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El Salvador's power-hungry president, citing gang murders, suspends important rights

In El Salvador, 89 people were killed over four days, a level of violence not seen for decades.
IMage: Alleged gang members are brought to a detention center in San Salvador, El Salvador, on March 29, 2022.
Alleged gang members are brought to a detention center in San Salvador, El Salvador, on Tuesday.Camilo Freedman / SOPA Images via Getty Images

There is no disputing that El Salvador President Nayib Bukele is one of the most popular leaders in the Western Hemisphere, with approval ratings of around 84 percent. The 40-year-old Bukele stormed onto the world scene in 2019, surpassing the 50 percent election threshold, and ever since, he’s caused people to debate whether he's a true dynamo or just a politician who has tapped into the fears of his people for his own political gain.

For a country that is still suffering from a gang problem, Bukele is the savior, the country’s latest hope.

Many Salvadorans undoubtedly adore Bukele. His social media presence has turned the tables on traditional Central American politics. His love of cryptocurrency has been billed as forward-thinking and innovative by crypto advocates (no surprise there). For a country that has not yet fully recovered from a 12-year civil war and is still suffering from a gang problem that actually originated in the United States, Bukele is the savior, the country’s latest hope.

Sound too perfect? It is. As with any politician, particularly in a region that has a history of caudillo-like leadership, there is perception and then there is reality.

To his critics, Buekele is not a savior. To them, his administration is just a modern autocratic government that is anti-press, anti-democracy and maybe even corrupt.

The latest news from the Central American country is yet another example of the Bukele illusion. After 89 people were killed in just four days — a level of violence the country hadn’t seen in 20 years — the country’s Congress declared a 30-day state of emergency, suspending the right to free assembly and essentially giving police and judges immense power to round up anyone they want in the interest of public safety.

Bukele’s latest acts were part of a bigger plan to achieve full political power, considering that in 2020, he convened a special session of the country’s legislators by showing up with armed soldiers as a means to pressure them to pass a crime-fighting bill. That 2020 move led to a 2021 vote (or another soft coup) by the country’s Legislative Assembly to remove the country’s top judges. In other words, the president who just declared a state of emergency is controlling the legislative and law enforcement branches that give him the power do to so.

As expected, Bukele was quick to be transparent on social media about the decree being passed, insisting it would benefit El Salvador and that, as he tweeted, “a message to the gangs: because of your actions, now your homeboys will not see even one ray of sunlight.” On Tuesday, he tweeted the following in English, making sure the world knew that this new state of emergency was his idea and proof of him being tough: “Do you know how many countries have decided to help us in the war against gangs? Exactly: NONE. Do not come later and try to tell us what we should have done or not do, when at the moment that we could have needed your help, you left us alone.” In fact, it was U.S. immigration policy of the 1990s that led to the expedited deportations of gang members from Los Angeles back to El Salvador that created the problem Bukele is raising.

The expedited deportations of gang members from Los Angeles back to El Salvador created the problem Bukele is raising.

The news out of El Salvador this week include reports of “mass arrests, the cordoning off of neighborhoods and house-by-house searches,” but those emergency measures haven’t satisfied Bukele. According to The Associated Press, he’s asking El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly “to give him more legal tools to take on gangs.”

“Instead of protecting Salvadorans, this broad state of emergency is a recipe for disaster that puts their rights at risk,” a Human Rights Watch statement said Tuesday. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also spoken out, condemning, according to reports, “measures that keep incarcerated gang members inside their cells 24 hours a day and reduce their food to two meals a day.”

Has Bukele’s latest tough talk been effective, or is he just saving face, constitutional rights be damned?

There’s no simple conclusion to draw. Apparently, a much-publicized truce Bukele made with gangs last year — a truce he and his administration deny — appears to be just window dressing. As a spokesperson for the country’s National Civil police union told the independent news outlet El Faro, “The gangs are sending a forceful message: They are in charge. They are saying that they can increase or decrease homicides when they see fit.”

Bukele loyalists (and there are many) are quick to argue that El Faro, one of the most prestigious news outlets in Latin America, is just out to get their president. It is one reason why El Faro and others have felt Bukele’s wrath. Late last year, it was reported that the Bukele administration installed spyware on the phones of dozens of journalists and activists. (Full disclosure: El Faro is featured on the news site I founded.)

Still, Bukele will follow his own rules, so much so that the United States appears almost powerless, a rare occurrence in a region historically dictated by U.S. policy. Even with allegations that some members of his government have been labeled corrupt by the U.S. State Department, Bukele knows he ultimately does not have to answer to American charges.

To a majority of Salvadorans, Bukele is the answer, but are Salvadorans willing to give up all their freedoms?

He answers to Salvadorans and, right now, he is still popular. After 89 murders over a four-day span, according to reports, there were only two on Monday.

I’ve been a victim of the gangs, I’ve paid them (extortion),” one Salvadoran told The AP this week. “They should lock them all up.”

To a majority of Salvadorans, Bukele is the answer, but are they willing to give up all of their freedoms? Apparently so, for now, and it is understandable. Dealing with a gang issue brought in from the United States has taken a toll, and Bukele still seems to be succeeding with his messaging. Add that to the fact that he can control the press through intimidation and then take his message to social media where it won’t be challenged. It all adds up to Bukele winning.

If it means sacrificing actual democracy, Bukele clearly doesn’t care.