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Bukele: what ‘model’ are we talking about?

When you look at Latin American history, the way in which the Salvadoran leader has won his re-election bid and amassed power isn’t much different from how several other Latin American autocrats have operated. Batista, Somoza, Trujillo, Fujimori, Ortega and Chávez are just some examples of strongmen from the past century

Nayib Bukele
Nayib Bukele at a press conference at the Sheraton hotel in San Salvador, El Salvador.Gladys Serrano
Diego García-Sayan

Nayib Bukele was “re-elected” as president of El Salvador this past February 4, with more than 80% of the vote. His party also won the legislative elections by a landslide.

Given that the Constitution of El Salvador prohibits seeking re-election, the most accurate description for this electoral process would be “complete farce.” Four aspects strongly support this statement:

Firstly — making it clear who’s in charge — the election results were announced by Bukele himself. This implies that the independent electoral authorities, whose impartiality is fundamental in any democratic election, have disappeared. And this detail only adds to the suspicion and lack of transparency that marred the entire process. Once the vote was completed, the national electoral system lost all relevance: Bukele assumed total control.

The process was so crude that, several days later, four of the five judges who sit on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal distanced themselves from the vote-counting process to determine the seat distribution in the Legislative Assembly, due to irregularities.

Secondly, clear democratic principles — including the balance of powers, respect for constitutional legality and the basic rule of law — were destroyed in the 2024 elections. Immediate presidential re-election in El Salvador is prohibited, invalidating the supposed “election” of Bukele, who wasn’t even supposed to have been a candidate, since he has already served one term in office (2019-2023). However, this didn’t stop him from running, demonstrating a clear disregard for democratic norms and the rule of law. And all of these rules were violated without a peep from the rest of the countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Thirdly, international legality has not been respected. The inter-American community shouldn’t have remained silent in the face of this outrage. No government spoke out against the subjugation of the Constitution, nor did any government defend the international standards adopted by the inter-American system, such as those contained in the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

Adopted unanimously by the countries of the Americas in September of 2011, the Charter specifies that, among the “essential elements” of democracy (Article 3), there are several core norms. With impunity, Bukele has dismissed them, both in his way of governing and in his re-election campaign. “Access to power and its exercise [are] subject to the rule of law… and the separation and independence of public powers.” This also implies respect for “freedom of expression and of the press.”

Fourthly, the recent electoral process is just one example of the growing concentration of power in the hands of Bukele. This personalization of politics has resulted in a significant deterioration of democratic institutions in El Salvador. This governing model has been criticized for its incompatibility with democratic principles and for its constant violations of fundamental human rights.

Katya Salazar, executive director of the Washington DC-based Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), has highlighted actions taken within the “Bukele phenomenon” that are totally incompatible with democratic societies. A few months after coming to power in 2019, the presence of the Armed Forces in the Legislative Assembly — on Bukele’s orders, so as to intimidate its members — was the first warning sign. Then, the members of the Constitutional Court of El Salvador, which had been a kind of counterweight to the executive branch and its aspiration for absolute power, were all dismissed by Bukele. Subsequently, the individuals selected to replace the dismissed judges were appointed in a manner that was completely outside the established process. Finally, it was those irregularly-appointed judges who issued the unconstitutional decision to allow for immediate presidential re-election, despite the fact that several articles of the Constitution expressly prohibit this.

Effectively, the dismantling of the essential pieces of institutional control is underway at an accelerated and unsanctioned pace. The concentration of political power and the violations of fundamental rights includes the destruction of freedom of expression. The most visible and scandalous occurrence is now clear, for example, through the battle that has been waged against El Faro, an important independent publication. It has now been formally shuttered within El Salvador (although it continues to operate online beyond the borders), while its directors are persecuted by the government.

Indeed, the government is in a head-on collision with the most basic democratic standards. Faced with this collapse of democratic institutions, there’s a great paradox: this “governing model” appears to have captivated large segments of public opinion in El Salvador and across Latin America, due to its crackdown on crime. This is despite the fact that an autocratic government violates the most fundamental structures and institutions, while engaging in the terrifying process of concentrating power in the hands of one person… something that, as we know, usually ends very badly for societies.

Certainly, when we look at Latin American history, the way in which Bukele has extended his time in power is by no means unusual. It’s hardly any different from how other South and Central American autocrats have stayed past their allotted time: Batista (Cuba), Somoza (Nicaragua), Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Fujimori (Peru), Ortega (Nicaragua), or Chávez (Venezuela) are just some examples of strongmen from the past century. All of them adjusted legal norms to seek successive re-elections and used the state apparatus for their campaigns, and, later on, for corruption.

The Bukele model: undermining democracy

The so-called Bukele model is, among other things, the devious undermining of democracy. Does Latin America really want to continue to follow this model?

Some argue that this has served to fulfill a desirable social objective, which is to drastically reduce crime in El Salvador. However, the collapse of the balance of powers and democratic institutions isn’t a required tool for crime control. Rather, this has occurred because of the simple desire to accumulate absolute power. The history of the continent indicates what consequences these types of autocratic processes have brought about: excessive corruption and poor management of public finances, factors that end up seriously affecting the population. Signs of this are already being observed in El Salvador.

Michael Shifter, former president of the DC-based Inter-American Dialogue, writes in a recent article for El Faro that El Salvador’s economic performance is disappointing, even by currently low Central American standards. He recalls that, according to the World Bank, foreign investment in the country has fallen under the Bukele administration. On the other hand, he points out that “credible investigations have already revealed corruption scandals around Bukele.” There are no signs that this will change. These two elements are serious consequences of the governing model in question.

An excuse to amass absolute power

In the short-term, the reduction of insecurity, a severe problem in El Salvador, is what has contributed to Bukele’s popularity. However, the war on crime has also served as an excuse that has allowed him to accumulate absolute power.

Certainly, the drop in crime cannot be denied. But this shouldn’t allow us to look the other way when it comes to the rising authoritarian phenomenon in El Salvador today. What was meant to be a temporary state of emergency has become permanent, with regulations that violate the basic rights of due process, raising fundamental questions about how this governing model affects citizen security in the long-term. For instance, a recent report on disappearances during the state of emergency in El Salvador is very telling. Prepared by the DPLF in collaboration with the World Organization against Torture (OMCT), the Center for Civil and Political Rights (CCPR), the human rights organization Cristosal, the Institute of Human Rights at the Central American University (IDHUCA) and the Passionist Social Service (SSPAS), the document sheds light on an alarming situation that requires the world’s attention.

According to this valuable report, massive and indiscriminate arrests of more than 71,000 people have been carried out in El Salvador. There are thousands of innocent people within this figure. The majority of arrests have been accompanied by the systematic refusal to provide information to the detainees’ families regarding the status of people arrested by the police and prison authorities. There are no reports available about the status and location of the detained persons, nor are there proper judicial controls being applied to the arrests.

The trials are massive: cases are not individualized. Sentencing in absentia is permitted, while judges’ identities are confidential. The majority of those affected are young people in poverty, accused of the crime of belonging to “illicit groups.” This wording is so broad that it allows for the arrest of people without any legal basis. There has never been so much impunity on the part of the security services since the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992).

Several examples which are detailed in the report reveal an unacceptable pattern of state repression For example, people are often captured by the police or military, operating under the jurisdiction of the state of emergency, in public places, in the presence of witnesses. But when their relatives later go to different police stations to request information, officials deny that the arrests even occurred. The whereabouts of the detained person are kept hidden.

In several cases, detainees have died in detention, without their families having been informed. The report mentions, as examples, the names of Henry Joya, Rafael López and Noelia García.

Henry Joya was detained for more than a year, with no official information provided about his arrest. The authorities eventually provided information to his relatives for two months, but then stopped informing them about his health. Given the lack of information, his family went to the Institute of Legal Medicine (IML), where they recognized his body through photographs. Henry had been buried on July 8, in a mass grave. According to the report issued by the IML, Henry died due to pulmonary edema. However, a witness who shared a cell with him at the Mariona Penitentiary Center told the family that Joya had been subjected to severe beatings by the guards and that he died as a result of the physical abuse.

Rafael López was arrested at his workplace located in Jucuapa, in the region of Usulután. According to his family members, four local police officers arrested him for the alleged crime of belonging to an “illegal group” and transferred him to a prison. From that moment onwards, the authorities denied them any information about Rafael and his state of health. Two months later, while completing an administrative procedure, the family was belatedly informed of his death. He apparently had suffered from “health complications” and was transferred to the Zacamil Hospital, where he died on June 1, 2022. He was buried 20 days later. As in many other cases, he was buried in a mass grave, with his family not being notified.

Noelia García was arrested on June 14, 2022, at her home in Santa Ana. She was transferred to a police station, where the officer only allowed her family to bring her some clothing. That same day, she was sent to a penitentiary center and, from there, the authorities stopped providing the family with information about her location and health situation. On January 23, 2023, Noelia’s family found out through their own sources that she had been rushed to hospital. Finally, on February 1, 2023, through social media, the family learned that an unidentified woman had died in a hospital. It was later confirmed that she was Noelia.

Questionable emergency measures

Everything indicates that, so far, Salvadoran society seems to be looking the other way. This is despite the fact that several families are paying a high price for the policies being implemented to quell gang violence. As is mentioned in the DPLF report, nobody is preoccupied until it affects them personally.

Is the situation sustainable? The emergency measures only address the issue from an incarceration perspective: there’s nothing about prevention or rehabilitation. But is anything being done about the causes of gang violence? Well, there’s no known comprehensive project or strategy to address this long-standing problem. And this lack of planning exists within a stagnant economy, as foreign investment declines.

Finally, what’s going to happen with the mass trials of those more than 70,000 detainees? Sooner or later, they will be formally interrogated. Many cases may end up falling apart.

Bukele’s unconstitutional triumph sends a dangerous message to the region. Essentially, from his perspective, democratic values are an obstacle to governing: the jailing of some innocents and the erosion of some rights are simply part of the price that must be paid for security.

Latin American societies, and the entire world, have enough information (or can easily access it ) to not invent sweeping governing models. Rather, it’s best to design institutionally appropriate strategies to combat crime. This doesn’t require destroying democracy or generating new autocrats: the region already has too many of them.

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