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Tweet For Tweet: El Salvador's President And U.S. Congresswoman Spar Over Migrants

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in 2019 in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Moises Castillo
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele in 2019 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

MEXICO CITY — El Salvador's president is urging voters in a California congressional district to vote out its U.S. representative in the latest back-and-forth spat between the Central American head of state and one of Congress' most vocal critics of the region's leaders.

President Nayib Bukele and Democratic Rep. Norma Torres have been exchanging very undiplomatic barbs on Twitter this week.

U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., speaks in August 2019 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, as part of a congressional delegation exploring the causes of immigration to the U.S. from Central America.
Oliver de Ros / AP
U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., speaks in August 2019 in Guatemala City as part of a congressional delegation exploring the causes of immigration to the U.S. from Central America.

Torres, who was born in Guatemala, fired the first salvo Wednesday when she retweeted a disturbing video released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection showing two toddler sisters being dropped into the United States by smugglers straddling a 14-foot-tall border wall. The two were picked up by U.S. agents and given medical attention.

Along with a link to the video, Torres tweeted — in Spanish — that the incident is "a great shame for the governments of #Guatemala #Honduras #ElSalvador their compatriots deserve governments that are truly committed to fighting corruption and narco[trafficking]!"

The two girls, ages 3 and 5, are from Ecuador, not any of the three countries Torres mentioned. The majority of the unaccompanied minors currently coming across the U.S. border are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, collectively known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, according to CBP.

El Salvador's Bukele, an avid Twitter user, hit back fast with his own Spanish-language tweet. "Look ma'am, did you read that the children are from ECUADOR and not from EL SALVADOR? Also, this happened on the border of Mexico with the United States. What does El Salvador have to do with this?"

The Salvadoran president then told Torres that she should buy some glasses with a portion of her "financier's checks."

That appeared to be a reference to billionaire financier George Soros. Bukele has often blasted U.S. lawmakers critical of his administration for taking donations from Soros' Open Society Foundations, which says it works on multiple projects throughout Central America to build "just, inclusive democracies" and has been at odds with Bukele.

U.S. lawmakers, human rights advocates and anti-corruption activists have increasingly warned of the Salvadoran leader's autocratic style since he swept into office in 2019. Bukele condemns critics, including the country's high court and the media, and even sent troops into the Legislative Assembly after lawmakers rejected one of his budgets.

But Bukele, at 39 the youngest president in Latin America, is extremely popular. He is often seen wearing a backward baseball cap and sports clothes, and his Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) party won big in last month's legislative elections, taking control of the national legislature.

Torres, one of Bukele's leading critics, kept up the tweet for tweet — this time in English — calling the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border the result of "narcissistic dictators like you interested in being 'cool' while people flee by the 1000s & die by the 100s."

She countered Bukele's suggestion that she buy some glasses: "Send me a pair of glasses so I may see the suffering of your people through your eyes." And Torres attached a picture that went viral in 2019 during a previous surge of Central American migrants at the border under the Trump administration. The image was of the lifeless bodies of a Salvadoran father and his daughter on the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas.

In response, Bukele pointed out that he wasn't president at the time, and in another tweet urged all Salvadorans and others from Latin America living in Torres' congressional district in Southern California not to vote for her.

The four-term Torres is not up for reelection until 2022. She defeated her Republican rival last year in the heavily Democratic 35th Congressional Districtwith 70% of the vote.

A spokesperson for Bukele told NPR, seeking comment, that the president's tweets speak for themselves. And a spokesperson for Torres said the congresswoman was traveling Friday and unavailable for an interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.