El Salvador / Transparency

The Bukele Clan that Rules with Nayib

Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Jimmy Alvarado, Gabriel Labrador y Sergio Arauz

After defeating the two opposing political and ideological forces that had ruled El Salvador since the end of the Cold War, Nayib Bukele took office in June 2019. Nearing his 39th birthday, he is the most popular president in the country’s democratic history. He is well-known for his communication skills, conspicuous selfies, confrontations with the other branches of government, surprising success in reducing the country’s murder rate, and his aggressive and controversial management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not as well-known is the reality that he governs with his three younger brothers — Karim Alberto (33), and Yusef Alí and Ibrajim Antonio (30-year-old twins) — who comprise the nucleus of a family clan that teams up with the president in most of his decisions. They’re all sons of father Armando Bukele Kattán, who died in 2015, and mother Olga Marina Ortez. While they don’t officially hold any public office, for the last year they’ve been functioning as if they were essential cabinet ministers.

Although there are 16 appointed ministers, six presidential secretaries and three commissioners, numerous sources consulted by El Faro confirm that the Bukele Ortez brothers are sometimes the only ones involved in important government decisions. They also note that a hierarchy exists even within this small leadership group. The president and Karim are the strategists who define the direction of the presidency. Yusef and Ibrajim are advisors who gather information and have their brother’s ear. Since they don’t have official government positions, none are subject to any laws regulating public employee accountability.

Nayib Bukele’s mother, Olga Ortez, and his brothers Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef (from right to left) at the president’s inauguration on June 1, 2019. Photo available on Karim Bukele’s Facebook page.
Nayib Bukele’s mother, Olga Ortez, and his brothers Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef (from right to left) at the president’s inauguration on June 1, 2019. Photo available on Karim Bukele’s Facebook page.

During the 20 years that Arena was in power, most major strategic decisions were made by people who represented the country’s greatest fortunes, whether or not they held government positions or were even Arena party members. The decision-makers during the 10 years of FMLN governments were the old high command, the same small group of guerrillas that led the FMLN during the civil war and that signed the 1992 peace agreement (although from 2009 to 2014 during the first FMLN government, decision-making power was held by the Cáceres family, Mecafé and Herbert Saca). Now, 30 years after the end of the war, the most important decision-making core of the presidency is dominated by one family: the Bukele clan.

Just beyond the inner circle, but still under the clan’s control, are the cousins that Nayib grew up with − Xavier Zablah Bukele (the president of Nuevas Ideas) and his brother, Francisco. In the next circle of trust are the president’s private secretary, Ernesto Castro and his wife, Michelle Sol (Minister of Housing), the president’s legal counsel, Conan Castro, and Carolina Recinos, the commissioner for the president’s cabinet. There are also some childhood friends and former schoolmates (Escuela Panamericana) of the president who have been appointed to public office: Federico Anliker (an airplane pilot and president of CEPA), Fernando López Larreynaga (Minister of the Environment), and María Luisa Hayem (Minister of the Economy). President Bukele’s wife, Gabriela Rodríguez, is considered to be in charge of the Secretariat for Social Inclusion and is also its main recruiter.

El Faro consulted various sources to map out how the Bukele government operates and applies influence. These sources include government officials who, fearing repercussions, spoke to us off the record, as well as family friends, former colleagues, and former Escuela Panamericana teachers. El Faro journalists also provided their notes from various meetings with the four Bukele Ortez brothers, including the current president.

We also interviewed four businessmen, three legislators, and two party advisors with a first-hand view of the Bukele Ortez clan’s role in this administration. To develop a better picture of the president’s relatives with decision-making power in the current administration, we reviewed Armando Bukele Kattán’s (the president’s father) will, as well as the audio of a 2013 interview with Armando Bukele Kattán that we obtained. Lastly, we reviewed documents from the Commercial Registry, the Property Registry, official publications regarding the settlement of an inheritance bequeathed by Armando Bukele Kattán in Chile, and the Armando Bukele Kattán Foundation charter.

“They have divided up different areas − Yusef has the economic cabinet, while Karim is the political strategist and speechwriter. The president uses Ibrajim for negotiations or special assignments like implementing economic stimulus projects,” says a friend of the brothers who knows how this government works. This family friend contends that there isn’t a formal division of labor among the brothers, since they all move freely throughout the president’s administration. It’s more of a tacit agreement that has developed after a year in office about the areas over which each brother has more control.

The president has publicly acknowledged his reliance on Karim’s advice. In his televised address to the nation on May 18, Nayib Bukele referred to his brother’s role, who stood just off-camera watching his brother’s speech. “I personally feel that right now I need all the help I can get, especially from someone I trust, like my brother,” the president said, referring to the frequent meetings in April between Karim and the National Association of Private Enterprise (Asociación Nacional de la Empresa Privada − ANEP) to craft a law to reopen the economy after the coronavirus quarantine is lifted. “If someone doesn’t like that, then they can just wait, because in four years they can vote for another president,” said Nayib Bukele. Even before the pandemic, Karim has been a regular negotiator for the administration in the Legislative Assembly’s “Blue Room.” One of his visits there was on February 9, when the president stormed into that room flanked by military personnel.

The president’s twin brothers have kept a lower profile, as their meetings are usually private. For example, Ibrajim was the president’s delegate to a meeting of the committee established to manage $2 billion in coronavirus emergency funding. Six government officials and five private sector representatives comprise the committee, but some people who participated in the meeting said that Ibrajim never spoke. Several sources indicate that the twins are frequent visitors to the Presidential House.

It’s not publicly known if the president’s relatives are paid for these functions. The president has said several times that he gets free advice, and administration officials also maintain that others have provided unpaid services. However, it was later discovered that some people hold two positions and are secretly paid for one of them. This is the case of the presidency’s legal secretary, Conan Castro. As the president admitted towards the end of his first year in office, Castro is also functioning as a legal advisor for which he receives a salary that the administration refuses to divulge. 

The family clan’s power has been at work from the very start of this administration. “I was interviewed by Ibrajim for a position in the economic cabinet,” said one person who was interviewed in the first half of 2019 for a job to head a government office, when president-elect Bukele was selecting his cabinet. Ibrajim himself confirmed this to El Faro, as did three of the people he interviewed.

According to these sources, the Bukele Ortez clan acted as the de facto human resources office of the administration in those early days. The brothers divided up the entire executive branch apparatus to hire all the middle management, which consists of more than 100 institutions among all the ministries, secretariats, autonomous organizations, financial institutions, and their subsidiary agencies.

The president’s inner circle is also well-protected. Officials who agreed to talk off the record were reluctant to go into details for fear of being recognized as sources of information. One administration official acknowledged that “if the president finds out that any of his officials are talking to you or to another banned media outlet, that person will be out on the street.” 

President Bukele, born on July 24, 1981, has six more siblings — four women and two men who were born to five other women with whom Armando Bukele Kattán had relationships during his lifetime. One of them is a public figure. Yamil Alejandro Bukele Pérez is the president of the autonomous agency that oversees the country’s sports policy — the Instituto Nacional de los Deportes de El Salvador (INDES). President Bukele personally appointed him to this post.

However, Yamil’s influence is limited to sports. One of the Bukele Ortez brothers spoke off the record to El Faro, making it clear that he hadn’t been authorized by Nayib to make any statements. He didn’t mention Yamil as being among the president’s top-level advisors, pointing instead to Miguel Kattán, the president’s Secretary for Trade. President Bukele has described Kattán as a distant relative.

Apart from the Bukele Ortez brothers and the president of INDES, none of Nayib’s other siblings play a formal or informal role in the government, according to a close relative of the Bukele Ortez clan.

Karim Bukele, in the light gray jacket, was the administration’s spokesperson in talks with private enterprise, and on May 5 lobbied the legislature to pass emergency response laws. Photo available on Karim Bukele’s Facebook page. 
Karim Bukele, in the light gray jacket, was the administration’s spokesperson in talks with private enterprise, and on May 5 lobbied the legislature to pass emergency response laws. Photo available on Karim Bukele’s Facebook page. 

As he acknowledged to El Faro journalists, the most influential person in the president’s life was Armando Bukele Kattán. The patriarch of the family shaped the thinking and politics o f Nayib to such an extent that he considered withdrawing from the public arena after his father’s death. Nayib himself acknowledged this in a conversation with El Faro during his time of mourning.

Armando Bukele Kattán, a PhD in industrial chemistry, entrepreneur, and founding leader of the country’s Muslim community since 1992, also opened the first mosque in El Salvador. The president has acknowledged to family and friends that Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef now occupy the empty space left by his father’s death.

Nayib Bukele went into politics even though his father didn’t fully agree with the decision. A person close to the family who knew about Nayib’s registration with the FMLN party to run for mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012, said that he did so without informing his father, even though they had previously discussed the matter. According to the same source, Nayib’s father reacted angrily when he learned that his son had joined the FMLN. Armando Bukele, in the audio of a 2013 interview that El Faro obtained, talked about his pre-registration conversation with his son.

Armando Bukele remembers saying to his son “Don’t get involved in politics. Why do it?” In the same interview, he says his son told him: “You read your books, you’re involved with the Kiwanis, Islam, and you’re writing your book on physics. You have Religions for Peace as a hobby. I want politics as a hobby — I like it.”

In the interview, the father says that the conversation ended with some advice for his son: “Go ahead, then, get in! But I’m going to give you some advice − win.  Politicians who lose are... thrown away. You’ll be damaged goods.”

Karim, the Key Man

A prominent businessman, two cabinet officials, an aspiring government official that interviewed with one of the Bukele Ortez brothers, and two private sector labor union representatives all concur that Karim Bukele, who was also Nayib’s campaign manager, is the administration’s strategist and top negotiator. A demonstration of his decision-making power was seen in the recent May 4 legislative session, in which the Legislative Assembly voted in favor of allowing the administration to raise $1 billion in debt obligations, which opened yet another crack in the Arena party. It was the first public demonstration of Karim’s responsibility for getting favorable votes in the Assembly. At least three congressmen and two party advisors claim he led the negotiations, although he was sometimes accompanied by other officials such as Nelson Fuentes (Finance Minister), Javier Argueta (presidential legal advisor), Ernesto Castro (private secretary), and Manuel Aguilar (Telecommunications Superintendent). Karim also negotiated the Quarantine Law in that session of the Assembly, a law that allowed police to detain people suspected of violating the stay-at-home order. The Supreme Court of Justice had previously considered this type of detention to be illegal, and can be understood as an arbitrary detention.

A few days earlier, Karim had represented his brother when he negotiated behind closed doors the proposals he would later bring to the Assembly. He negotiated with legislators and was also the administration’s go-between with ANEP (then headed by Luis Cardenal) to decide how to distribute that $1 billion package of financial assistance to companies hurt by the pandemic crisis. Several of our sources contend that he has been doing this type of thing for a year now, despite not having an official position in the administration. He is also the only one of the president’s brothers who has made statements to the press on behalf of the administration. On that May 4 night, Karim and some of the presidential secretaries left the Legislative Palace satisfied with the agreement reached. It was Karim who explained the deal to the news media, although he avoided answering questions about his position. “All these rumors about a total shutdown and some kind of curfew are completely baseless. These rumors are ridiculous, and I am telling you now, I’m giving you my word, that it’s not going to happen,” Karim said to the dozen journalists surrounding him after his meeting in the Assembly. To questions raised about his lobbying of the Assembly for the $1 billion, he said, “Yes, it’s part of the president’s initiative. The decree specifies what the funds will be used for — they’re stimulus funds to inject into El Salvador’s economy. The country isn’t taking in enough in taxes, so we need to offer relief to those entrepreneurs (government suppliers), not necessarily big companies... who need that relief...”

Luis Cardenal, in his final interview as ANEP’s president with the Frente a Frente TV program on April 24, thanked Karim for staying all day during the negotiations and for facilitating the agreements. “I appreciate Karim Bukele because there were a number of failed proposals, and we thought that we might not be able to achieve anything that day, but we stuck with it,” said Cardenal. “He also persisted and facilitated the participation of several ministers, so we began to see what we could do to help the most vulnerable population.”

Karim has been a close advisor to Nayib Bukele and one of those who molded him into a public figure since his time as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán. In 2015, when Nayib was preparing to run for mayor of San Salvador, Karim spent many hours coaching him in public speaking and dealing with the news media. Three businessmen and three Arena legislators who have experience negotiating with Karim, describe him as the brains behind his brother’s work. They describe Nayib as having a quick mind, but he focuses more on performance. Karim, on the other hand, focuses more on shaping ideas, on analyzing each step.

In a televised debate during his 2015 mayoral campaign, Karim was one of the few people accompanying his brother in the television studio, whispering in his ear at every commercial break.

In an April 30th interview published in the Diario de Hoy, FMLN leader Fabio Castillo, who sponsored Nayib Bukele during his years as an FMLN mayor, explained the relationship: “His father, who was a brilliant and upright man, influenced the president a great deal, but he’s dead now. Layla (Nayib’s infant daughter) will influence him in the future, but she’s too young to talk. The only one who can influence him is his brother Karim, who is smarter than the president. But he has a flaw — he gets the president all wound up and excited about too many things,” Castillo said. “And at this point, I’d like to say that this administration has not only shown signs of being undemocratic, but has also demonstrated its tribalism. The president’s brothers, the three Bukele Ortez brothers, have extraordinary influence over state affairs that they shouldn’t have.”

In a January 2015 television debate leading up to the municipal elections, then FMLN mayoral candidate, Nayib Bukele, listens to instructions from Ernesto Sanabria (now his Press Secretary), and his brother, Karim (gray jacket). Photo by Fred Ramos/El Faro archive.
In a January 2015 television debate leading up to the municipal elections, then FMLN mayoral candidate, Nayib Bukele, listens to instructions from Ernesto Sanabria (now his Press Secretary), and his brother, Karim (gray jacket). Photo by Fred Ramos/El Faro archive.

From the beginning, Nayib has developed his entire political persona together with his brothers, but Karim has always been the closest. Karim’s Twitter account labels him as the head of his brother’s 2019 presidential campaign. Another example of the brothers’ role in this political endeavor is that while Karim was campaign manager, Yusef headed the Nuevas Ideas delegation at the voting center located in the Centro Internacional de Ferias y Convenciones (CIFCO), a key voting center in the capital city and a traditional bastion of Arena voters.

Last December, during an official mission to China, one of the few official trips that President Bukele has made in his first year (along with trips to the United States and Mexico), the Chinese government acknowledged Karim Bukele as the primary architect of the meeting, in which several trade and cooperation agreements were signed. “Special thanks to Mr. Karim @bukele. Without his valuable work and important contributions, we would not have achieved success during President Bukele’s state visit to China,” tweeted the Chinese Ambassador to El Salvador on December 3, 2019.

However, the president’s office stated that it couldn’t provide any information regarding Karim Bukele’s trip. “According to our investigation with respect to Mr. Karim Bukele, I am informing you that, according to data from our Human Resources office, he has not been appointed to any position in this administration, nor are there any records of trips paid with institutional funds, according to our Finance office,” says a memorandum from the Private Secretariat. This is another example of the shadows in which the president’s brothers operate: they act, agree, and negotiate, but nothing is made public if they don’t reveal it themselves. Nothing is auditable, and there is no official information. In reality, it seems like an ordinary Salvadoran citizen personally negotiated agreements with China on behalf of El Salvador. 

“Karim is a key contributor − he is very close to the president,” says José Escobar, president of the Textile, Clothing and Free Trade Zone Industry Association (Cámara de la Industria Textil, Confección y Zonas Francas − CAMTEX). “You can see that they communicate well. I think the president feels supported by Karim, who plays an important role in helping the president do what needs to get done. He has come here to ANEP, he has been to the Assembly, he has been to several other places – he’s very active with the business community,” he added.

Karim was the only one of the president’s brothers attending the meeting with a dozen major businessmen at the Presidential House on May 18, a meeting to negotiate the reopening of the economy after the coronavirus quarantine is lifted. One of those businessmen was Escobar. Karim negotiates with legislators, makes agreements with businessmen, discusses strategies with allied countries, and advises his brother in public appearances. Karim is everywhere.


The Businessmen Twins

Yusef Alí Bukele, one of Nayib’s twin brothers, explained his relationship with the president to an El Faro reporter at a February 4 cocktail party held at the National Palace to celebrate Avianca’s 100th year in business. He described himself as an intermediary between the private sector and the president, and as a gatekeeper: “I have the president’s ear,” he said.

Yusef has an economics degree and, according to Luis Cardenal (former president of ANEP and another businessman who leads a large family conglomerate), he is the one in the Presidential House who listens to the concerns of the private sector labor unions. Party leaders also consider him to be one of the president’s main links to the Nuevas Ideas party led by one of his cousins, Xavier Zablah Bukele.

President Bukele also attended Avianca’s 100th anniversary celebration. The stage was the National Palace, in the heart of the capital, and the showcase for the urban renovation projects that Bukele undertook when he was mayor. The president gave a speech that was applauded by many of the prominent businessmen gathered there. Shortly after the speech ended, Avianca’s president, Roberto Kriete, spoke to El Faro. “Since President Sánchez Cerén left and President Bukele took office, the investment climate has improved enormously. The people feel a difference, the people are optimistic, the people want to push forward with him, and I think he’s doing what’s needed for this country to progress,” said Kriete.

By November 2019, private enterprise had achieved a major shift in its relationship with the central government. ANEP and business leaders encountered a different kind of president after 10 years of FMLN rule that, although not as confrontational as expected, was marked by constant public friction with the private sector. Bukele knew how to capitalize on this for his own benefit, and when he won the presidency in February 2019, he began to send signals to private enterprise, such as with his speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. “I want to improve relations with the United States as much as possible... We have a lot in common, we want the same things as most Americans, and we think we like 90% of what Americans like. You see, we like things like free enterprise, limited government, freedom of speech, and democracy,” Bukele said in that speech.

Part of the reason why businessmen were applauding Nayib on that February night in the National Palace is that he had already built some bridges, and those bridges were his brothers.

At that same event, an El Faro reporter approached Yusef with some questions about his relationship with the president. Yusef responded that he had no problem giving statements, but that he didn’t know on whose behalf he would be speaking, so he asked to reschedule the interview. “We can talk, but I don’t have any government position, so who am I going to be speaking for? On behalf of the president’s brother? It’s a little weird, you know. I’m helping my brother, but I don’t have any official position. I help him personally, and advise him as a family member. But I don’t know who I can speak for. Who am I?” Yusef Bukele asked himself.

The El Faro reporter replied that certain businessmen have said that Yusef has a direct channel to the president. “They say that because I’m the president’s brother. I have the president’s ear, so to speak. That’s why they talk to me, so that I can relay messages,” he added. He then insisted on rescheduling the interview. “I really have no problem giving statements. The thing is, I don’t know on whose behalf I can speak. On my own behalf? The government’s behalf? I don’t have a position. We’d better talk some other time, although I don’t know how it would look. Like we’ve gone back to the days of monarchies, don’t you think?”

'En el momento de la socazón en el situation room... Aunque insisto que creo que ganará el Frente', escribió Nayib Bukele al publicar esta imagen en su cuente Facebook la noche del 9 de marzo de 2014, día de la segunda vuelta presidencial que terminó ganando Salvador Sánchez Cerén. En ese momento, Bukele era alcalde de Nuevo Cuscatlán. En la imagen lo acompañan entre otros su hermano Karim y su primo Xavier Zablah, actual presidente de Nuevas Ideas. Foto disponible en página oficial de Facebook de Nayib Bukele.

Government Recruiters

Bukele took office surrounded by a cabinet that is largely made up of his partners, friends, and relatives, as reported by El Faro in June 2019. The president’s brothers also played an important role in recruiting the ministers and officials who now run the administration. And the most important recruiter of them all was Ibrajim Antonio Bukele Ortez.

Ibrajim confirmed to El Faro on June 1, 2019 that he conducted around 270 interviews with candidates for government positions, and then sent a shortlist of candidates for jobs in economic and autonomous agencies to the president. Former officials from the Sánchez Cerén administration and some officials from the current government who spoke off the record to El Faro also confirmed what Ibrajim told us. Ibrajim conducted the 270 interviews in the Yamaha offices on Roosevelt Avenue, the motorcycle distributor that belongs to Global Motors S.A. de C.V. (a company that the Bukele Ortez family has owned since 2009, according to the Commercial Registry). Armando Bukele Kattán’s will indicates that the Bukele Ortez family controls 66% of Global Motors’ shares, one of the most robust of the family-owned companies that in 2018, had $8.6 million in assets, according to the Commercial Registry. 

While Ibrajim acknowledges having done the interviews, he didn’t provide any details about the process. Candidates confirmed that the hour-long interviews were conducted at Yamaha’s headquarters with the company’s head of human resources present. They said Ibrajim was typing nonstop on his laptop computer during the interview. The purpose of the first interview was to do a political screening of candidates. There was a second, more technical meeting, especially for economic cabinet positions, in which Ibrajim did not participate. Ibrajim confirmed to El Faro that economist Luis Membreño and businessman Adolfo “Fito” Salume also did some of the interviewing. 

In 2015, the Bukele clan defeated the Arena candidate to win the mayor’s office of San Salvador. Yusef had just graduated from UCA’s Economics Department and Ibrajim was in charge of the family businesses that provided various services to the government. According to information from the Ministry of Finance, between February 2016 and April 2018, when Nayib was already the most prominent FMLN political figure in the eyes of the voters, Ibrajim signed (as the legal representative of Global Motors) 40 contracts for transportation maintenance, repair, and spare parts with 17 public institutions, including ministries, autonomous agencies and public corporations, amounting to $335,789 dollars. Between 2011 and 2015, Nayib Bukele maintained a cordial relationship with the FMLN. But when he became the capital city’s mayor in 2015, his relationship with the FMLN leadership and some party cadres began to strain, and the relationship finally broke down in October 2017

Ibrajim is also an “advisor to the president,” or at least that is how he was introduced to Turkish business executives when he accompanied Nayib Bukele on an official mission to that country from August 18-25, 2019. There is no government document that describes Ibrajim Bukele in this manner, or that explains his role as a representative of the Salvadoran people. El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs bought him a ticket for $7,644 and invited him on this trip as a “special guest,” paying $1,172 in expenses. According to a document uploaded to the government’s transparency website (Portal de Transparencia), the objective of the trip was: “To participate in the official Salvadoran delegation accompanying the Minister of Foreign Affairs on her official visit to Turkey, and to explore cooperation programs and projects.”

In Turkey, Ibrajim and Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill met with officials, but also with a private organization tasked with conducting the foreign economic relations of the Turkish private sector − the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK). In that meeting, Ibrajim was no longer a “special guest”, but was presented as an “advisor to the president” by the organization hosting the Salvadoran delegation.

Ibrajim Bukele’s trip to Turkey in August 2019 as a special guest of the Minister of Foreign Relations was paid from public funds. He was introduced there as an advisor to the president. This photo was published August 22, 2019 on social media by DEIK, a Turkish business association. Ibrajim Bukele is pictured greeting one of the DEIK executives. Photo published by DEIK.
Ibrajim Bukele’s trip to Turkey in August 2019 as a special guest of the Minister of Foreign Relations was paid from public funds. He was introduced there as an advisor to the president. This photo was published August 22, 2019 on social media by DEIK, a Turkish business association. Ibrajim Bukele is pictured greeting one of the DEIK executives. Photo published by DEIK.

Earlier this year on January 23, Luis Cardenal described Yusef’s functions to El Faro. “Yes, we’ve had meetings with Yusef Bukele, who presumably is in charge (for the administration) of economic issues and relations with labor unions. What he wants is to make it easier to solve problems. I want to be clear that Yusef himself doesn’t resolve anything. He is an intermediary who says: what problems do you have? What problems have you had? And we reply, There are problems in customs, in the environment, and with permits. So he says, Well, let’s make a list and communicate these issues to the administration so that they can be addressed in the next meeting, and so that the ministers are responding to these issues. But he isn’t the one who ultimately takes action.”

Back to that February night in the National Palace. The president had already left, and several ministers at the cocktail party were having conversations at the tables farthest from the stage. Yusef, on the other hand, was at the foot of the stage, in the middle of that auspicious event, talking animatedly with Kriete, his family, and Avianca’s top executives while the music flowed over the party-goers. There was laughter, back-slapping, and conversation. “They thought we didn’t believe in free enterprise, because the president was ex-FMLN. But we are more pro-business than they are,” explains one of President Bukele’s brothers, speaking off the record to the news media because he said that he needed Nayib’s authorization. “Arena is pro-business, but they view themselves as the plantation owners. We have always been pro-business, but we are for truly free private enterprise. I told [the businessmen] this in a meeting.”

The support that the brothers give to the president may be the natural sequel to their joint management of the various companies they inherited from their father. However, this has resulted in opaque power centers in the presidency, because when public accountability is required, they hide behind their private relationships. The brother who spoke off the record to El Faro describes it like this: “We’re straight with the president. Other officials, when the president says something, just say ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ because they’re thinking about keeping their jobs. It’s just too much. They do it out of fear or wanting curry favor with the president. Then there’s all the drama that goes on between these officials, but we don’t pay attention to that. We’re above it all,” he explained.

We’re above it all, he said. “All” refers to the president’s cabinet, and it’s a cabinet that one Bukele Ortez brother describes as toadying to the president.

In his April 30 interview with El Diario de Hoy, FMLN leader Fabio Castillo spoke about official travel by government officials and their business relationships. But he points to Karim as being the most prominent figure. “Regarding state affairs, people tell you that they’ve already spoken to one of the brothers. That cannot be. At times Karim has been the leader of official delegations, sometimes even above the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This situation of talking to the president’s relatives to get what you want hasn’t happened in our country since the Meléndez brothers were in power, not even during the military governments.”

Ibrajim also participated in other COVID-19 emergency response meetings with government officials, in which it became clear that he’s part of the main decision-making core. On April 22, Ibrajim attended a meeting of the “Emergency Committee,” a team of civilians and ministers created by legislative decree to administer $2 billion in funding raised through government bonds. The committee disbanded on May 11 following the president’s rejection of the committee’s agreements. But 29 days earlier, Ibrajim had attended one of the committee meetings accompanied by the president of the Salvadoran Institute for Agrarian Transformation (Instituto Salvadoreño de Transformación Agraria, or ISTA), Oscar Guardado, and one of his assistants, to discuss the government’s intention to promote an agrarian transformation plan and a food security program.

Although the president’s brother did not speak during the presentation, two sources who knew about the meeting assured El Faro that Ibrajim was presented as the leader of the initiative. He declared that the project was intended to make El Salvador the first country in Latin America, for once, to guarantee food security for all its citizens. Guardado’s assistant was the one who presented the project. At that meeting, Ibrajim, Guardado and his assistant were asked whether similar initiatives had been promoted by previous administrations and had failed. They explained that a lack of specialists in food security and the unavailability of ISTA lands (that the Bukele government wants to use) were the reasons that similar initiatives failed during previous administrations. “They proposed to use ISTA lands that have been idle since 1983. Many of these lands are in an unusable condition,” said one source.


The Bukele Clan and the FMLN

The history of the Bukele clan in El Salvador dates back to the early 20th century, when Humberto Bukele Salmán (Nayib’s grandfather) emigrated from Palestine in 1921 with his brothers, Jorge and Taufick. The brothers, according to a biography by Alfredo Bukele Simón (Jorge’s son and Armando Bukele’s cousin), opened a factory in San Salvador’s historic city center: the Camisería Americana, which popularized the Norma brand of guayabera shirts.

Humberto Bukele Salmán’s marriage to Victoria Kattán (who was from Bethlehem in present day Israel) produced five children: Mario Humberto Bukele Kattán (1942), Armando Bukele Kattán (1944), Norma Victoria Bukele Kattán (1949), Mary Nelly Bukele Kattán and Humberto Bukele Kattán. After Bukele Salmán’s death, his two oldest sons, Mario and Armando, took over the family business, H. Bukele e Hijos y Compañía. In the 1980s, they were the company’s legal representatives on duty free import registrations for materials to manufacture shirts, pajamas, and underwear.

Armando, the president’s father, who had a PhD in industrial chemistry, also had a proclivity for various exact sciences and earned several university degrees. He also claimed to have a journalism degree. The patriarch of the Bukele Ortez clan built a diversified business conglomerate in advertising, textiles, pharmaceuticals, beverages, and automobiles. In 2014, a year before his death and the last year in which all the companies agreed to submit their balance sheets to the Commercial Registry, his main companies (Global Motors, Obermet and Manufacturas Humberto Bukele e Hijos) had assets totaling $18.2 million dollars. Upon his death in 2015, the patriarch’s family businesses and property were divided among his descendants. That year, nine of his ten children named in his will dated November 5, 2010, were already of majority age, and eight were involved in the management of those businesses.

According to his will, Armando Bukele had six life partners in “non-marital unions.” Rosa Imelda Centeno Colindres is the mother of his oldest daughter, Yamile Bukele Centeno (born on November 14, 1973). Bernarda Rosa Pérez Pomare is a Colombian national and the mother of Yamil Alejandro Bukele Pérez (born on January 23, 1978). Another partner was Alma Platero, with whom he had Dayana Marilyn Bukele Platero. Alicia Quintanilla Arevalo, who died in August 2011, was the mother of Armando Bukele’s successor as a religious leader and imam of the San Salvador Mosque, Emerson Gerardo Bukele Quintanilla. Amanda Ramírez González is the mother of his youngest children, Fátima Mariam Bukele Ramírez and Karime Bukele Ramírez. And finally, with Olga Ortez, Armando Bukele had President Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez and his brothers Karim, Ibrajim and Yusef.

Above, from left to right, Nayib Bukele Ortez, Emerson Bukele Quintanilla, Yamil Alejandro Bukele Pérez, Dayana Bukele Platero, Olga Ortez, Karim Bukele Ortez, Yamile Bukele Centeno, Ibrajim Bukele Ortez and Yusef Bukele Ortez. Sitting, Armando Bukele Kattán. Photo available on Emerson Bukele’s Facebook page and Twitter account.
Above, from left to right, Nayib Bukele Ortez, Emerson Bukele Quintanilla, Yamil Alejandro Bukele Pérez, Dayana Bukele Platero, Olga Ortez, Karim Bukele Ortez, Yamile Bukele Centeno, Ibrajim Bukele Ortez and Yusef Bukele Ortez. Sitting, Armando Bukele Kattán. Photo available on Emerson Bukele’s Facebook page and Twitter account.

Only Norma and Humberto are still alive among Armando Bukele Kattán’s siblings. Mario Bukele Kattán died on July 26, 2016. Mario’s son, and Armando’s nephew, Hassan Ricardo Bukele Martínez, was secretary of the San Salvador city council when Nayib Bukele was the city’s mayor.

Mary Nelly Bukele Kattán de Zablah, Nayib’s aunt, died on September 21, 2002. She had three children: Nelly Vanesa Zablah Bukele, Francisco David Zablah Bukele, and Xavier Eduardo Zablah Bukele. Francisco is on the Board of Directors of the Bukele family’s main advertising firm, Obermet, one of their wealthiest companies in terms of assets. In 2017, Obermet reported $6.4 million in assets to the Commercial Registry. Xavier is the president of the Nuevas Ideas party and attended the same school as the president, the Escuela Panamericana.

The two Zablah Bukele brothers are founding members of the political party created by Nayib, a party that has candidates running in the 2021 legislative and municipal elections. Both brothers are regular visitors to the Presidential House, according to officials who spoke to El Faro.

The background of the president’s uncles is important for one reason: politics got in the family blood through one of them.

In the 1980s, during the early days of the civil war, Mario Bukele Kattán would often invite Schafik Hándal and his brother Farid Hándal to his home. Schafik was the most important FMLN ideologist, while Farid organized some of the legendary clandestine guerrilla cells, mainly in the eastern part of the country. Inviting them to his home was a complex process, since the Hándal brothers had to enter San Salvador secretly, and always moved around on a war footing. Armando Bukele’s friendship with Schafik began at the University of El Salvador in the 1960s. Humberto, Nayib’s uncle, married Farid’s daughter, Carolina Hándal.

In 1999, Nayib took advantage of his father’s close relationship with FMLN leaders to ask Fabio Castillo, the party’s general coordinator at that time, if his new advertising agency could handle the FMLN account. The party had just lost its second presidential election in a row to Arena. In a Facebook Live interview on October 15, 2017, Nayib recounted Castillo’s answer. “We’re giving you the account for two reasons. First, because we trust you and we believe you’ll do a good job. Second, because you’re the only ones who have asked us for the account,” said Castillo. Two former FMLN leaders claim that those initial publicity campaigns were authorized by Roberto Lorenzana, a former communist commander, and former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s (2014-2019) press secretary and chief of staff.


The Panamericana Group

Another feature of the president’s cabinet is that key positions are occupied by people who attended the Escuela Panamericana with the president. The Panamericana is a private, bilingual educational institution attended by the children and adolescents of the country’s upper-middle class.

María Luisa Hayem Brevé (Minister of the Economy) and Fernando López Larreynaga (Minister of the Environment) are two officials Nayib met at the Escuela Panamericana in the 1990s. Former students and teachers remember Hayem as an exemplary student who was named to the school’s honor society for academically outstanding students. Hayem graduated before Bukele and is older. She has worked for various globally recognized economic organizations. Her mother is Francia Brevé, a former official in the economic cabinets of the Arena administrations.

Fernando “Ferro” Lopez was the closest to Bukele at the Panamericana. He and Federico Anliker were Nayib’s best friends. Former classmates and teachers interviewed by El Faro remember the three as being inseparable. The three of them appear together, shoulder to shoulder, in the graduation photo of the class of 1999’s yearbook. Anliker, is a former president of Nuevas Ideas and is president of the Autonomous Executive Port Commission (Comisión Ejecutiva Portuaria Autónoma, or CEPA).

Several officials from the current administration graduated from the Escuela Panamericana, including the president himself. In the top row, from left to right, are the three inseparable friends: Nayib Bukele, Federico Anliker (current CEPA president), and Fernando López (current Environment Minister). Photo available on the Escuela Panamericana yearbook website. 
Several officials from the current administration graduated from the Escuela Panamericana, including the president himself. In the top row, from left to right, are the three inseparable friends: Nayib Bukele, Federico Anliker (current CEPA president), and Fernando López (current Environment Minister). Photo available on the Escuela Panamericana yearbook website. 

“The make-up of the cabinet reveals the enduring bonds of childhood friendships. He favors trust over the skills required for the job,” says Oscar Picardo, an academic researcher, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Francisco Gavidia University, and a former teacher at the Escuela Panamericana, where he met Bukele. He and another former Panamericana teacher, historian Carlos Cañas Dinarte, concur in that Bukele did not excel academically, but Dinarte recalls him as being curious and astute. “He was not a bad student, but I mostly remember he was curious. That’s the word I would use to describe him. He always asked questions that... I don’t know... a very curious person would ask,” Dinarte remembers.

Bukele became president of his 12th grade class, his senior year in high school. It was 1999, and in the class yearbook, Bukele described himself with words that still resonate in the minds of many of his classmates. “Class Terrorist,” Bukele labeled himself under his photograph. That description, according to former classmates of the president, is related to an incident at Comalapa Airport after he returned from a trip abroad. The attacks at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Nairobi (Kenya) had just happened, and immigration officials at the Salvadoran airport had needled him about his Middle Eastern surname.

Ibrajim, one of the Bukele Ortez twins, also studied at the Escuela Panamericana. Former students don’t remember Yusef’s time there, but more is known about his higher education. He was a university classmate of one of the most high-profile ministers in Nayib Bukele’s cabinet — Edgar Romeo Rodríguez Herrera, the Minister of Public Works (Ministerio de Obras Públicas, or MOP). Both studied in the Economics Department of Central American University (UCA), graduating in 2014 after successfully defending a joint thesis titled “A Theoretical and Empirical Comparison of Neoclassical and Marxist Theory Regarding the Relationship between Skilled Labor, Productivity and Wages.” In the thesis acknowledgements page, the authors indicate that team leader was Rodriguez, who later became the sales manager of Bukele-owned Yamaha Motors.

Five years after graduating from college, Rodríguez hired another former classmate as the MOP’s Administrative Manager. This is César Enrique Marroquín Rivas, another member of Yusef’s joint thesis team, who after graduating from UCA, earned a master’s degree in Financial Management at Francisco Gavidia University. Internal MOP documents show that, before being appointed to his current position, Marroquín held the unpaid position of Manager of Institutional Contracting and Procurement. This document (dated June 20, 2019) indicates that Marroquín is the person who signed a response to a request for public information regarding a non-existent invitation to bid for the controversial bridge over the Torola River (Morazán), which took several months longer to build than promised by the administration.

At the top of this administration’s power pyramid are the Bukele Ortez brothers, buttressed by other relatives, long-time friends, and former employees of the family’s businesses. They all have one thing in common — total loyalty to the Bukele Ortez brothers.

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