IJanuary Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, performed the latest high-profile acts that have characterized his tenure. He opened a “terrorist prison” on the plains near the San Vicente volcano in the center of the country. Mr Bukele said it would house 40,000 detainees, which would make it the largest prison in the world (and the most overcrowded in the Americas).
The president has a gift for making global headlines in a country of 6.3 million people. In 2020, he sent soldiers into the National Assembly to coerce it into supporting his security budget. In 2021, El Salvador will become the first country to make Bitcoin legal tender. Mr Booker’s show and his policies have paid political dividends. Since taking office in 2019, his approval rating has never fallen below 75%, reaching 90% in February this year, the highest in Latin America.
The biggest reason for this is the sharp drop in violence during Mr. Booker’s presidency. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world at 106 per 100,000 people (see chart). Last year, that number had dropped to 7.8, according to government figures. This ratio puts El Salvador on the same level as the United States. In next door Honduras, the number is 36. “Unprecedented reduction in crime” has contributed to “robust [economic] Activity”, International Monetary Fund Noticed recently. Tourism has already recovered from the slump brought on by the pandemic: 2.5 million tourists will visit El Salvador in 2022, almost on par with 2019. Guidebook publisher Lonely Planet named the country one of this year’s top destinations.
Politicians in nearby countries are studying Mr Bukele’s tactics. Zury Ríos, the frontrunner in Guatemala’s presidential election scheduled for June, has called his security policy “exemplary”. Costa Rica’s security minister said the country should adopt it. Leaders outside El Salvador are experimenting with Mr Bukeler’s methods, rather than adopting them fully. But there is widespread demand to go further. This could endanger democracy and human rights in Central America and beyond.
Mr. Bukele, who comes across as Hollywood’s take on the president’s plane hijackers rather than the president himself, seems keen to export his style of administration. In January, El Salvador announced it would open an office in Haiti to advise the government on how to deal with the gangs that control much of the country. Associates of Mr. Bukele have founded a party in Guatemala with the same name and logo as his New Idea Party and have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to do the same in Costa Rica. If El Salvador’s murder rate remains low, his influence will grow. “If this proves to be sustainable, a lot of people throughout Latin America will look to Bukele as a role model,” said former Costa Rica vice president Kevin Casas-Zamora. ideaa Stockholm-based think tank.
Mr Booker’s growing soft power abroad is based on a ruthless exercise of hard power at home.Two gangs, Barrio 18 and multiple sclerosis-13, has terrorized Salvadorans for years. Their main business is extortion. When the violence they created reached its peak, gross domestic product 16% lower than one estimate. In March last year, after a weekend in which gangs killed 87 people, Mr Booker introduced a “state of exception”, allowing police to arrest anyone without cause. Since then, he boasted, police have locked up 62,000 people, or 2 percent of the adult population. According to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank, it was the “largest sprawl” ever seen in Central America, a region that cracks down on crime.
The results are dramatic. In Las Cañas, near the town of Ilopango, east of San Salvador, rival gangs used to clash near the soccer field that marked the boundaries of their territories. Resident Álex Meléndez, 37, said anyone walking by could have been injured. He used to leave home renovations at 4pm and be home by dusk. Mr Meléndez has been able to stay out of the round since the roundup was carried out under Mr Bukele’s state of exception. His mother-in-law owned a candy store. Youngsters played football late into the night on the previously contested pitch.
Salvadorans are paying a high price for relative peace. el faro, a digital newspaper, put it this way in its headline: “No Gangs, No More Democracy”. Yesenia, who works with young people at a Catholic church in Delgado near the capital, said young people are no longer afraid of gangs and have new opportunities. But now they fear the military and police that patrol the neighborhood. “They are always harassed by the authorities,” she said. Opposition MP Claudia Ortiz said Mr Buckler’s offensive on crime “had a lot of collateral damage”. “And there are no plans to exit the state of emergency.”
His crackdown on crime was facilitated by a legitimate agency that could get in his way. After intimidating the legislature, he won control of the legislature in the 2021 elections. Soon after, he fired the Supreme Court attorney general and justices and replaced them with loyalists who updated his exception status every month.He threatened to sue independent media (including el faro). He used trolls to insult critics on social media and tried to shut down their accounts. In the ranking of democracies by the Economist Intelligence Unit (our sister firm), El Salvador ranked lower than all but three countries (Burkina Faso, Haiti and Russia) last year. It classifies El Salvador’s government as a “hybrid regime”.
The new Supreme Court service includes allowing Mr Bukele to run for re-election next year, despite constitutional term limits. He doesn’t have to cheat to win a fraud and get a parliamentary majority again. The two main opposition parties, which took turns in power after the civil war ended in 1992, were still accused by voters of mismanaging the country until Mr Bukele came to power.
His management project posed two dangers. The first is that it fails.Many Latin American governments, including in the past in El Salvador, have tried Mr Booker’s version Mano’s dura mater (Iron Fist) policy. All have failed, says Crisis Group’s Ivan Briscoe. Guatemala’s 2004 Escobar program led to extrajudicial executions of gang members. The murder rate rose to a record high.
Mr Buckler, like his predecessors, started by trying to strike deals with gangs. He has refused to extradite 14 of his bosses to the United States and has quietly released some from prison. The crackdown comes after relations soured and killings surged. For now, his policy of keeping people off the streets and raising the wages of security forces to prevent them from colluding with criminals is working, although violence started to decline before Mr Bukele became president. The government’s homicide figure does not include some victims, such as gangsters killed in shootouts with police.
The decline in violence is unlikely to be sustainable. Wrongly imprisoned people may be forced to join existing gangs in prisons holding terrorists to protect themselves. New criminal networks may form, as has happened in other Latin American prisons. Despite a revival in tourism and a decline in violence, El Salvador’s economy has not grown fast enough to significantly reduce the unemployment and poverty that pushed young people into gangs in the first place. “Education, aspirations for status and so on have not changed,” Mr Briscoe said.
The second danger is that Mr. Booker succeeds and becomes a role model for Central America and beyond. Central America’s only official dictator is Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, a 77-year-old leftist who overthrew right-wing regimes more than 40 years ago, then lost and regained power. Mr. Bukele, a younger, cooler guy TestDillomay be more attractive in areas disenchanted with democracy.
In the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), the post-civil war democracies that emerged in the 1990s were mechanisms for parties established by combatants to share the spoils. Poverty, violence and corruption hinder economic development and fuel crime. Since 2014, more than 2 million people have immigrated from the region. Costa Rica is a more prosperous and stable democracy, but is politically paralyzed by polarized party power and the president’s frequent use of the veto.
Latinos are increasingly willing to sacrifice democracy for security and prosperity. A survey by AmericasBarometer reported that more than half of people would give up voting if it afforded them access to a decent income and basic services. In 2021, half of Salvadorans say the president should be able to shut down parliament in times of trouble, the highest proportion in Latin America. This is an increase of 33 percentage points from 2018. In neighboring Guatemala, 38 percent would accept the deal. In Guatemala and Honduras, small groups have recently staged demonstrations demanding Bukeler-style rule.
Leaders in the region are trying some of his tactics but fear becoming his clone. Honduras’ left-leaning president, Xiomara Castro, declared a state of emergency in December to reduce extortion, allowing police to jail suspects without charging them, like Mr Bukele. But her government has reduced prison numbers and exempted some municipalities. Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves is being investigated by a parliamentary committee over allegations he used trolling to harass journalists ahead of the 2022 general election. Like Mr Buckler, he has lashed out at the opposition and the media, and has sought, with rubbish not rubbish, to reform institutions he says stand in the way of progress. However, Mr. Chaves has ruled out adopting Mr. Bukele’s security model. He pointedly proclaimed his love of democracy and his support for the separation of powers.
Mr Casas-Zamora said the solution to democratic failure was “to make democracy work better”. For many Salvadorans and citizens of nearby countries, Mr Bukeler’s authoritarianism seems more appealing now. ■