At the worst moment of his relationship with the White House, Nayib Bukele hugs the former ambassador of Donald Trump in El Salvador

Ronald Johnson and Nayib Bukele in December 2020 dining on lobsters in Miami, Florida.

Former Ambassador Johnson and his wife Alina posted their Christmas greeting on Twitter shortly before Christmas Eve ended. In English, he wished for a peaceful night and she, in Spanish, extended her greetings to her friends from El Salvador. So says the caption that accompanies the tweet: “Merry Christmas to the first family and all our friends …”

The johnson wrote their tweet in response to another, posted on the official account of the Presidential House of El Salvador, which shows a photo of President Nayib Bukele, his wife Gabriela and their little daughter Layla in the act of lighting the Christmas tree in the courtyards of the government house.

In his reply to Johnson’s reply, Bukele took the opportunity to do something that is now common on his Twitter account, his main form of political communication: throw darts at the administration of President Joe Biden in Washington. “Those times when ambassadors were sent to strengthen relations between nations,” wrote Bukele in an apparent hint of nostalgia.

Johnson, confirmed as ambassador to El Salvador in June 2019 by the Republican Senate, he was a personal envoy of then-President Donald Trump. An official of the State Department consulted in Washington and a diplomat who was stationed in El Salvador assured Infobae that Johnson arrived in San Salvador with a double mission: keep Bukele close to the Trumpist orbit that ruled the United States and, in parallel, keep the Salvadoran away from the Chinese, with whom he had been flirting since he was elected president in early 2019.

Until January 2021 -Johnson’s departure from El Salvador was announced on the 20th of that month, the same day that Biden took office as president-, Trump’s ambassador was just that, a Bukele supporter, even when the young Salvadoran president had already embarked on his authoritarian script, one of whose first chapters was the takeover and militarization of the Legislative Assembly on February 9, 2020 to demand the approval of a loan.

A good part of the international community condemned that; Ambassador Johnson barely managed to ask Bukele and the opposition deputies to use dialogue to resolve their differences. There was never, from the Washington envoy, condemnation for the military incursion that Bukele commanded.

One of Johnson’s main political actions to support Bukele occurred on September 24, 2020. On that day, the ambassador flanked the president during a press conference broadcast on a national network during which Bukele lashed out at the Salvadoran press, said his government investigated the independent newspaper The lighthouse for money laundering without presenting evidence and attacked the Central American University, one of the main voices of opposition to the government.

Former-United States-Ambassador-to-El-Salvador-Colonel-Ronald-Johnson
Former US Ambassador Ronald Johnson with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.

Johnson’s presence during Bukele’s tirade was no small gesture; it was a full-blown accolade. The day before that conference, six Republican congressmen had sent a letter to Bukele in which they expressed concern about the negotiations between his government and the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs, which he had already reported at the time. The lighthouse and that in the last two months it has even been confirmed by US judicial authorities. One of the signers of that letter was Mario Díaz-Balart, a hard-line Republican close to Trump.

In October 2020, a Salvadoran journalist asked Mari Carmen Aponte, the US ambassador to San Salvador between 2012 and 2015, about Johnson’s actions and silences. Aponte attributed them to the lines that the ambassador received from the White House before going to El Salvador: “We ambassadors have instructions … We have a constitutional obligation to represent the president of the United States … I think there are limits for President Trump, who they have to do with undocumented migration, yes, as long as El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico control this migration, then we neither see nor hear ”, said Aponte.

After his departure, Johnson returned to Florida and, according to the consulted State Department official and a US government adviser who is closely familiar with the Bukele government and the investigations that a task force has undertaken against Salvadoran officials over the pact with the gangs, he has remained close to the Salvadoran president in an ad-honorem consultant capacity.

An ambassador, an intelligence operator, a friend, a lobster dinner

Ronald Douglas Johnson has been an influential man in the United States Southern Command (SouthCom), stationed in Florida, and the main link of the US military with Latin America.

Johnson retired with honors from the Army with the rank of Colonel in 1998 and, since retirement, has become one of the SouthCom’s main links to the intelligence community in Washington. He was, in fact, an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA in English), from where he served as a link between the agency and the military establishment.

“His extensive experience… deep understanding of America’s priorities, and the ability he has shown to work effectively on a complex series of issues in the multi-agency environment (of the US government) make him an excellent candidate to serve as a ambassador to El Salvador, ”reads a note that Trump’s State Department prepared for the Senate in May 2019, in the weeks leading up to Johnson’s confirmation as envoy to San Salvador.

A Salvadoran official who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assured Infobae that Johnson’s mission to El Salvador was to remove Bukele from the shadow of Beijing. “The president had already caused discomfort with his trip to China”Says the diplomat in reference to the visit that the Salvadoran made in December 2019 to Beijing and that, according to half a dozen officials consulted in Washington, was what soured the relationship between Bukele and Jean Manes, who then served as ambassador in San Salvador.

Former-United States-Ambassador-to-El-Salvador-Colonel-Ronald-Johnson
Ronald Johnson and his wife Alina.

Manes, in fact, understood Bukele’s approach to China as a kind of betrayal, especially after it had been her, after the Salvadoran was elected president at the beginning of 2019, who opened the doors of Washington to him.

From the time he came to the end of his stay, Johnson made his anti-China agenda clear. “The only thing China finds that they are interested in here in El Salvador is that it is a way to provoke the United States and become irritating,” he told reporters during a session in October of that year.

Bukele danced that son and fulfilled the other requirement of Trumpism, which, as the former ambassador Aponte pointed out, had to do with following Washington’s instructions on the immigration issue. The Salvadoran government had even launched a border patrol in September 2019, whose life was rather fleeting.

Three days before Christmas Eve 2019, a photo, also posted on Twitter, spoke of an intimate relationship. It’s the image of Bukele and Johnson smiling at a table full of crab-legged plates in Miami.

The complicity between the president and the ambassador only grew closer. The validating presence of the US envoy at the conference in which Bukele declared himself an enemy of the independent press and Johnson’s complicit silence after the takeover of Congress, followed, in November 2020, the matter of a tweet in which the diplomat criticized deputies opposed to Bukele for embarking on “games” after a legislative decision contrary to the president. Johnson later deleted the tweet and denied what was written.

The relationship was so deep that, as confirmed to Infobae two U.S. diplomats who served in El Salvador and advised Joe Biden‘s campaign for the presidency in 2020, Johnson even ignored information about the pact between Bukele and the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs that embassy officials in San Salvador were beginning to uncover. and of which they reported regularly.

US officials attached to the State Department and the Department of Justice who served in the embassy in San Salvador in 2020 supported the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, then headed by lawyer Raúl Melara, in the investigation of the pact between the government and the gangs. As part of their work, they informed Johnson and Washington of their findings, one of Biden’s campaign advisers confirmed.

It was not until Johnson’s departure in early 2021 that the investigation took off and that much of the documented data and evidence collected in 2020 went on to feed the investigation of a US special task force called Vulcano. Eventually, That investigation, which Ambassador Johnson had ignored, ended up in the hands of the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York, which has already announced a criminal indictment to Bukele officials. directly involved in the pact.

Upon Johnson’s departure, Biden’s State Department again sent Jean Manes, as charge d’affaires, to deal with Bukele. The matter did not end well. Manes withdrew from San Salvador in late 2021 announcing that the relationship with Washington was seriously damaged and that the Salvadoran president had no interest in working with the United States. Bukele and his propaganda apparatus responded by accusing Manes and other Biden officials of interference and even accused Washington of funding the government’s political opponents.

As the link between San Salvador and the White House hit the lowest point in the history of the bilateral relationship, the good vibes between Nayib Bukele and former Ambassador Ronald Johnson continues. According to the State Department official consulted for this note, and who spoke from anonymity because he was not authorized to do so in public, it is not only the Christmas tweet that generates Bukele’s nostalgia; there is, the American official assures, a longing for the return of the days of Trumpism. A Salvadoran official who works in the Bukele Executive agrees: “There are a lot of people, from Republican circles, selling to them, not only the president of El Salvador, but also politicians in Guatemala, that Trump is preparing to return and that, if it happens, things will change ”.

Political calculations aside, No omens of a prosperous 2022 between Bukele and Joe Biden’s White House.


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