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A dictatorship is born

Bukele has extremely high levels of popular support in El Salvador. But the president is preparing for when the people grow tired: he has increased the ranks of the Armed Forces and is promising to double its size in five years

Nayib Bukele
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his wife, Gabriela Rodríguez, address a crowd of supporters from the presidential balcony on Sunday night.Bienvenido Velasco (EFE)

My father used to say that a democracy means having certainty about the rules and uncertainty about the results. If we can say anything about El Salvador on Sunday, before the ballots were processed, it’s that there was certainty about the results, following a series of violations to the Constitution, the laws and the electoral rules at the pleasure of the president. Before the polling stations had even counted the votes, Nayib Bukele declared himself re-elected, becoming the first Salvadoran president in eight decades to proclaim victory for a second consecutive term.

In El Salvador, presidential re-election is explicitly prohibited by six articles of the Constitution. But there are no longer any institutions capable of imposing sanctions or limits on Bukele’s exercise of power. He controls the three branches of government, the judicial system, the prosecutor’s office, the police, the Army and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Salvadorans have lost our constitutional rights, and the country has endured an election under an indefinite ‘state of exception’. Last week, Vice President Felix Ulloa told The New York Times: “We are not dismantling democracy. We are eliminating it, replacing it with something new.” But it’s nothing new. We are witnessing, live, the birth of a dictatorship.

Pending results, it appears that the majority of those who voted in last week’s election opted to consign democracy to the grave, which is precisely what the president is offering when he argues that limits to power were an obstacle to achieving what no previous government has been able to accomplish: dismantling the gangs that held the population hostage with terror. This has, truly, been a transformative development for most citizens. When you’ve lived with a gun to your head, security takes priority over constitutions and laws and democracy. Most of those who voted have decided to give up their rights and concentrate all power in the hands of one person, in exchange for security.

Bukele’s experiment is a dangerous one. In two years, he has incarcerated more than 70,000 people under a state of exception that permits police and soldiers to detain anyone they suspect of gang involvement. Human rights organizations estimate that only a third of those imprisoned actually have ties to gangs, and have documented systematic torture inside Salvadoran prisons. Hundreds of people have already died. El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The National Civil Police demand daily quotas of detainees from their agents, to fill President Bukele’s prisons. What is happening is what always happens: young people arrested because an agent said they looked “nervous”; neighbors accusing neighbors of gang ties; cab drivers denouncing their competitors to get rid of them; men arrested for competing with a policeman over the love of a woman. That’s how the quotas get filled. Police officers extorting money from innocent people in exchange for not taking them away.

In El Salvador, every detainee is guilty until proven innocent, and it’s nearly impossible to prove otherwise. They are summarily processed in mass trials by anonymous judges, along with hundreds of other detainees. A hundred guilty or a hundred innocent. Vice President Ulloa, who is a lawyer, has said that this was the only option, since his government has put so many people behind bars that it would take a hundred years to try them all individually. “It’s a fair process because it’s legal. Before, it was individual trials, but we changed the law.”

El Salvador’s security forces have not enjoyed such impunity since the days of our civil war, when the army, the police and paramilitary forces (the death squads) detained, tortured and disappeared thousands of people without fear of accountability or punishment.

Bukele’s great specialty is not security, but propaganda. He depends on a group of Venezuelan advisors plucked from the teams of Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López — experts in making the right hand believe that what the left hides no longer exists. Bukele perceived the people’s weariness with politicians and rode to power on a discourse of fighting corruption. He won the presidency in 2019, pulverizing the opposition to the point of delegitimizing it, all to the applause of the Salvadoran people. Two years later, he won a majority in the legislative elections.

The pandemic and the emergency decrees allowed Bukele to suspend the rights of citizens, seal information on contracts and purchases, and engage in a systematic looting of the state, documented by journalists from the outset, that makes his predecessors look like rookies in the field of corruption.

In secret, Bukele made a pact with the county’s gangs, promising unprecedented concessions, such as freeing leaders whom the US had requested for extradition, in exchange for a reduction in homicides — something Bukele desperately needed so that he could brag about the effectiveness of his so-called security plans.

In May 2021, he struck a blow to the judiciary. He removed the attorney general along with the magistrates from the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber and, skipping all the procedures established by the Constitution, hand-picked new judges and a new prosecutor that very same day. This, in practice, is when the dictatorship began. By nightfall, Bukele had control over all three branches of government. Everything. And so nobody was surprised when the unconstitutional magistrates of the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of his reelection.

After the pact between Bukele and the gangs was broken, came the state of exception, the mass arrests, the imprisonment. But residents of the communities previously controlled by the gangs now live in a state of peace they have never known, no longer forced to pay extortions, no longer living in fear that their families will be victims of the cruelty of those criminal organizations. And this was the main reason for his re-election.

The so-called “Bukele model,” whose only components are propaganda, the accumulation of power, and repression exercised in violation of the rule of law and human rights, has managed to garner an extremely high level of popular support. But, as history teaches, this support doesn’t last forever.

Bukele is preparing for when the people grow tired: he has increased the ranks of the Armed Forces and has promised to double its size in five years.

Every authoritarian project, every dictatorship, has a point of no return. It is this threshold that divides the desire to remain in power from the impossibility of leaving it, given the disastrous consequences it would have for him and his family.

Evidence of Bukele’s pact with organized crime is piling up in a New York court, where gang leaders who should be serving prison sentences in El Salvador now stand trial. They are living proof of these criminal pacts. The newly re-elected president has violated every body of law in El Salvador, and the patrimonial abuse and systematic looting of the state has been sufficiently documented. It’s bad news for anyone hoping for democracy to make a comeback in El Salvador: Nayib Bukele has crossed the point of no return.

The dictatorship is upon us.

Translated by Max Granger.

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