Two years have passed since Nayib Bukele was elected El Salvador’s 43rd president. He has since made quite an impact on his country. He has drastically changed the way the rest of the world sees El Salvador–from a country unable to get itself back up from a civil war, to one that can boom under the right leadership. However, has this leader been the right choice for El Salvador’s democracy? Is a president calling himself the “coolest Dictator in the World” someone we ought to worry about?
Early on in his presidency, Nayib Bukele stated that he would crack down on gangs in El Salvador. The country was facing a massive issue with MS-13 gang violence, giving the impression that it was not safe to visit. According to insight crime, per every 100,000 inhabitants there were 60 murders in 2015. Bukele was determined to change this and said he would mobilize troops and police officers to finally crack down on the gangs. At first, many were applauding the efforts to finally restore safety for both citizens and visitors. However, as time went on, observers began to see the true extent of Bukele’s crackdown on gang activity in El Salvador.
Additionally, many began to see how the crackdowns may have been potentially failing due to Covid-19 restrictions. For example, with law enforcement trying to enforce the restrictions on large gatherings for the public, they began to lose focus on gang activity throughout the country and gang members were arrested at a lower rate.
While those on the outside saw an opportunity to be on the run from law enforcement, those on the inside walls of prison experienced cruel treatment. In particular, the harsh policies of the new leadership have led to inhumane prison conditions: gang members have been confined in small, packed rooms with rival gang members. Images show them sometimes nearly naked (with just clothing to cover up specific areas) and chained together while sitting on the floor. These practices have been denounced by international human rights groups.
In addition to the various amounts of human rights being stripped away the government has no shame in it. In fact, they are openly allowing journalists to go inside the cells and document everything that goes on. Alongside that are allegations that the Bukele held secret talks with gang leaders in these jails. These allegations, first made public by newspaper source El Faro, claim that “…gang leaders were asked to reduce violence and support President Nayib Bukele.”
As a result, democracy itself is taking steps backwards. According to V-Dem El Salvador actually became less democratic in 2020. El Salvador fell between a score of 0.3 and 0.4.
The low scores in democracy do not stop there for Bukele’s El Salvador. According to Freedom House they score a 63/100 when it comes to global freedom. What do these numbers mean for El Salvador? This score is a total of two different scores: Political Rights with a score of 30 out of 40 and Civil Liberties with its score at a 33 out of 60.
From one domestic issue to the next, Bukele is no stranger to making his point across–even if it means taking drastic measures. Within the first half of his presidency he marched troops into El Salvador’s assembly chambers and overthrew 5 members of the court. Though the incident did not escalate it showed that Bukele was not going to let anyone stand in his way of making his country as good as it can be. He is willing to throw out the playbook of democracy in order to get things moving even if it means casting out those who oppose him.
Aleman, Marcos. “El Salvador’s Jail Crackdown on Gang Members Could Backfire.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 29 Apr. 2020, https://apnews.com/d8643205d614d11d413f655d49a0487b.
Gagne, David. “InSight Crime’s 2015 Homicide Round-Up.” InSight Crime, 30 Apr. 2020, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/insight-crime-homicide-round-up-2015-latin-america-caribbean/.
Grant, Will. “Did El Salvador’s Government Make a Deal with Gangs?” BBC News, BBC, 2 Oct. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54192736.
House, Freedom. Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/el-salvador/freedom-world/2021. Accessed 2021.
Institute, V-Dem. “Image Showing How More or Less Democratic Countries Have Become in 2020.” V-Dem, 2020, https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/a0/69/a069b87a-1c41-49eb-90ec-cbc949320197/figure_4_a.png. Accessed 2021.
News, BBC. “El Salvador Granted Favours to Jailed Gang Leaders, Report Says.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Sept. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-54033444.
News, Latin. “El Salvador: Bukele Cracks down on Mara Gangs.” EL SALVADOR: Bukele Cracks down on Mara Gangs, 2019, https://www.latinnews.com/component/k2/item/80687-el-salvador-bukele-cracks-down-on-mara-gangs.html.
When it comes to Latin American countries, I have always taken a Machiavellian lens to look at politics in the respective countries. As a result of rampant corruption, overwhelming poverty, and all the other issues that plague developing countries sometimes drastic measures are needed. The problem of gangs is one that El Salvador does not have the infrastructure or finances to deal with properly. Everyone has seen the pictures of gang members in tight cells and treated inhumanely but how should they be treated. It would be interesting to see a poll on how Salvadorans feel gang members should be treated in prison and perhaps that would give light as to why there is not a significant movement to push for better conditions. Although both COVID restrictions and harsh criminal penalties seem draconian it cannot be overlooked that since Bukele took office murder rates decreased and COVID infections have been comparably less than in neighboring countries. I think there is more substance to be analyzed as to why El Salvador’s V-Dem score decreased.
Crime Rates Stats. The El Salvador President’s Informal Pact with Gangs – InSight Crime
COVID-19 Stats. El Salvador: the latest coronavirus counts, charts and maps (reuters.com)
Hey Diego, really great writing about El Savdor and the effect Nayib Bukele has had on the country. Like all populist Bukele promoted the regulations of gangs under the banner of Democracy. However, his real intentions were to have these gangs work alongside him. This is just another way of maintaining power and control, one thing that we know populist like Bukele are very good at. Further, I really like how you mention the way this has affected human rights. Also you backed this up by empathizing that this has made the country less democratic, according to the V-Dem report. I wonder what other infrastructures of society has Bukele infiltrated for personal gains? Better yet, has he swiveled his hands into effecting policy and different branches? Perhaps the most interesting thing you blog allows me to interpret is the lasting effects populist leaders leave even after their passing. This was a short but great read!
Hey Diego, really great writing about El Salvador and the effect Nayib Bukele has had on the country. Like all populist leaders, Bukele promoted the regulations of gangs under the banner of Democracy. However, his real intentions were to have these gangs work alongside him. This is just another way of maintaining power and control, one thing that we know populist like Bukele are very good at. Further, I really like how you mention the way this has affected human rights. Also you backed this up by empathizing that this has made the country less democratic, according to the V-Dem report. I wonder what other infrastructures of society has Bukele infiltrated for personal gains? Better yet, has he swiveled his hands into effecting policy and different branches of government? Perhaps the most interesting thing your blog allows me to interpret is the lasting effects populist leaders leave even after their passing. This was a short but great read!