Bukele, the ‘quiet dictator’ who has no opponent in El Salvador elections

Nayib Bukele likes to joke about himself. When he graduated, in the school yearbook he described himself as a class terrorist, a class terrorist. It was a way of mocking what it meant to be of Palestinian descent in El Salvador, a country dominated by whites of European descent. His way of dealing with adverse situations has not changed much with time. Two years ago, at a time when criticism of his authoritarian methods of ruling the country was beginning to grow, he changed his Twitter biography to describe himself as “the most powerful dictator.” Cold Of the global world. It caused a wave of sympathy across the planet, especially among young people who watched the cinematographic quality videos, which showed hundreds of gang members shackled in a prison yard. The act of mockingly declaring himself as the satrap of this small country of 6.3 million people might have been laughable, were it not for the fact that the international community has been concerned about the decline of democracy since he came to power four years ago . Year.

Its popularity is tremendous within and outside its borders. According to all polls, next Sunday, February 4, he will be re-elected President of El Salvador with an overwhelming majority. It will not be necessary to go to the second round. His gelled hair, his carefully trimmed beard, his jeans, his backwards hat, the modulation of his voice trained to please, will once again be present in the daily lives of Salvadorans, at least until 2028. After that, fate will tell. This is presented despite the fact that six articles of the Salvadoran Constitution explicitly prohibit consecutive re-election. However, the Constitutional Chamber, the body he controls, has made a questionable interpretation that allows him to run in the next elections if he leaves office six months early. This is what Bukele has done, he regularly accuses NGOs and nations that question his methods of trying to destabilize the good work that, in his view, he has implemented in the country.

The success it has achieved in terms of security is undeniable, but at what cost? Bukele, shortly after becoming president, in 2019, negotiated with El Salvador’s main gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18 – which emerged in Los Angeles, California, and moved to the Central American country when the United States imposed its Members were exiled. Collective member in the late 70s—but in March 2022 he broke the treaty and established an emergency regime. Recently, panic had spread due to 80 murders. But everything changed overnight in this country accustomed to violence. The authorities have taken strict action and detained more than 70,000 people during this period. Peace has been established in areas that were dominated by gangs for decades. Extortion payments amount to 3% of GDP and the annual cost of violence, 16%, a stratospheric figure. In 2023, according to data that is in some question, El Salvador recorded 2.4 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest in Latin America, whereas before Bukele’s arrival its ratio was the highest in the world with 103. was excessive.

It is enough to go to any neighborhood of San Salvador free of gangs to hear the geographical phrase about Bukele. He has an exaggerated opinion of himself. “Bukele is courageous, complex, authoritarian, he thinks fast and has the ability to take decisions regardless of the means. “He has no integrity,” a person who worked closely with him said over the phone. This desire to impose his law at any cost has clearly undermined human rights. Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses during the emergency rule. A large number of other organizations have documented torture, arbitrary detention – including one of a boy with Down syndrome – and suspicious deaths in prisons. Lawyers and relatives of prisoners complain that they have no contact with them, and that they are tried virtually without witnesses. According to him, Bukele’s system has proven almost infallible: he says the margin of error in arrests is 1%.

Aerial view of a mural at the Zacamil apartment complex depicting President Nayib Bukele in the Salvadoran city of Mejicanos on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024.
Aerial view of a mural at the Zacamil apartment complex depicting President Nayib Bukele in the Salvadoran city of Mejicanos on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Camilo Friedman (AFP)

Professor Gustavo Flores-Macias, an expert on governments and public policies at Cornell University in the United States, believes the elections will serve as a referendum on Bukele’s measures. Once the opposition is destroyed, his party, Nuevas Ideas, will once again have a majority in the Legislative Assembly, meaning it will continue to consolidate all power. Now the country is yours. “The consequences in terms of public safety have wildly exceeded predictions, but the costs in terms of human rights and individual rights have been considerable,” explains Flores-Macías, who points out that due process has been disrupted and officials have almost been imprisoned. They can kill anyone they consider suspicious with complete freedom.

Academics believe that the population is considering whether the new scenario is worth the costs in terms of continued erosion of human rights and resistance to the president, such as in Congress or the judiciary. “If Bukele wins by a large margin, as was projected, it would be a clear message to Salvadorans that the frustration at the state of insecurity was such that the rule of law could take a back seat.” Valeria Vasquez, senior analyst for Central America at consulting firm Control Risks, assured that El Salvador has seen a significant decline in democracy. “Bukele changed the Attorney General, many judges and basically the separation of powers no longer exists. And it’s going to get worse,” Vasquez explains.

She believes that Bukele’s security results are “visible on the streets”, hence his huge popularity. He describes the president as someone who is individualistic, with authoritarian tendencies, who he believes can only get worse. “We will continue to see a lot of them over the next few years. “This is just the beginning,” he ventures. The Bukele method is causing a sensation in the countries of the region. Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa has announced the construction of two prisons. Bukele style Gangs are also dominant in the serious insecurity crisis that the country is facing. Mayors, legislators and governors in Peru, Chile, Argentina and the most unexpected places have launched campaigns assuring that they will follow in his footsteps.

Nothing can stop Bukele, he is happy to swallow everything around him. A few weeks ago a photo was taken with Messi and the entire Inter Miami team. Everyone was waiting for his speech at the United Nations Headquarters in September. People are amazed at how this 42-year-old man, who started out as the manager of a Yamaha dealership, the son of a polygamous father with six wives and 10 children, ended up in a very short time and – for now – gangs. But in doing so it has left fundamental rights in doubt. As everything indicates, Salvadorans will overwhelmingly support him within seven days.

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