El Salvador is a country that many Americans have heard of but very few know a lot about. The nation has experienced a long history of turmoil with several military dictatorships and a civil war that claimed the lives of more than 75,000 people. Against this backdrop, El Salvador has become the most dangerous country in the world. Peaking at 105 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate has declined sharply since then. With the 2019 election of Nayib Bukele, the homicide rate has dropped by 50% over the course of 2 years. This sudden drop can be attributed to Bukele’s hardline policy of arresting suspected gang members en masse. Although El Salvador has objectively become a safer country, this has come at the cost of severe democratic erosion.
Nayib Bukele was elected as a staunch populist. El Salvador’s politics since the Civil War has been defined by a two-party system between the right-wing ARENA party and the left-wing FMLN. According to Jan-Wener Müller, populists, although hard to define, traditionally run on a strong anti-establishment platform. Populists also claim to be the sole representative of “the people”. This is the idea that there is a group of citizens who represent the “true” values of the nation and have been wronged by the system. Bukele embodied these core ideals when he took advantage of the skyrocketing homicide rate and entrenched political system. Instead of offering actual reforms, Bukele instead opted to launch vicious attacks against the establishment, he jokingly asked, “with ‘all due decorum, that you bastards return what’s been stolen!’”. With this strong rhetoric, Bukele was able to strike a chord with a discontent population and won a landslide in the 2019 Presidential Election.
By claiming to be a representative of the people, it is normal to wonder, how exactly is populism “undemocratic”? After all, Bukele did win a majority of the vote and did run on a platform of power to the people. The problem doesn’t lie with what Bukele stands for, it’s how he has used these issues to justify democratic backsliding. In Sheri Berman’s The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism, Berman explains that populism leads to what she calls an “illiberal democracy”. That is, a democracy where the basic institutions are still there (voting, representation, an opposition movement) but safeguards and rights such as checks and balances and freedom of speech are taken away.
Bukele’s first step was to erode checks and balances. This came in the form of attacking the judicial branch. Right after his party won a supermajority in the National Assembly in 2021, but Bukele had his allies pass a law that allows his government to remove any justice or prosecutor older than 60. Not only did he strip away the job security of ~30% of the judiciary, Bukele also had the National Assembly purge the judiciary and pack it with his allies.
Once he captured the institutions of government, Bukele then set his sights on waging an information war. According to Müller, populists often seek to portray themselves as a “direct representative” of the people. To do this, they actively seek to undermine public trust in the media. Bukele achieved this by dismissing independent media as “fake news”, launching a cyber-attack against a critical newspaper, and breaking into the homes of journalists and seizing their laptops. These incidents only scratch the surface of a wider crackdown on free speech.
If this wasn’t brazen enough, Bukele has also been found of creating false narratives online. Another common aspect that populists do is act as a direct messenger to the people. Part of Bukele’s appeal stems from his extensive use of social media; he frequently touts himself as a mouthpiece for the people. From sharing memes to using colorful language, Bukele has successfully been able to win the support of younger Salvadorans. A report by Peter Pomerantsev found that authoritarian regimes often create “troll farms” and bots to spread disinformation and cultivate this appeal. In Bukele’s case, his regime has used bots and trolls to polarize society and promote his image. Analysis done by Jane Esberg revealed that Bukele’s government used bots to spread the hashtags #DictatorBukele and #WhatALovelyDictatorship. These activities were done in the hopes of artificially inflating support for Bukele’s policies and discrediting the opposition.
With all of these actions, Bukele finally rallied his government and supporters against a common enemy: gangs. In the book How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that a key trait of authoritarians is their tendency to take advantage of crises for political gain (192). As mentioned earlier, El Salvador has a high homicide rate. One of the main issues that Bukele ran on was tackling El Salvador’s gang issue by using an aggressive approach. Even though homicides remained high throughout his tenure, Bukele waited for the right opportunity to take advantage of the crisis. On the weekend from March 25-27 of this year, a massive spike in violence saw El Salvador lose over 80 people to gang violence. Immediately following this crisis, Bukele’s allies in the National Assembly granted the President a wide range of emergency powers. In the name of fighting crime, Salvadoran citizens essentially lost most of their rights.
Bukele’s emergency powers prompted his government to declare a war on gang violence. The emergency powers included measures that suspend the right to free assembly, the right to know of your criminal charges, the right to a lawyer, and the ability of the government to imprison anyone for up to 2 weeks without charges. In a crackdown still happening to this day, the Army and National Police launched a nationwide campaign to arrest suspected gang members. Since March, over 53,000 people have been arrested under these suspicions. Because detainees are not afforded basic legal rights, almost all of them have remained in prison.
The crackdown has led to El Salvador’s prisons being overcrowded. Human rights groups have documented appalling conditions the prisoners are forced to endure. Coupled with torture and abuse, the prisoners are stuffed into suffocatingly small cells. These cells lack any form of ventilation or privacy and do not have running water. The cells are so crowded that there is no room to lie down, “[a prisoner] spent his first night in prison standing up”. Sicknesses such as COVID-19 have also spread among the prisoners. In front of Bukele’s cameras, the prisoners are stripped down to their underwear while security forces search them. This humanitarian crisis shows how Bukele has favored more political power over upholding human rights.
It is inarguable that El Salvador has become much safer in the past 3 years. However, as seen through this year’s gang crackdown, this has come at the cost of basic democratic rights. Bukele’s use of populist ideals to justify his capture of the courts, use of disinformation, and dehumanizing treatment proves that El Salvador’s democracy has eroded. We must draw attention to this crisis and hold Bukele accountable for his actions. Only then can we restore El Salvador’s democracy.
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