The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, greeted his supporters Sunday on the presidential balcony after his landslide victory in the elections and spent the following hours sharing congratulatory messages from around the world on social media. Bukele, 42, has become a global phenomenon for dismantling El Salvador’s powerful gangs and broadcasting his achievements live on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. This has earned him the nickname of the “millennial president,” an image he likes to cultivate. Nobody imagined five years ago, when he won the elections for the first time, that he would become an all-powerful leader who would govern under a state of emergency, a radical measure he has used to deploy the army in the streets, fill the jails with tattooed youths and pacify neighborhoods that for decades had been controlled by the gangs. Now he has once again revalidated his mandate until 2029, crushing the opposition in the process. Power in El Salvador has six letters: Bukele.
The truth is that he enjoyed a placid electoral night. The polls forecast he had an overwhelming majority and so it was. He raised some suspicions by announcing the results before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal did so, but when the counting of ballots began, it was corroborated that El Salvador has once again thrown itself into his hands. With 70% counted on Monday, he had received 1.6 million votes, eight times more than the next two parties, FMLN — the traditional left-wing — and Arena, the lifelong right-wing. His party, Nuevas Ideas, also won in the Legislative Assembly, where it is predicted it will have 58 of the 60 deputies. Bukele said that it was the first time that a “single party in a democracy” had been established.
If these elections were a plebiscite on his policies, he has more than won it. He has already announced that he will continue with the state of emergency given the results it has yielded, despite the criticism of human rights organizations — which say there have been many arbitrary arrests — and some international institutions that have expressed concern for what they consider an autocratic drift. At this point, many are wondering what Bukele’s next steps will augur. In the previous legislature he confronted a National Assembly that was in the hands of the opposition, going so far as to storm into the chamber in February 2020 flanked by police and military troops. Bukele sat in the National Assembly president’s chair and called the session to order. “Now I think it is very clear who is in control of the situation,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and covered his face with his hands. And he prayed.
After the midterm legislative elections he took control of the assembly. He removed the members of the Constitutional Court and installed like-minded jurists, and dismissed the previous attorney general. The path was clear. He installed the state of emergency, which has been renewed 24 times. Bukele, however, has not been able to reduce poverty and the economic indicators are not very encouraging. He blames this on the country recovering from a shock and says the reduction of violence is accompanied by a drop in extortion and other illegal businesses that has had an upward impact on the country’s GDP. Analysts foresee that reviving the labor market will be one of his main tasks. The security that now prevails can improve tourism, attract international investments, and immigrants who have historically lived in the United States.
A number of international leaders congratulated Bukele, although some did so with ulterior motives. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he hopes “good governance, inclusive economic prosperity, fair trial guarantees, and human rights " will continue to be prioritized. Bukele maintains an ambiguous relationship with Washington. He has responded angrily to comments about his alleged authoritarian drift and has reached out to China, which has financed the construction of a spectacular, modernist-looking National Library, lit up at night on the San Salvador skyline. The president has said that the policies of the United States and Europe to reduce violence have proven a failure and only made organized crime expand. Here, he repeats, neither the NGOs, nor the media, nor foreign institutions are in charge. He congratulates himself for having taken the helm by applying “a Salvadoran recipe.”
The state of emergency has allowed Bukele to completely dismantle the gangs, or at least reduce their hold over the citizenry to a minimum with a wave of arrests. Many of those detained have been held in the Cecot, a prison built from scratch to house alleged terrorists, where gang members from the two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, are held in apparently hygienic conditions. It has an air of U.S. penitentiaries. Youtubers with ties to the government have been granted access and have shared videos of inmates in silence, their heads shaved, sitting in their cells like birds on a tree branch. These videos portray them doing gymnastics and receiving therapy from what appears to be a psychologist or a pastor. When they are moved, they wear shackles on their hands and feet.
Salvadorans breathed a sigh of relief see the gangs subdued and not on the streets, imposing terror. Many of them recognize that judicial guarantees have been violated, that there are innocent detainees, but it seems to them that the benefit has been greater than the cost. This view of things prevails even among family members of prisoners, with whom they are permitted barely any contact. The Bukele effect has permeated everything. His power today is immense. The era of the single party and the single leader has been born in El Salvador.
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