I recently was asked an odd question while giving a speech in Santiago, Chile, about the future of Latin America. A man in the audience asked me what I thought about El Salvador’s President Najib Bukele, despite the fact that I had not mentioned El Salvador or its leader during my presentation.
When I responded that Bukele is an elected autocrat and that there is no such thing as a good dictator, the man politely shook his head and sat down. He was clearly disappointed.
Later that day, commenting on this exchange with a group of Chilean academics, they told me that Bukele has become a hero for many Chileans. Homicides and violent robberies have risen so much that growing numbers of people say they badly need a strong leader like the Salvadoran president to crack down on criminals, the group said.
Bukele, the 41-year-old who half-jokingly calls himself “the world’s coolest dictator,” is widely popular in El Salvador, and increasingly across Latin America, because of his massive crackdown on his country’s gangs.
According to InsightCrime.org, a think tank specialising in crime in the Americas, El Salvador’s murder rate tumbled in 2022 to only 495 cases, down from 1,147 the previous year. Bukele’s “decisive crackdown on gangs vastly reduced the murder rate, albeit at the cost of allegedly systematic human-rights abuses,” the group said.
In fact, El Salvador’s murder rate had been falling since 2015, when the country ranked as the most violent in the Americas. But Bukele accelerated the trend last year by using emergency powers to lock up 62,972 people, or nearly 2% of the country’s adult population, according to government data. Bukele made headlines worldwide recently when he transferred hundreds of detainees to a new “mega-prison” that can house up to 40,000 people. The president proudly describes it as the biggest detention center in the Americas. Bukele later released an elaborately produced video in which hundreds of male prisoners can be seen forced to run in lines while bent over, shirtless and wearing white underwear, with government troops watching them closely. The video was the talk of the day in most Latin American countries.
But there are several reasons to be skeptical about Bukele’s tactics. First, rather than being a champion of law and order, Bukele has been negotiating with his country’s gangs for years, according to several investigative reports from El Salvador’s highly respected El Faro digital newspaper. Citing a recently unsealed U.S. Justice Department indictment against 13 MS-13 gang members, El Faro reported that Bukele’s government protected gang members wanted for crimes in the United States.
The Salvadoran government, among other things shielded imprisoned gang leaders from extradition and reduced their sentences in exchange for reducing the number of murders and supporting the ruling party in key elections. Separate prison records show numerous visits by government officials to prison for meetings with gang leaders, El Faro reported. The U.S. Justice Department’s indictment, unsealed Feb. 23, says that Bukele made agreements with the gangs, “which politically benefited the government of El Salvador.” Juan Pappier, a Latin American specialist with the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, told me it’s no coincidence that Bukele released his video of the detainees’ move to his mega-prison only hours after the U.S. indictment was released.
“The video of the prisoner transfer was a smokescreen,” Pappier told me. “It’s an effort to overshadow the latest evidence that Bukele has been negotiating with the gangs all along.” Second, under Bukele’s “state of exception” imposed nearly a year ago, mass imprisonments are often carried out without due process. Many of those detained may not have committed any crimes, and can be kept behind bars for two years without formal charges, human-rights groups say.
Among those arrested are 1,082 teenagers and 1,246 under-aged children, according to official figures. Third, there is a serious possibility that Bukele’s negotiations with the gangs have only helped bring down homicides temporarily, without seriously hurting gangs or helping address the root causes that drives young people to join them.
In 2012, when the former government of Mauricio Funes reportedly also held negotiations with the gangs to get their electoral support, homicide rates dropped for the following two years, but rose to record levels in 2015. “Bukele has not shown any signs of trying to implement a plan of crime prevention,” El Faro editor Carlos Dada told me. “If he doesn’t address the root causes of violence, such as the fact that entire communities have been totally neglected by the state, this will be just another temporary solution.” I agree. Bukele is the ultimate political showman, and his latest video mega-production showing the prisoners marching half-naked to his “biggest prison in the Americas” may be just that — a big show. Previous government deals with Salvadoran gangs have not kept them from growing, and this one may prove to be no different.
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