Bukele Lobbyist Received $325,000 in Three Months to Court MAGA Politicians

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One of the authors of Nayib Bukele’s strategy for approaching the Make America Great Again movement in the United States is Argentinian advisor Damian Mathías Merlo Denebardi. Merlo is registered with the US Department of Justice since January 2022 as a lobbyist on behalf of the Office of the President of El Salvador through Latin America Advisory Group LLC, where he is a managing partner.

US public records show the payments he received for some of this work. Between April and June 2023, Merlo’s company took in five transfers of $65,000 each, totaling $325,000, for at least nine months of work at that time on behalf of the Bukele administration. At the time of filing, he was set to receive a sixth outstanding payment, bringing it to $390,000, but records available online do not state whether this later check was issued. On February 13, Merlo submitted documents to the Department of Justice, stating that his contract with the Salvadoran presidency would expire in less than four months, on May 31, 2024.

While the Salvadoran government’s own public information portal does not provide information about his contractual obligations, the US documents show his lobbying efforts to strengthen relations between El Salvador and the US, mainly by reaching out to congressional Republicans and right-wing influencers who support Donald Trump. These documents also reveal a photocopy of the contract he signed in January 2022 with Claudia Juana Rodríguez de Guevara, then Bukele’s private secretary.

In February 2024, Bukele lobbyist Damian Merlo met at CPAC with Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, respectively the director of CPAC and former director of strategic communications for the Trump administration.

Donald Trump Jr. (bottom right), Damian Merlo (wearing glasses), Matt Schlapp (standing) and Kimberly Guilfoyle (center-left) at the Casa Presidencial in San Salvador for a reception following the June 1 inauguration.

Documents filed under the Foreign Agents Registry Act (FARA) record at least 15 meetings with conservative US politicians, some of whom traveled to San Salvador for the inauguration of Bukele’s unconstitutional second term. Among them is Florida Congresswoman María Elvira Salazar, chair of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Foreign Affairs. A report filed by Merlo listed one text message, four emails and an in-person meeting with Salazar — a former journalist close to right-wing movements in the hemisphere who has endorsed Donald Trump for president this year — in May and June 2023.

Salazar appeared at the National Palace for Bukele’s inauguration alongside Venezuelan adviser Sara Hanna, a key operative in the president’s inner circle, and Colombian politician Carlos Felipe Mejía, who is close to former president Álvaro Uribe. After the ceremony, Salazar posed for a picture with Bukele, write online that “we need a Bukele in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua”.

Merlo, a foreign policy adviser to the Bukele brothers, bills himself as one of a kind ambassador to the Trump-affiliated right. El Faro asked the presidency’s communications secretariat via phone calls and text messages whether the meetings recorded in the US FARA reports were held to invite a MAGA delegation to Bukele’s inauguration, but the presidency did not respond.

While Merlo has yet to report his 2024 lobbying activities to the Justice Department, in February he met at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland with Matt Schlapp, chairman of the conference, and Mercedes Schlapp, who from 2017 to 2019 was the director of strategic communications for Trump White House. They attended Bukele’s inauguration in June along with former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson (2019-2021), Merlo and Donald Trump Jr., a surrogate for his father and head of the Trump Organization.

The FARA reports also show that Merlo has met with far-right influencers Tucker Carlson and Emmanuel Rincón. They are recording communications with the office of U.S. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who also attended Bukele’s inauguration, and with other conservatives who did not attend the swearing-in, such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio, a prominent member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that is key to Republican policy in Latin America, has criticized the Biden administration’s sanctions against members of the Bukele administration and for the past two years has fostered a thaw between the US embassy and the Bukele administration.

These public records of the Salvadoran lobby in Washington point to public funds invested by the Bukele administration in an ongoing and concerted effort to strengthen ties with the US Republican Party.

From left to right, posing in San Salvador at the June 2024 inauguration: Trump fundraiser Kimberly Guilfoyle, Donald Trump Jr., Nayib Bukele, political consultant Alex Bruesewitz with model and romantic partner Delanie Flynn and Salvadoran Communications Secretary Sofía Medina.

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