SAN SALVADOR – In the narrow, gang-controlled alleys of the Las Palmas neighborhood, struggling Salvadorans are untroubled by actions of their president that so infuriate his critics.
They are not bothered by Nayib Bukele’s dictatorial maneuvers -- sending armed troops into congress to coerce a vote, or ousting independent judges from the country’s highest court, paving the way to control all branches of government. They praise his relentless attacks on the politicians who governed El Salvador for nearly 30 years before him, and the elites who benefited from their rule.
In this neighborhood they are grateful for the boxes of food staples they’ve received from Bukele’s government during the pandemic. Adults proudly pat their shoulders and say they got both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine long before most other people in Central America.
For all the observers and critics who condemn a dangerous concentration of power by a charismatic leader who sports down-home blue jeans and leather jackets, Bukele enjoys an approval rating of more than 90% among people who saw three of four previous presidents jailed or exiled for corruption.
“They talk about democracy... I don’t know what else,” said Julio César López, 60, a street artist in Las Palmas. “It makes me really happy that they’re kicking out that class of people.”
Bukele’s presidency so far is the story of one of Latin America’s newest populist autocracies in the making: spending big to hand out goodies, branding opponents as enemies, raising the profile of the military. Like former President Donald Trump, Bukele prefers social media over press conferences, so he can control the message, though he does not miss a good photo op to brandish his image.
The president has convinced most Salvadorans that his government is on the move against poverty and gang violence, said Leonor Arteaga, program director at the Due Process of Law Foundation, a regional rule of law organization based in Washington. “No one can deny that he effectively has the support of the majority of the population and he is using that support and manipulating it to advance his agenda.”
The residents of Las Palmas say they recognize Bukele's concentration of power and initially, at least, they seem willing to trade democratic ideals for short-term solutions to their yawning needs.
Rigoberto Castellanos, a 57-year-old construction worker in Las Palmas, says the previous opposition-controlled congress and ousted constitutional justices were thorns in Bukele’s side that needed to be removed.
He noted that currently El Salvador’s constitution bans re-election, but if that were to change, “who wouldn’t like to have the president for another five years?”
The 39-year-old Bukele, a non-ideological pragmatist, is the latest in a string of Latin American presidents from across the political spectrum who have used elections and their personal popularity to amass power.
For nearly three decades, El Salvador was ruled alternately by the conservative Arena party and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front formed in the wake of El Salvador’s brutal civil war. But the parties failed to deliver. Arena and the FMLN both had presidents who plundered El Salvador’s coffers and left a society with few economic opportunities, besieged by powerful street gangs that extorted and killed with impunity.
Bukele, a former publicity executive, rose through the ranks of the FMLN from small town mayor to mayor of the capital, San Salvador, until the FMLN eventually booted him for refusing to toe the party line. It cemented his outsider status and he formed his own political party, New Ideas, winning the presidential vote in 2019.
While elections in El Salvador have been considered free, critics of Bukele say the country can no longer be described as a functioning democracy.
Bertha María Deleón, an organized crime prosecutor turned criminal defense lawyer, connected with Bukele on line when as mayor he retweeted some of her commentary. When he faced some legal trouble, he asked Deleón to join his defense team and she gradually became a close adviser, one of the few who would disagree with him during four years working together.
“I knew that he is a very impulsive person, very immature ... like an eternal adolescent,” Deleón said. “But I always sensed that he was a man with good intentions.” She was interested in becoming his justice and security minister, but didn't get the offer.
Her patience with Bukele began to fade shortly after he took office in June 2019, when he started firing government bureaucrats via Twitter. Deleón says she warned him that the practice was unnecessarily humiliating for state employees who could challenge the actions in court. Bukele called her a “killjoy.”
The last straw came Feb. 9, 2020. Bukele had been locked in battle with the opposition-controlled congress. He wanted lawmakers to approve funding for a security plan to control gangs, but they had refused to convene for a vote, saying they wanted more information.
On that Sunday, heavily armed police and soldiers in tactical gear entered the Legislative Assembly with Bukele. Hundreds of supporters Bukele had rallied to pressure lawmakers waited outside. Sharpshooters took up positions on rooftops. Bukele took the seat of the body’s president and prayed.
“If we wanted to press the button, we would press the button” and remove lawmakers from the legislature, he told supporters outside the building. “But I asked God and God told me: patience, patience, patience.”
Deleón was stunned. She tweeted a photo of Bukele seated on the dais praying with a mocking message. “Pure manipulation of the masses. This is only a sample of what awaits us when he has the majority in the (congress).”
The president blocked her on Twitter and attacks from Bukele supporters and trolls began. Some threatened rape, murder.
Bukele’s office denied requests for an interview or to respond to questions and comment for this article.
But Deleón’s reference to what would come if his party won a congressional majority was prescient.
A year later, New Ideas won a supermajority in legislative elections. On May 1, the first day the new lawmakers were seated, they voted to remove and then replace the five justices of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and the attorney general.
As the lawmakers prepared to vote, police surrounded the Supreme Court. A police patrol vehicle was parked outside the Supreme Court president’s home. The justices’ replacements, all with ties to Bukele or his party, were later escorted into the building by police.
Bukele was pleased. “I know that most of the Salvadoran people eagerly await the second session,” he said.
Arteaga, of the Due Process of Law Foundation, said “El Salvador is in a process of building authoritarianism. It is very clear, there are all the signs.”
For the first two years of Bukele’s administration the constitutional justices had been a critical check on his power. His critics described a sinking feeling, realizing that there would now be nowhere to turn.
In May, Deleón was called to appear at the Attorney General’s Office where she had worked for seven years. A new attorney general -- previously the personal attorney of Bukele’s national police chief -- had been installed. Now Deleón was informed they were moving forward with multiple investigations against her.
“They resent the constant criticism I’ve been making of his governance,” she said, calling the cases baseless. “This is using the Attorney General’s Office to intimidate me.”
Media and business leaders face similar threats.
El Salvador’s award-winning independent news outlet El Faro also has suffered public attacks by Bukele and his supporters, a government audit and its staff has reported being followed by strangers.
Last September, Bukele said on national television that there was an open money laundering and tax evasion investigation of El Faro. In January, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered El Salvador’s government to take steps to protect 34 members of El Faro’s staff and allow them to carry out their journalistic work.
In May, at the Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism, El Faro co-founder and director, Carlos Dada said, “We have been threatened. We have been persecuted. We have been the subject of massive defamation campaigns.”
In one of its first orders of business, the new congress eliminated a decades-old tax break on imported newsprint, a hit on the country’s traditional newspapers, which also have been critical of Bukele’s administration.
Javier Simán, the president of El Salvador’s largest business association and an outspoken Bukele critic, said he has been subject to more than 100 government audits. His family owns a retail empire with its department stores in El Salvador and other parts of Central America, as well as other businesses.
His critique has evolved from what he considered draconian lockdown measures early in the pandemic that pummeled El Salvador’s economy to Bukele’s more recent concentration of power. He said the Finance Ministry is hounding businessmen who criticize the government.
“You can only have prosperity when you live in a democratic state, where the law is respected, where there is a separation of powers, where there is rule of law,” he said.
Rev. Andreu Oliva, rector of the Jesuit-founded Central American University in San Salvador, served previously in Honduras and Nicaragua. And he can’t shake the feeling that he has seen what is happening in El Salvador before, in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.
Ortega took over the judiciary and first coopted, then jailed and exiled the opposition.
“I have the fear, but well-founded I believe, that they are copying the Nicaragua playbook,” Oliva said.
Mark Schneider, a senior adviser with the Americas Program and the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says Bukele’s actions so far are still far removed from Ortega’s.
“In Salvador, what you see is that you have to be concerned about the direction and you would hope that Bukele would listen, because he’s so popular in the country, he doesn’t have to violate the laws, he doesn’t have to violate the Constitution.”
Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro lead Latin America’s movement to autocratic rule. While Maduro has long-since eviscerated the opposition, in recent weeks Ortega locked up five presidential hopefuls and more than a dozen other opposition figures as he seeks a fourth consecutive term in November.
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador also have combative styles, although from opposite ideological bents. Both attack the press, judges and non-governmental organizations critical of their administrations. In contrast to El Salvador, their countries’ democratic institutions have so far managed to blunt some of their more aggressive impulses.
Honduras and Guatemala’s leaders don’t enjoy the popularity of the others, but their parties have managed to erode judicial independence and operate with impunity.
To different degrees, the autocrats use their militaries to amplify their power. In El Salvador, there is concern that Bukele is both expanding the role of the military in politics and working to ensure that they are more devoted to him than to the constitution.
Besides sending soldiers into the Legislative Assembly last year, he has used them to deliver the boxes and sacks of food provided by the government.
Outside the massive Hospital El Salvador that Bukele built at the start of the pandemic, the people directing traffic and guiding people coming to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations were soldiers.
A retired high-ranking military officer, who requested anonymity because he feared repercussions for his family, noted that Bukele had tapped an obscure Navy officer, someone beholden to him, to be the defense secretary rather than someone from the more powerful army.
“He is abusing the apolitical nature of the armed forces,” he said.
Bukele is fond of asking people to swear impromptu oaths of loyalty. He did it in his inauguration speech, days later during a military ceremony and most recently June 1 on the second anniversary of his inauguration, speaking to the new Legislative Assembly.
He asked them to swear they would defend their victories, fight pacifically against any enemy or obstacle and “not allow that those who made us suffer so much ever return to power, to not let them plunder our country again.”
The problem, critics say, is that Bukele is defining “the enemy” as all who oppose him and his policies.
Experts say perhaps Bukele’s biggest challenge will be to continue his brand of populism while El Salvador’s financial resources dwindle. El Salvador’s debt grew more than 15% last year, much of it pandemic-related spending, and in 2020 the ratio of debt to GDP was 89.9%. The new congress has approved heaps more since May 1.
Some believe Bukele’s shocking announcement last month that El Salvador would make the volatile cryptocurrency bitcoin official tender along with the U.S. dollar could be a play to increase his room to maneuver financially.
Questions also are arising about whether he can sustain the substantial drop in the murder rate. When Bukele took over the murder rate was about 50 per 100,000 population, said Carlos Carcach, the research coordinator at the Higher School of Economics and Business in San Salvador. Now it is in the low 30s per 100,000, a rate not seen in 15 years and a far cry from the peak of more than 100 murders per 100,000 seen in 2015.
The reasons for the drop are unclear. The pandemic could be a factor. Bukele credits his Territory Control Plan to pressure gangs through raids, arrests, seizures, a cut in communications between jailed and free gang-leaders, and the use of soldiers in policing. Others believe it could be the result of a secret agreement between the government and the dominant street gangs to reduce the killing, although Bukele has denied this and was highly critical of a similar truce reached by a previous administration.
“It’s a mystery,” Carcach said.
Whatever the reason, Bukele touts it as one of his government’s biggest accomplishments. Carcach said the gangs continue to control territory, extorting businesses and individuals, but killing less often.
“The gang wins because the people know that the government service, basically the food packages, get into the community because the gang allows it,” Carcach said.
However popular Bukele remains domestically, he faces unfriendly reaction from abroad.
The Biden administration has been more wary of Bukele than was Trump, who seemed content with him as long as the number of Salvadorans migrating to the U.S. border kept falling. Administration officials publicly criticized the May 1 removal of judges and the attorney general. Last week, Bukele’s chief of staff, a New Ideas party leader and others close to the administration were included on a U.S. State Department list of figures either corrupt or who undermine democracy. The same day Bukele announced he would push for a 20% increase in the minimum wage.
The U.S. Agency for International Development announced it would shift all aid from El Salvador’s government agencies to civil society organizations. The agency’s chief, Samantha Power, came to San Salvador and gave a speech on democracy on Oliva’s campus.
Bukele has responded by trying to improve El Salvador’s relationship with China. But with a quarter of El Salvador’s population living in the U.S. and sending home about $6 billion in remittances last year, no one believes China could begin to replace the deep ties to the United States.
Late on May 1, as international condemnation began to pour in over the ousting of the judges and attorney general, Bukele was defiant.
“To our friends in the international community: we want to work with you, trade, travel, get to know each other and help where we can,” he tweeted. “Our doors are more open than ever. But with all due respect: We are cleaning our house ... and that is not your responsibility.”