El Salvador’s Bukele Has Become the Very Thing He Swore To Destroy
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Latin America’s most authoritarian president has once again shown his contempt for the rule of law.

On November 22nd, the authoritarian government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador released Johana Flores, who Bukele alleges was a member of the Barrio 18 gang. She was jailed without a trial or access to a lawyer, the latest abuse in Bukele’s national state of exception, which has allowed him to suspend constitutional and legal rights in the name of national security. 

With no evidence of gang involvement, she was released, and her life was ruined after being labeled a “terrorist” by an extremely popular and reckless president. 

In the past El Salvador, along with many of its other Central American neighbours, has faced a crippling security crisis, reaching a homicide rate of 104 per 100,000 in 2015, making it the most dangerous place in the world. 

To meet the challenge, Bukele has embraced “mano dura” (iron fist) policies, suspending liberties and upending democratic institutions in favor of unilateral power to jail, torture, censure, or kill anyone deemed dangerous to the state. 

While data shows his play has worked, with El Salvador’s homicide rate now at 7.8 and still dropping Bukele’s own career is rife with examples of successful alternatives that would not cost the country its democratic future. 

Before turning into a darling of the American far-right, Bukele was a socialist — a member of the most established far-left party in El Salvador. He quickly climbed the ranks, becoming mayor of both Nuevo Cuscatlán and his hometown of San Salvador. 

As mayor, he pursued policies where crime reduction went hand in hand with poverty reduction and socio-economic development. He first instituted public food distribution programs for the malnourished and impoverished. 

Similar to what some American states such as Texas have done, he offered merit scholarships for any kid with a high GPA to attend any public university — even donating his salary to the scholarship fund. He started various clinics to provide needed medical care to his residents. 

Bukele also helped build public infrastructure and local transportation to connect the cities with their peripheries, employing many and ensuring no one is trapped in the crime that often plagues the urban margins of many Latin American cities. He built libraries, community centers, and public schools, and made life more affordable for most residents. 

As a result, crime dropped sharply in Nuevo Cuscatlán and San Salvador while he was mayor. In his three-year term at Nuevo Cuscatlán, only one murder was reported, a new normal for the town. The same followed in San Salvador, which dramatically cut its homicide rate as a result of Bukele’s public economic programs. 

Sadly, Bukele has abandoned this vision for a safe and democratic El Salvador, embracing a much harsher view of security policy. He has reportedly signed a deal with the MS-13, the largest and deadliest gang in Central America, in exchange for relative peace, imprisoning his opponents and the gang’s rivals to form the largest prison state in the world. 

He suspended the constitution and amended it to allow himself to run for office again, and destroyed the Supreme Court before anybody could challenge him. He even sent the military into Congress to force a vote on his gang crackdown, which fell in his favor. Critics are intimidated either by him directly or by his army of internet trolls, leading to violent raids and deaths of journalists, NGO workers, and activists. 

What was once a rising Central American democracy has been replaced by the worst example of security-first politics.

Salvadorans deserve better, and only need to look at their own President’s past policies to see that their desire for both liberty and security is not a choice, but a package deal. 

Concerned citizens do not need to give up their rights for a fragile security built on negotiations between tyrants. Instead, they can embrace security through development, ensuring everyone has a right to a decent education, a vibrant community, a good job, and a responsible government, leaving them no socio-economic incentives to turn to crime. 

This Devil’s bargain might end up tempting more Latin American states, who are seeing organized crime, armed conflict, corruption, and government mismanagement ruin their lives and prospects. 

Confidence for democracy continues to decrease throughout the continent, and leaders like Bukele should be responsible enough not to embrace people’s fears, and instead embrace the most sensible policies. Otherwise, Latin America may revert to its authoritarian ways of the Cold War, and destroy all past democratic progress. 

A different, more democratic, future is possible for the country, and Salvadorans should ask for that in February 2024. 

Joseph Bouchard is a freelance journalist covering geopolitics in the Americas, with reporting experience in Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia. His articles have appeared in The Diplomat, Mongabay, Responsible Statecraft, The National Interest, and Reason Magazine. He is a contributor with Young Voices.