The Rise of Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s Authoritarian President


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El Penalito, the little jail, is a squat concrete structure on a busy commercial street in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. On the morning of April 7th, a Thursday, fifty women were lined up along its front wall, wearing surgical masks and holding umbrellas against the sun. They’d been gathering there all week. It was nine-thirty, and about ninety degrees. Most of the women had been waiting since eight to reach a small window where a police official shared information on the whereabouts of their sons and husbands.

Toward the back of the line, wearing a long denim skirt and a red T-shirt, was a middle-aged woman with dark, lined skin and deep-set eyes. Her name was Yanira, and her son, she said, was a twenty-year-old with autism. He’d been arrested three days earlier, at home, where the two had been working throughout the pandemic, cleaning and reselling discarded plastic sleeves that hold bottles of hand sanitizer. Yanira rarely leaves him alone, but she had to run an errand. When she returned, thirty minutes later, the police had taken him away. “Sometimes he’ll wander into the street without his shoes,” she told me. “All the neighbors know him. But someone who doesn’t might think he’s a criminal, or crazy.”

A week before, members of El Salvador’s largest gang, MS-13, had murdered eighty-seven people in three days. The country has long been ravaged by gang violence, but these killings were unusual in their ruthlessness. People with no ties to crime were targeted: a fruit seller, a surf instructor, a homemaker, a cobbler. The gangsters went after everybody, but their message was directed at one person—the country’s President, Nayib Bukele, who has promised to radically reduce crime and to change El Salvador’s image abroad. Gang members left a corpse on the road leading to Surf City, a stretch of beachfront real estate on the Pacific Coast which Bukele had refurbished and renamed to attract international tourists.

In recent decades, every Salvadoran President has contended with the gangs. One administration sent soldiers to poor neighborhoods and filled the country’s prisons, under a policy it called mano dura, or “strong hand”; another reprised it as super mano dura. When Bukele was the mayor of San Salvador, he called these responses “immoral” and “impractical.” But now he declared war. Just after midnight on the second day of the homicide spike, the National Assembly, which Bukele’s party controls, instituted a “state of exception,” under which authorities could arrest anyone they considered suspicious. Detainees were not entitled to a legal defense. The right to gather in groups larger than two was suspended, and all minors would be tried as adults. On his Twitter account, Bukele, who is forty-one years old and has an approval rating of more than eighty per cent, shared a running tally of the arrests that followed, along with scabrous commentary, posting photographs of tattooed men in handcuffs and underwear (“little angels”), some of whom appeared to have been roughed up (“He must have been eating fries with ketchup”). Critics of the new policy—whether common citizens, journalists, or foreign governments—supported “the terrorists,” he wrote.

Yanira’s son was one of six thousand people arrested in the first week. By the time I met her, the total had risen to about nine thousand. A month and a half later, it would reach thirty thousand. Bukele conceded that one per cent of the roundups might result in wrongful arrests, but the public could only take his word for that figure. “As we continue arresting more gangsters, more people are going to protest,” Bukele said. “Because there will always be a mother of a gangster, a family member, or a friend who isn’t going to like that we are cleansing that cancer.”

Yanira was joined in the line by her daughter, who’d been missing work at a clothing shop to help locate her brother. The previous day, the daughter told me, they’d spent six hours visiting courthouses, searching for him. “We’re not the kind of people who have any experience in these sorts of places,” she said. She crossed the street while Yanira held their place in line. A bodega in front of El Penalito offers food and hygiene packages for detainees, ranging from a single meal ($2.50) to basic toiletries ($7.00) or a change of underwear ($15.50). (Prisoners without this assistance eat only intermittently.) Yanira’s daughter returned just in time to press a receipt for three meals into her mother’s hand before they reached the window. Farther down the block, a group of soldiers armed with rifles had stopped a public bus and were ordering the male passengers to step out and lift up their shirts. They were checking for tattoos that might indicate gang membership.

“I’ve been extra nice to people—I should be getting some thank-you notes.”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

As the official at the window examined her son’s records, Yanira stood ramrod straight. Suddenly, she recoiled; when she turned away from the window, her eyes were wide. “Izalco” was all she could say, and she staggered off, sobbing. It was the name of a maximum-security prison that houses hardened gangsters. Her son had been sent there earlier that morning.

While the women waited outside El Penalito, another crowd was gathering, at the Miami Beach Convention Center. It consisted of investors and tech entrepreneurs, who were there to see Bukele, a keynote speaker at an annual Bitcoin conference. Last summer, he announced that El Salvador would be the first country in the world to accept bitcoin as legal tender. Within a few months, there were some two hundred special A.T.M.s set up across the country, and the government had launched an app, called the Chivo Wallet, on which each Salvadoran was given thirty dollars’ worth of bitcoin. At the conference, Bitcoiners, techno-utopians, and libertarians assembled to hear about a series of ambitious projects that Bukele had been promising ever since. They would have to wait a little longer. The conference, Bukele wrote in an apologetic note, was “one of the biggest celebrations of the power of freedom, decentralization, and human ingenuity in its fight against ignorance, centralization, and dogma.” But, owing to the state of exception, he needed to stay put. “Everything happens for a reason,” he went on. “Hopefully we’ll be able to learn soon why this had to happen this way.”

When Bukele was elected President, in 2019, he was the youngest head of state in Latin America and embodied a new national beginning. At his inauguration, his heavily pregnant wife stood beside him as he instructed crowds of ecstatic voters to raise a hand along with him after he swore the oath of office. Three of his recent predecessors had been either arrested or indicted, and all of them came from El Salvador’s two main political parties, which had governed without interruption for more than two decades. It had been a period of chronic poverty, violence, and mass emigration. “If you left to live in the United States and returned twenty years later, you’d find the same politicians,” Amparo Marroquín, a professor at the Central American University, in San Salvador, told me. “They were dinosaurs.” Bukele, who’d defected from one of the main parties, pitched himself as an anti-corruption reformer. His campaign slogan—“There’s enough money to go around as long as no one steals”—is a line that he has used for almost as long as he’s been in public life. He began his career at the age of thirty, as the mayor of a town of fewer than ten thousand people. After a single term, he ran for mayor of San Salvador. Fresh off that job, at thirty-seven, he was elected President.

Bukele, who wears leather jackets and backward baseball caps and has a beard, invokes Alexander the Great and Steve Jobs, and his brand is meant to be a bit of both: a potentate with an anti-establishment streak. At the United Nations General Assembly in 2019, he took a selfie from the dais, mid-address, reminding the world leaders in attendance that a “couple of images on Instagram can have a greater impact than any speech in this assembly.” Social media, he once said, “has shown us what people really are.” Before, “everybody was pretending.”

During the years of his ascent, the public heard from him constantly—on Twitter and Facebook, and in a continual procession of ribbon cuttings and other public appearances. As the mayor of San Salvador, he cleaned up parts of the city’s ramshackle downtown; renovated a trio of historic plazas; opened a high-end market, which has escalators and rooftop restaurants, in addition to a library equipped with computers and play areas for children. At one point, he unveiled a twenty-four-million-dollar public-works project, called 100% Iluminado, to install lamps on every street corner. “You can call it PR if you want to be a little cynical. But I’m talking about inspiration,” he told the Virginia Quarterly Review, in 2016. “I’m talking about something sublime.”

Usually, public adoration dims as the realities of governing set in, but Bukele’s support has grown. He is now the most popular leader in Latin America. In part, this is the result of his war on the gangs, his handling of the pandemic, public-infrastructure projects, an increase in the minimum wage, and low gas prices. It is also the product of a mammoth propaganda campaign. But, more profoundly, Bukele has succeeded in generating a palpable sense of collective expectancy and pride: the country is finally getting its act together.

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