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Guatemala’s presidential hopefuls channel heavy-handed tactics of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele

The Salvadoran president’s formula has become well-known to citizens across Latin America, and the tough-talking, Bitcoin-loving leader enjoys approval ratings the envy of any world leader

Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party addresses to supporters during a campaign event in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on May 27, 2023.
Sandra Torres, presidential candidate for the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party addresses to supporters during a campaign event in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on May 27, 2023.STRINGER (REUTERS)

Candidates to be Guatemala’s next president are taking a cue from the leader of neighboring El Salvador and promising their voters they will build mega-prisons and hammer criminal gangs into submission.

The formula of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has become well-known to citizens across Latin America, and the tough-talking, Bitcoin-loving leader enjoys approval ratings the envy of any world leader — even a year after suspending key rights to wage war against his country’s gangs.

“It would be good to adopt his program” in Guatemala, said 48-year-old Lucrecia Salazar, a government worker who lives in a neighborhood in the capital known as a hotspot for gangs and crime. “We have the resources. What we lack is the will.”

Now, many top candidates for president in Guatemala are vying to demonstrate such a will, saying ahead of June 25 balloting that, if elected, they would emulate Bukele’s heavy-handed tactics.

Former First Lady Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope party announced her platform to cheering supporters at a hotel in May, saying she’d implement Bukele’s strategies “to end the scourge of homicides, murders and extortions in our country.”

She says she’ll build two mega-prisons for gang members.

Following an outburst of gang violence in El Salvador in March 2022, Bukele has pursued a strategy of locking up anyone with a whiff of gang affiliation — now totaling more than 68,000 people. He built what has been billed as Latin America’s largest prison.

Homicides, already on the decline, plummeted. Life returned to streets and public squares of many communities that long had been under the thumb of gangs and where families used to hide at home after dark.

In Guatemala, many of the same gangs terrorize and extort the population. But the country has nearly three times the population and five times the land area of its neighbor, so there’s no guarantee El Salvador’s strategies could be replicated here.

Homicide rates across the region plunged in 2020 due to pandemic lockdowns. But while they’ve continued to decline in El Salvador each year since then, from 19 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020 to just 8 per 100,000 last year, they have rebounded in Guatemala.

Last year, Guatemala had 17 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, up from its historic low of 15.3 per 100,000 in 2020. As a comparison, Honduras had 36 per 100,000 inhabitants last year.

Political scientist Renzo Rosal of Guatemala’s Landivar University said candidates are emulating Bukele partly because of Guatemala’s own strain of authoritarianism and partly because they lack their own proposals.

One long-shot candidate, Amilcar Rivera of the Victory party, even has adopted an Bukele-like appearance with a dark, close-cropped beard and baseball cap. “The level of emptiness is such that they even copy his physical appearance,” Rosal said.

Bukele fans and imitators have cropped up in other parts of Latin America, too.

In Argentina, campaign banners of Santiago Cúneo, a marginal candidate in that country’s presidential elections in October, feature side-by-side photos of himself and El Salvador’s president.

Colombia’s right-leaning Semana magazine recently put Bukele on its cover with the headline “The Bukele Miracle,” for a story lauding his administration’s security achievements. Colombia will hold local and regional elections in October.

Another top Guatemalan candidate, Zury Rios Sosa, daughter of late dictator Efraín Ríos Montt and the standard-bearer for the far-right Valor-Unionista coalition, has expressed admiration for both Bukele and former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who led an all-out offensive against leftist guerrillas during his presidency in 2002-2010.

Rios Sosa has promised to build at least three new prisons under what she calls the “El Salvador-Colombia Strength Plan.”

“We have to admit that President Bukele has had the character, the strength and the determination to apply the law,” Ríos Sosa said.

Human rights advocates have broadly criticized what they call an erosion of due process in El Salvador. Carolina Jiménez, president of WOLA, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization focused on human rights in the Americas, sees the measures promised by Bukele’s Guatemalan admirers as creating an illusion of security.

“The Bukele effect is contagious because of the security needs that people have, a valid necessity that has not been attended to,” she said. The easiest thing to say is, “I can apply that security model here.”

“But what comes after?” Jiménez asked. “The roots (of the problem) have to do with social exclusion, poverty and other structural problems.”

Danilo Cardona, a 49-year-old security guard at a restaurant in Guatemala’s capital, said Bukele’s polices can’t be copied in Guatemala “because we’re different with different problems.”

“Security is a priority, but so are education, the economy and malnutrition,” Cardona said.

Perhaps the biggest fan of Bukele among Guatemala candidates is no longer in the race as of last week when Guatemala’s Supreme Court ruled him ineligible over election law violations.

But last month, when conservative businessman and populist Carlos Pineda still led in the polls, he posted a video of himself landing in El Salvador to see how a country can be prosperous “when money isn’t stolen.”

Pineda also had sent an “open letter” video to Bukele praising many of the president’s most controversial measures. “I have the goal of doing in Guatemala exactly what you are doing in El Salvador,” he said.

Oscar Romero, 64, a graphic designer, said he would support Bukele’s anti-gang policies in Guatemala, especially to deal with extortion. But people must be mindful of the potential tradeoff, he said.

“You’d have to see how things are going, because it’s security in exchange for freedom,” he said.

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