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El Salvador’s president pledges continued fight against gang violence

Despite the promise, civic and human rights activists question President Nayib Bukele’s strong-arm tactics that some liken to a dictator.
El Salvador

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, left, and his wife, Gabriela Rodriguez, wave to supporters from the balcony of the presidential palace in San Salvador, El Salvador, after polls closed for general elections on Feb. 4. Photo: The Associated Press

The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador has been defined by its poverty, corruption, and gang-led violence. This has led millions of its residents to leave for safer countries, including the United States. 

In 2019, Nayib Bukele, a businessman and former mayor of the country’s capital San Salvador, was elected president with the promise of transforming the country and invigorating the stagnant economy. 

His tactics for eradicating the gang violence included establishing a continued state of emergency that has led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of suspected gang members, news reports said. 

Human rights organizations claim that this continued state of emergency has allowed for thousands of innocent victims to be jailed without any legal recourse. On Feb. 4, Bukele was reelected with 83 percent of the vote. Some call him a “popular dictator.”   

John Twichell, a lecturer and director of Latin American Studies at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, sheds light on what lies ahead for El Salvador. 

What is the political situation in El Salvador right now? 

Politics in El Salvador hinges on national and citizen security, partly because of decades of gang violence and organized crime, and partly because Nayib Bukele has skillfully securitized Salvadoran politics to further his own authority and incumbency. 

Under Bukele’s leadership since 2019, El Salvador’s number of incarcerated has dramatically risen to an estimated 105,000, or 1.7 percent of the 6.3 million population. 

In parallel, under its leadership, the Bukele government has reduced the national homicide rate from the alarming 105 per 100,000 residents (in 2015) down to the current 8 murders per 100,000 residents, which is equal to that of the U.S. 

As indicated by the presidential election outcome, the electorate approves of the results brought by Bukele’s “law and order” or “mano dura” policies on crime and violence while they have up to now apparently been willing to overlook the associated broad curbing of—and many particular cases of violations of—human rights. 

Yet, beyond a divided political opposition, there is noticeable resistance to Bukele’s securitization of crime and gangs, and his ostensible rule by decree since 2022. 

International nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are at the forefront of civil society actors challenging Bukele’s methods in restoring security in El Salvador. The number of academics and family members of those imprisoned merely on suspicion of crimes is also growing, accompanied by mounting domestic and international criticism of the harsh strategies and tactics tied to Bukele’s ongoing rule by decree. 

The question is how long the vast majority of Salvadorans will continue to back Bukele’s strongman approach to governing. In the short-term, it appears the majority of the electorate dismisses such criticisms and outcries, apparently more satisfied by increased safety, economic prosperity, and a greater sense of a return to normalcy on the streets of their neighborhoods. 

President Nayib Bukele is seen by many as an authoritarian dictator. How did he get this reputation? 

Bukele is a millennial whose previous career was as a publicist and media expert; this is someone who knows the ropes of both politics and social media and what it takes to master digital platforms to promote narratives that serve Bukele’s own interests and those of his New Ideas party. He unabashedly dares others to provoke him on Twitter (X), with his previous profile header proclaiming himself to be “el dictador más cool del mundo mundial” which translates to “the world’s coolest dictator,” recently updated to "Philosopher King."  

In 2022, Bukele declared a state of emergency to address issues of crime and violence, and as noted above, that decree remains in place today. The decree suspended such civil rights as due process and public assembly, while granting the government extraordinary powers to surveil, arrest, and imprison suspected criminals. 

The legislative assembly, currently controlled by Bukele’s New Ideas party, in 2023 passed judicial reforms granting prosecutors the ability to conduct mass trials—of as many as 900 persons—among those imprisoned as “terrorists” on suspicion of crimes. The mass trials have provoked outrage among those near and far, resistant to Bukele’s manipulation of democratic institutions previously set up to regulate the exercise of power. 

This, plus the perceived unconstitutionality of his reelection bid—in 2021, the Supreme Court overturned a 2014 reaffirming vote of El Salvador’s constitution which prohibits immediate presidential reelection—have earned Bukele a reputation he is outwardly proud of; that of an authoritarian dictator. 

He has won the presidential election, and his party rules the Congress. What makes him so popular?

Bukele and his New Ideas party went into last month’s election with the decreased crime and citizen security data, to point to and take credit for, along with other policies and programs such as the Centers for Urban Wellbeing and Opportunities (CUBOs) aimed at local community socioeconomic development, empowerment, and inclusion, 12 of which are now up and running, nearly halfway to achieving the goal of building 30. 

Such data and initiatives aimed at delivering the goods have definitely contributed to New Ideas’ consolidation of single party rule in El Salvador. Equally significant in this case is the broader anti-establishment trend in politics throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, upheld going into last month’s election. While Bukele and New Ideas were the incumbent in that race, they are still considered anti-establishment in contrast to the center-right ARENA and left-wing FMLN, both of which presented candidates, but neither of which were competitive, due in part to voter perceptions of ARENA and FMLN as being historically corrupt and inept.

As for its popularity, leading up to last month’s election, New Ideas cleverly harnessed state-run media and social media platforms to promote false choice narratives between its own policies and those of the opposition. For example, New Ideas claimed that if the opposition were to win the presidency, they would set free all imprisoned suspected criminals, thus returning El Salvador to its crime-ridden and violent times of a decade ago that most voters still vividly recall. In the eyes of a steadfastly loyal base, Bukele and New Ideas have delivered results in fighting crime and insecurity on the streets of El Salvador, restoring a sense of normalcy to the lives of everyday Salvadorans.

Could Bukele’s strong hand toward crime be exported to other countries in the region?

As the nature of transnationally-linked organized crime and the violence tied to it continues to threaten the security of Caribbean and Latin American countries, there does appear to be a growing regional diffusion effect brought about by an envy of sorts of the beneficial short-term results of Bukele’s strongman approach to insecurity, whereby confounded political leaders and candidates running in elections to replace them are, at least in rhetorical terms, promising to go the way of Bukele in their own efforts to address spreading problems of drug and human trafficking combined with gang violence.

Yet, as the outcome of Guatemala’s 2023 presidential election in which even the left-leaning candidate Sandra Torres vowed to adopt Bukele’s approach to crime prevention illustrates, each country’s politics is unique, with the majority of Guatemalans ultimately favoring Torres’ runoff opponent Bernardo Arevalo in a race determined more by Arevalo’s promise to end corruption, with Torres having been perceived as an archetype of that corruption. 

Moreover, as we see in the case of state failure in Haiti, a distinction must be made by political leaders and the international community between situations of organized violence that call for exercise of the rule of law and justice as opposed to military responses—with the case in Haiti now tending toward the latter even though gangs are still Haiti’s greatest threat. 

So, all of this is to say that while the case of El Salvador and Bukele’s handling of the security situation there may be an attractive example for politicians elsewhere in the region to aspire to, the likelihood that any rhetoric they deploy being converted into actionable policy would face countless contextual challenges. 

Have government policies helped the economy of the country? 

Yes, Bukele’s draconian law and order security policies and the targeting of gangs have yielded some positive economic results for El Salvador over the past three years. 

One of the most immediate economic results of the eradication of gang activity has been the elimination of rampant extortion—whereby gang members would, on a daily basis, collect tolls from and force other forms of “protection” upon nearly all everyday Salvadorans in exchange for payments—which posed a huge drag on the economy. 

Free of extortion threats in an environment of restored and relative public safety, there are renewed signs of local businesses opening. That, combined with El Salvador’s rebound as a destination of international tourism, has generated a favorable influx of foreign currency to the benefit of the government and broader economy. Still, the apparent tradeoffs are stark if one considers the limits to civil liberties and human rights being imposed to breathe new life into El Salvador’s economy.