Nayib Bukele
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The Bukele model and the high cost of our peace of mind

Does feeling safer inevitably imply giving up human rights and civil liberties?

El Salvador Nayib Bukele
El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, greets supporters in San Salvador on January 17, 2023.JOSE CABEZAS (REUTERS)

A few weeks ago, I overheard a visitor from El Salvador say she felt free in Colombia to sing a karaoke song that she no longer dared to sing back home. When I asked what it was, I got a huge surprise: Mis ojos lloran por ti (My eyes cry for you, in English). For a generation of Latin Americans – my generation – it’s a song we always sing loudly to light up the night and end parties.

In El Salvador, singing songs by musicians like Big Boy, wearing Nike Cortez or Adidas Superstar sneakers, and having religious tattoos can get you mistaken for a gangbanger because some have appropriated these things as a sign of belonging. Their strategies of territorial control, fear and violence meant that only gang members could wear certain clothes. It was also a way of recognizing enemies.

Fear of being associated with gangs forced many people to limit everyday choices like what music to listen to. Although President Nayib Bukele’s government has dismantled several major gangs and thrown most of them in jail, many people are still afraid. They are still scared of the gangs but are now also fearful of the government.

This is a story of tradeoffs, of the price we are willing to pay to feel safe. As more and more voices in Colombia laud El Salvador’s near-miraculous security model and suggest we apply it in our country, we should first ask ourselves – how much is our peace of mind worth? What rights and freedoms will we give up to feel safe in our neighborhoods? How do we know when we have gone too far in giving up human rights and civil liberties? Will there be a way back? Giving up a song or a pair of sneakers may seem trivial... or they may be the most tangible and familiar examples of a much greater sacrifice.

Let’s look at El Salvador and some examples of the current tension between security, liberties, rights and power. Let’s look at how ordinary Salvadorans are making these tradeoffs. First, there is the ongoing state of exception or emergency, an oft-used tool in Latin America to suspend certain rights and constitutional provisions. It grants civil and military authorities exceptional powers to face serious or extraordinary challenges. The challenge for El Salvador was providing better security for its citizens after decades of violent crime that surged a year ago. Yes, the state of exception has been in place for nearly a year now, so there is nothing exceptional about it anymore. Government data indicate that 61,000 people linked to gangs have been arrested during the state of exception, which includes measures such as suspending freedom of association, the right to be duly informed of one’s rights and reasons for detention, and extending the preventive detention period to 15 days.

Another example is the justification for the eleventh extension of the state of exception. When the director of El Salvador’s National Civil Police made his case to the National Assembly, he said, “Remember, a police officer is a street judge with the skills and ability to detain, identify and evaluate people and then deliver them to the justice system.”

A similar example is Bukele’s penal code reform that punishes dissemination of information alluding to gangs with 10-15 years in prison. This covers text, drawings, designs, paintings or “any form of visual expression on public or private real estate that explicitly or implicitly alludes to criminal groups.” The same penalty applies to those who reproduce and transmit messages from criminal groups that may cause public panic or anxiety (there is a specific mention of the media). All this makes one wonder if music or clothing styles are included under this broad umbrella.

The big picture is terrifying. The government and public security forces rapidly acquire excessive power, while Salvadorans, especially innocent ones, are increasingly stripped of protections, rights and freedoms. The result is not a more robust justice system or government but a system easily manipulated by a few individuals. Today, the nation overwhelmingly supports going after gangs, but what if they decide tomorrow to focus on another group or another dimension of freedom of expression and association? Is this what we want to emulate in Colombia? Allowing unfettered, discretionary power to gain peace of mind?

The usual answer to these questions is that he who owes nothing fears nothing. But why shouldn’t we worry about shifting boundaries? Who decides whether a piece of writing or a drawing contains allusions to a criminal group? Who decides whether a message will panic the public? What are the criteria? Why does a police officer on the street have the power to judge whether I’m innocent or guilty without due process, which is the ultimate guarantee of justice and impartiality?

Being a citizen undoubtedly involves compromises and tradeoffs to coexist in a society. But how much do I have to give up so a cop won’t decide I’m a criminal? Easy – forget about certain people, songs, sneakers, tattoos, expressions, messages and designs. In other words, give up your everyday life and your individuality. Easy...

Of course, not everyone experiences violence and insecurity in the same way (surely it’s okay and even cool to wear Nike Cortez sneakers in affluent parts of El Salvador). That is why Bukele has won overwhelming support from residents of neighborhoods formerly controlled by gangs. It’s understandable. I would dare say that generations of Latinos who grew up and live in countries with high rates of violence all share the fatigue, anger, sadness and frustration caused by decades of living with violence. Nothing makes it go away. That is why when I hear praise for the “Bukele miracle,” I wonder if feeling safer implies giving up rights and freedoms and the possibility that some innocent people may die or end up in prison. I wonder if we will be okay with that because this is the only way to attain the common good, which supposedly trumps everything.

Paradoxically, the Bukele model doesn’t dispel fear and anxiety – it just changes the source. We still must be careful where we sing Mis ojos lloran por ti because that could cost us our freedom and even our lives.

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