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State Department says Salvadorans' attempts to 'directly influence' a U.S. congressional election are 'unacceptable'

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., alleged election interference by El Salvador President Nayib Bukele’s government, while Salvadoran officials say it’s Torres who has interfered in their country’s matters.

After winning re-election to her seat in the House, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., issued a news release making a startling accusation: El Salvador President Nayib Bukele participated in “foreign election interference” in her race.

Bukele, whose government has said it’s Torres who has been interfering in its matters, urged residents of California’s 35th District to vote against Torres in a tweet last year. In the months leading to this year’s midterm elections, legislators from Bukele’s party openly supported her opponent on social media.

“Let’s say no to Norma Torres because she has caused so much harm to El Salvador,” one of the many tweets read.

Torres told NBC News that members of Bukele’s government openly supported her opponent in rallies and social media posts, and she said she was harassed in person and online with hateful and racist messages.

The State Department considers it an attempt to influence the elections.

“Throughout our last electoral process, we noted with alarm increasingly direct attempts by some Salvadorans to directly influence certain electoral outcomes 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.

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif.,
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., said members of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s government openly supported her opponent in rallies and social media posts.Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call via AP file

Asked about the legislators’ tweets against Torres, Milena Mayorga, the Salvadoran ambassador to the U.S., said she couldn't comment on their actions because they represent a different branch of the government. But she said it was Torres who interfered in El Salvador by criticizing Bukele in Salvadoran media outlets during the months leading up to the country’s February 2021 legislative elections. Torres disputes the allegation.

Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, and its allies went on to win the biggest congressional majority in El Salvador’s history. 

Richard Hasen, an expert in election law and professor at UCLA, said there is a difference between a foreign person’s trying to influence the outcome of an election and breaking U.S. law, which requires spending money.

“There’s a technical difference. You can say someone is interfering with the election; you can call it election interference. I think that’s a fair thing to say,” he said. “But calling something election interference doesn’t mean it’s 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 any election laws were broken.

Torres’ release said she “was disappointed in the lack of enforcement 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 at her residence here in the U.S. and has not been thrown out of the country, the fact that the consul generals have not been removed from our country, I think is a telling story where the disconnect is,” said Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala when she was 5.

Torres, who has been in office since 2015, won with 57.4% of the vote. Her opponent, Republican Mike Cargile, got 42.6% of the vote, according to NBC News election results. It was the best performance in recent history for a Republican candidate in the district, once held by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, which has since been redrawn.

The district is nearly 70% Hispanic and has a large Mexican American  population. 

Torres chairs the Congressional Central America Caucus, which she co-founded during her first year in Congress.

Bukele, a millennial populist leader, is popular in El Salvador and among many in diaspora communities, but critics say his government has taken authoritarian measures. The U.S. denounced the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s decision last year that cleared the way for Bukele to run for a second consecutive term, saying it undermines democracy. Rights groups say authorities have committed human rights abuses, which have resulted in arbitrary arrests and deaths in custody, after a heavy crackdown on gangs following a spike in murders in March.

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele and his party, Nuevas Ideas, or New Ideas, and its allies won the biggest congressional majority in the country’s history. Casa Presidencial El Salvador via Getty Images

Mayorga said that ahead of El Salvador’s legislative elections, Torres spread false information by saying Bukele had come to Washington to meet with administration officials. Citing unnamed sources, The Associated Press reported at the time that President Joe Biden turned down a meeting request with Bukele.

“We never asked for a meeting with the Biden administration,” Mayorga said. Instead, she said, Bukele came to meet with the general secretary of the Organization of American States to ask for election observers ahead of the Salvadoran elections. 

Mayorga said Bukele’s government didn’t say anything at the time, but more recently it has used diplomatic channels to complain about Torres.

Bukele and Torres met once in 2019 when she was with a congressional delegation visiting El Salvador. Animosity between the two appears to have started after a spat on Twitter last year.

After smugglers dropped two toddler sisters from a 14-foot wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Torres accused the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in a tweet of not doing enough to combat corruption and “the 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” dictator, and he countered with a tweet urging voters from her district not to vote for her: “She doesn’t work for you but rather to maintain all our countries underdeveloped.”

Torres said that she was flooded with hateful messages, including violent images and videos, and that her husband was harassed outside their house, so she began keeping a gun at her home last year.

“This weapon stays very close to me when I’m home,” she said in an interview.

It’s not the first time politicians in Latin America have taken sides in U.S. elections and vice versa. 

“It’s the transnationalization of U.S. politics,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University. “American elections are followed with an enormous amount of detail in every country in the world.”

Issues such as remittances and immigration are domestic for the U.S., but they’re transnational for Salvadorans, he said.

In 2020, conservative Colombian senators endorsed then-President Donald Trump and Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., on social media. 

Gustavo Petro, who 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. South Florida members of Congress voiced their concerns about Petro, a leftist, when he was running for office, calling him a “thief” and a “terrorist.” 

Gamarra said that as diaspora communities in the U.S. grow, there will be more attempts to influence elections here.

“They understand that whoever goes to Congress has an influence in American foreign policy,” he said. “I think the reality is that we’re going to be seeing a lot of this going forward, especially with large diaspora communities that have ties back home.”