Nayib Bukele’s Authoritarian Appeal

On the afternoon of February 4th, as Salvadorans were voting in Presidential and legislative elections, a fifty-seven-year-old writer named Carlos Bucio Borja walked into a polling place near his home in the capital and began to read the constitution aloud. The sitting President, Nayib Bukele, was seeking a second consecutive mandate, which legal scholars have

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On the afternoon of February 4th, as Salvadorans were voting in Presidential and legislative elections, a fifty-seven-year-old writer named Carlos Bucio Borja walked into a polling place near his home in the capital and began to read the constitution aloud. The sitting President, Nayib Bukele, was seeking a second consecutive mandate, which legal scholars have denounced as a violation of the constitution, and Bucio Borja, who wore his wispy gray hair in a ponytail tucked under a wool cap, shouted the six articles that point to Bukele’s infraction. A small crowd gathered and jeered: “Crazy man!” and “Long live Nayib!” Several police approached and one reached for Bucio Borja’s arm, but he darted away, continuing his reading and defiantly pointing to the sky. When the police finally detained him, the crowd cheered.

The moment reflected life under Bukele: a blip of protest puncturing the air of orderly mass satisfaction, then an eerie return of the state’s past repression.

Early in his first term, the President invaded the legislature with the military to coerce members of Congress into approving a hundred-and-nine-million-dollar loan for security forces. Although there were scattered protests the next day, Bukele’s over-all popularity remained above eighty per cent. He went on to empower his party, Nuevas Ideas, by wiping seventy per cent of local and national elected positions from the political map—extreme gerrymandering, Washington analysts called it—and changing the method for allocating seats to one in its favor. Bukele’s congressmen have earned the nickname “button-pushers,” for their apparent eagerness to approve without debate whatever the President sends to their desks. He achieved his second mandate by carrying out what some called an autogolpe, or self-coup, against the judiciary, remaking the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court in his image, along with the office of the Attorney General. None of these actions dispelled the President’s popularity. In the February election, he won with more than eighty per cent of the vote.

Bukele’s enduring appeal is anchored in the near-disappearance of gang violence during his tenure. Since he assumed power in 2src19, El Salvador’s murder rate has fallen—at least, as reported by his administration—from fifty-one deaths per hundred thousand people in 2src18 to 2.4 per hundred thousand in 2src23. (The rate was already falling sharply from its peak in 2src15.) In polls and interviews, many Salvadorans express feeling newly safe in a way that they haven’t in decades—or, in the case of the younger generations, ever. The hitch is how the administration accomplished this. As documented by journalistic investigations and alleged by U.S. federal agencies, Bukele first entered into a pact with the gangs, and then, when that failed to end the violence, pursued a brutal campaign of mass incarceration.

The agreement with the gangs, which the administration denies making, involved handing out financial incentives, prison benefits, and protection from extradition in exchange for electoral support and a general reduction in homicides. A government official was even caught on tape saying that he had freed from prison a leader of MS-13—one of the country’s main gangs—and escorted the man, whose alias is Crook, to Guatemala. Previously, the U.S. Department of Justice had requested Crook’s extradition to stand trial in New York after a terrorism indictment; later, fearing that the U.S. might recapture Crook, the administration was reportedly willing to pay a million dollars to a Mexican cartel if it could snag him first. That claim was revealed by the Salvadoran outlet El Faro, which then reported that a candidate for mayor of Cuscatlán Norte—a member of Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas Party who went on to win the election—was a suspected collaborator of the Barrio 18 Sureños gang. The man had been arrested for “illicit association,” in May, 2src22, but the Attorney General’s office reportedly ordered his “immediate liberation.”

Two years ago, Bukele’s talks with MS-13 broke down after, among other things, a group of gang leaders was arrested while travelling in a government vehicle. MS-13 went on a killing spree, murdering nearly a hundred Salvadorans in the span of just a few days. Bukele switched tactics, declaring a state of exception that suspended many constitutional rights, in order to pursue the mass arrest of suspected gang members. More than seventy thousand people have been jailed in the past two years. According to Cristosal, a Salvadoran human-rights organization, of the five thousand seven hundred and seventy-five cases that civil-society groups had evaluated in detail, ninety-five per cent of them were illegal or arbitrary. Thousands of innocent Salvadorans now languish in jail, suffering conditions that a forthcoming study commissioned by the Seattle International Foundation says may constitute crimes against humanity.

The Bukele administration has also gone after those who collect evidence of governmental abuses and corruption, represent victims, and try to hold the President accountable. Human-rights workers, journalists, judges, prosecutors, and others have been attacked by trolls, threatened into exile, and targeted with criminal or tax-evasion allegations. El Faro said it was forced to relocate to Costa Rica after facing constant surveillance and threats, defamation from government officials, and unfounded accusations of money laundering. Even members of Bukele’s inner circle have been jailed: last August, Alejandro Muyshondt, a former security adviser to the President, was detained after accusing a congressman in Bukele’s party of being connected to the drug trade. (The administration said Muyshondt was a “double agent” who leaked information to journalists, a foreign government, and an ex-President who had been sentenced in absentia for negotiating with gangs.) Muyshondt died in state custody in early February. His lawyer has said that his body bore signs of torture. “There is a permanent threat, a permanent fear,” Verónica Reyna, the human-rights director at the Passionist Social Service, in San Salvador, said. Civil-society workers who haven’t fled say that they’ve grown more cautious in public. “Our lives are consumed by this,” Gabriela Santos, the director of the Human Rights Institute at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, told me. Reyna called it “an environment of absolute control and absolute defenselessness.”

The expectation for Bukele’s second term is that repression and criminalization will only increase. Claudia Ortiz, a congresswoman from the centrist Vamos Party, and one of the principal opposition figures to Bukele, is unsure how the country can reclaim its democracy. In February, in her office at the Legislative Assembly building, she observed that it was the fourth anniversary of Bukele’s military invasion of Congress. Since then, the President and his allies have relentlessly pursued their stated goal of leaving all other political parties “pulverized.” Vice-President Félix Ulloa recently told the Times that the Bukele administration is “eliminating” democracy and that a majority of citizens hope Bukele will be President “for life.” (After the election, Bukele suggested that El Salvador represents “the first time there is a one-party state in a fully democratic system” in the world.) “It’s no longer that the state is protecting citizens, but that it’s protecting itself from citizens,” Ortiz said. “It’s not protecting democracy; it’s protecting itself from democracy.”

And yet, across the hemisphere, an increasing number of local and national political leaders have embraced the “Bukele model.” Senator Marco Rubio visited San Salvador last spring and returned to the U.S. proclaiming that Bukele had “brought freedom to El Salvador.” A few weeks after the Salvadoran election, Bukele was invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Maryland, where he borrowed a page from Trump’s script, warning that “dark forces are already taking over your country.” In March, on the same day that Vice-President Ulloa said that “it is the right time” for the Salvadoran Congress to legislate Bukele’s capacity to be elected for an “indefinite” number of terms, Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, said on the Senate floor that Bukele was “bringing stability and safety” to El Salvador and urged the U.S. to follow his example, because “incarceration works.” Bukele has courted Republicans as part of his drive to “install an international narrative of his success,” Ruth López, an anti-corruption legal officer at Cristosal, said. “And that’s what he got.”

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