Exactly one year after the proclamation of a “state of exception” in El Salvador, Nayib Bukele is riding high like no other Latin American head of state, with at least 67 percent of Salvadorans wanting to re-elect him next year. And since he controls all three branches of the state, one can be sure that he will amend the Constitution that prohibits him from running again.
The 40-year-old president can indeed boast of having disrupted the maras (youth gangs) that had turned El Salvador into one of the most violent countries on earth during peacetime. Two organizations have been running rampant (or, one might say, had been) since the 1990s: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, both of which originated in Los Angeles and were transplanted to El Salvador as sons of immigrants were deported after serving sentences in California. These involved an estimated 70,000 youths, who controlled the city suburbs in particular, extorting all the businesses in the neighborhood.
Those who stepped out of line were killed, and the women raped. Not to mention the endless wars among the gangs over who controlled these areas, as extensive as they were marginal. It was all a desperate war between the poor, since the residential neighborhoods of the well-to-do remained well protected at all times.
After negotiating a kind of non-aggression pact with the pandillas for the first two years of his presidency, ever since the tragic last weekend of March 2022 (when 87 people were murdered) Bukele has suspended a number of constitutional guarantees and mobilized the army and police. Since then, 64,000 youths have been arrested (among them 1,200 minors) and prosecuted in a rough approximation of due process.
The Twitter-enamored president then went on to build, at record speed, the largest prison in the Americas (and perhaps the world) in Tecoluca, called the Terrorism Confinement Center, large enough for up to 40,000 mareros, with 19 surveillance towers and a 15,000-volt electric fence. This triggered yet more criticism from various international human rights organizations. Bukele responded against the criticisms in a public speech: “You reproach us for violating the rights of these poor criminals because we take away their mattresses; but where were you when they were taking the lives of so many Salvadorans?”
Then, a Twitter feud arose on the subject, somewhat paradoxically, between Bukele (who originally came from the ranks of the FMLN party of the former Salvadoran guerrillas) and Colombian President Gustavo Petro (a former M-19 guerrilla member himself), who pointed out that in Colombia they “didn’t build prisons, but universities,” and still managed to bring the number of murders per hundred thousand inhabitants down from 90 (in 1993) to today’s 13.
Bukele’s response – which garnered him high praise from Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio – pointed out that Pedro was talking about a 30-year process, during which he himself had not been in government; while in El Salvador they had managed to reach single digits within a year – “fast, because you can’t get the dead back.”
Sadly, Bukele’s “shortcut” seems to be turning out to be an insidiously authoritarian one that fails to get to the root of poverty and social inequality in this tiny yet densely-populated country, where the historic oligarchy doesn’t pay taxes to this day and has always treated the lower classes as serfs.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that getting around the streets of troubled El Salvador has never been as peaceful. And a good portion of its inhabitants, who used to be kept down and terrorized by threats from the gangs, are now raising their voices to denounce the abuses. They all hope the calm will last.
Then there was also Bukele’s failed introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender, of which he was the global trailblazer in September 2021; since then, its circulation has dwindled to a minimum. Nevertheless, the president continues to purchase Bitcoin, despite the failure of numerous crypto platforms around the world, with billion-dollar scams leaving hundreds of thousands of small and medium-sized investors holding the bag.