the reality is that we will see a lot of this in the future, especially with the large diaspora communities that have ties back home.”