Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Will Nayib Bukele Be Latin America’s Next Strongman?

EL MOZOTE, El Salvador — The village of El Mozote sits in the department of Morazán in the northeastern highlands of El Salvador near the border with Honduras, a huddle of concrete block homesteads, many of loggers and farmers, nestled between fertile peaks rich with pineapple, coffee and sugar cane.

Four decades after Salvadoran troops murdered almost 1,000 villagers here from Dec. 11 to Dec. 13, 1981 — the largest single massacre in Latin America’s contemporary history — it remains a site of mourning. The plaza is shadowed by a memorial with the names and ages of victims, and photographs showing the decaying corpses. It is a testament to the deep scars of the civil war waged by the left-wing insurgents of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or F.M.L.N., and a succession of military and right-wing governments between 1980 and 1992 that drove hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and poverty to seek refuge in the United States.

Washington was deeply involved in that war, with the U.S. military training Salvadoran troops and equipping them with planes, guns and bombs. A U.S. military adviser was in Morazán during the Mozote massacre, according to the testimony of an expert witness at a pretrial hearing on April 26 in El Salvador for a case against the perpetrators of the massacre. With more than two million Salvadorans living in the United States and more than 100,000 asylum seekers arriving from there in recent years, the nations remain intimately connected.

When the war ended in 1992 with peace accords, the F.M.L.N. transformed into a political party, and conservatives and military officers found a home in the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena. Since then, power has swung from Arena to the F.M.L.N. in democratic elections, and El Salvador has celebrated the peace treaty as its central story. A monument for reconciliation in San Salvador, the capital, tells this story: A female guerrilla and a male armed services member, each with an arm around the other, releasing a flight of doves.

But the era of peace was stained by another form of violence: Some young Salvadoran refugees had joined gangs in Los Angeles, and a hard-line deportation policy from the 1990s helped spread the crime organizations across El Salvador. Both Arena and the F.M.L.N. struggled to contain rampant gang violence, and this forced a new wave of people to flee the Central American nation.

The rule of the two parties was finally broken in 2019, when Nayib Bukele, now 39, the mayor of San Salvador, won the presidential election on the promise to end gang warfare. Mr. Bukele ran as the candidate of a smaller right-wing party while forming his own party, New Ideas, which he claims is neither left wing nor right wing. His allies had only a tiny minority in Congress, and he needed a victory in the legislative elections in February of this year.

So last December, Mr. Bukele went to the haunted village of El Mozote and made an incendiary speech attacking his opponents and dismissing the peace accords. “They were a farce, a negotiation between two cúpulas,” or powerful cliques, said the president, who has a penchant for wearing a baseball cap and finely trimmed beard. “What benefits did they bring to the Salvadoran people?”

The speech at El Mozote sparked anger among residents who still bear the scars. María Crescencia Chica Amaya, a vendor who sells memorabilia associated with the massacre, wept as she described how, at the age of 11, she escaped with her younger siblings just an hour before the troops arrived. The children hid in the hills for three days without food — the sound of the gunfire and smell of decaying flesh surrounding them.

“What he said was a mockery to us,” she said. “He didn’t suffer the war as we suffered it.”

Yet the stunt was an effective populist rouse. Mr. Bukele presented himself as a true voice of the people against a corrupt elite that dominated politics after the war. He paints his party as young, free of ideology, favorable to business and yet a protector of the poor.

Through the speech, Mr. Bukele rewrote the narrative of his country’s history — and his contention that there was no true peace found fertile ground among many people in the barrios who have suffered the bulk of crime and gang violence in the years since the treaty. “This peace that they talked about never existed for us,” said Jaime Montoya, a 40-year-old construction worker from the poor neighborhood La Campanera, at the edge of the capital.

New Ideas won the Feb. 28 elections by a landslide, with 66 percent of the votes and a supermajority in Congress. What helped lead Mr. Bukele to victory was a huge decline in murder rates, which critics claim is due to a truce between gangs, as well as to generous government handouts during the Covid-19 pandemic. The elections ushered in a new era of politics, replacing the postwar two-party system with a single dominant party that has enough control to rewrite the Constitution.

The rise of Mr. Bukele has shaken some of the country’s journalists, academics and human rights defenders, worried about where his aggressive rhetoric will lead. They see him as many Americans saw President Donald Trump: as a firebrand who endangers democracy. Mr. Bukele has sent troops into Congress to pressure legislators, accused leading media outlets of waging a campaign against him and praised the use of lethal force in policing.

The situation escalated sharply on May 1 as the new National Assembly voted to remove five magistrates from the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court who had opposed Mr. Bukele’s measures and on May 2, it voted to remove the attorney general. The moves sparked immediate condemnation from opposition politicians and human rights groups. “Bukele attacks the rule of law and seeks to concentrate all the power in his hands,” tweeted José Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division. Furthermore, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said in a tweet, “We have deep concerns about El Salvador’s democracy, in light of the National Assembly’s vote.”

The White House already appeared wary of Mr. Bukele. In February he requested a meeting with President Biden on an unannounced trip to Washington, according to The Associated Press, but amid growing criticism of him among Democrats, the Salvadoran president was snubbed. Perhaps in return, in early April Mr. Bukele refused to meet with Ricardo Zúñiga, the State Department’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle, on a visit that Mr. Zúñiga made to Central America, according to another A.P. report.

How the Biden administration should deal with the governments of Central America presents a dilemma. On one hand, it has to be careful of repeating Washington’s history of supporting repressive regimes that carry out atrocities against civilians. In the last decade, Latin America has not experienced the same scale of bloodshed by troops seen in El Mozote, but there have been violent crackdowns on protesters across the region.

On the other hand, the United States needs to get to the root of what causes people to flee to its southwestern border. For over a decade, I have been reporting on the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — and I’ve seen what effectively has been a meltdown stemming from gang violence, climate-change-driven drought and economic hopelessness.

El Salvador and Honduras were in some years the most murderous countries in the world, and successive crop failures have produced food shortages. The recent spike of undocumented migrants crossing into the United States, with detention centers in Texas and other states overflowing with minors, is the country’s third border crisis in less than eight years.

After the Cold War, Washington neglected the region, turning its focus and funding to dubious ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is in the interest of the United States to support its Central American neighbors, and a major investment plan could be part of the solution. In these small and impoverished countries, even a little investment could transform the situation. The start of such an effort could be the $4 billion plan that Mr. Biden proposed on the campaign trail to address the causes of immigration in the region.

Practically, the Biden administration needs to have a working relationship with Mr. Bukele. Through cooperation with his government, the United States could gain leverage in efforts to prevent El Salvador from veering into authoritarianism. However, the bulk of the aid would be better channeled to nongovernment organizations than to state coffers, and the Biden administration needs to watch carefully how the situation develops.

For those of us invested in upholding liberal democracy, it is important to understand why people turn to populist leaders and why democracy hasn’t stemmed violence in Latin America. The bloodstained barrios of San Salvador offer an explanation.

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The grave of the president’s father, Armando Bukele, who built an array of automobile, advertising, pharmaceutical, beverage and textile companies, sits between extravagant mausoleums in a posh San Salvador cemetery. It is marked by a simple oblong plaque on a plain plot of grass and flowers. The modest tomb may speak to his faith. He was a Christian Palestinian who converted to Islam and founded a series of mosques, including one in the center of San Salvador.

The president has said that he believes in God rather than a specific religion. Mr. Bukele studied at the elite Panamerican School, on gated grounds in an idyllic tree-lined neighborhood. He didn’t finish college and instead started working at one of his family’s businesses at 18 and later was a publicist and ran other business ventures.

At 30, against his father’s advice, he jumped into politics and, in 2012, became the mayor of the small town of Nuevo Cuscatlán, in a coffee-growing valley just outside the capital, from which he projected himself onto the national stage. A mere three years later, he became the mayor of San Salvador and drew global media attention as a promising young politician.

I interviewed him when he was the mayor of San Salvador in 2017 for Time magazine’s next generation leaders issue. He talked about his social work in the barrios. “We’re trying to challenge the gangs, not by repression, but by competing to get the young people to our side,” he told me. He was also keen on checking the camera angle to make sure it captured his best side.

Later that year, he was expelled from the F.M.L.N. for what the party said was “generating division,” including some vocal conflicts with other members. He went on to win the presidency, thanks to his popularity in the capital, skilled campaigning and ability to dominate the national conversation. Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Bukele is an expert political marketer. The letter N, the first letter of his name and his party’s, adorns billboards across the nation. And with 2.4 million Twitter followers in a country of 6.4 million, his social media presence is pervasive.

After winning the presidency, his rhetoric changed sharply from emphasizing social work to championing law and order. He incorporated more troops into efforts to fight gangs, telling service members, “God will give us this victory against those who don’t want us to fight crime.” He railed against media elites and human rights groups he accuses of being corrupt and attempting to undermine him. “Receiving dirty money to do your job,” he wrote on Twitter, “does not make you a troublesome journalist, but a mercenary.”

“President Bukele has been explicit that some media are his enemies,” Carlos Martínez, a journalist with the independent investigative news outlet El Faro, told me. “He has a whole structure on social media to discredit us, attack us.” On Twitter, pro-government and opposition accounts have engaged in hashtag battles by posting frequently from dubious accounts, according to a report from the International Crisis Group.

The president pulls controversial stunts that make media splashes. In February 2020, he summoned soldiers in full combat fatigues into the Legislative Assembly to call on lawmakers to approve a loan for security equipment. During the episode, he sat in the seat reserved for the assembly’s president, cried and prayed to God before issuing his ultimatum: Approve the loan, or he would call the people to insurrection. In April 2020, in another show of strength, his office released photos of hundreds of gang members stripped to their underwear and pressed together on a prison floor.

Part of Mr. Bukele’s popularity at the moment is due to handouts. During the Covid crisis, his government has given bags of groceries to many families in need. Some people qualified for $300 cash payments. While the aid was needed amid lockdowns and followed the example of other countries around the globe, cash gifts are also an old technique of Latin American populists.

A more impressive accomplishment is that murder rates have plummeted under his rule. In 2015, El Salvador had the worst homicide rate on the continent, with 103 per 100,000 people — 21 times the rate in the United States that year. The rate declined by 2018 to 51 murders per 100,000 people. Then in 2020 it reached fewer than 20 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest homicide rates in recent Salvadoran history and lower than Mexico’s and Colombia’s. Walking the streets of El Salvador this year, I felt they were markedly safer than they were in previous visits.

How this was achieved is a matter of fierce debate.

La Campanera is one of the most notorious barrios for gang violence in El Salvador, built on a steep hill on an edge of the capital that cuts into rugged countryside. It was there that the Franco-Spanish filmmaker Christian Poveda made his classic documentary on gangs, “La Vida Loca.” It was near there that Mr. Poveda was murdered in 2009, reportedly by gang members.

Like the country’s political parties, the gangs were born from the civil war. Young Salvadorans fled in the 1980s to Los Angeles and joined crews in tough neighborhoods; many were initiated into Barrio 18, and others formed Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13. After the 1992 peace accords, the United States deported thousands of gang members back to Central America. They found willing recruits in their shattered homeland, including former guerrillas and troops.

MS-13 and Barrio 18 overwhelmed the country’s weak institutions. They have now carved out territory in almost every poor urban neighborhood in the country and even in many villages. They enforce their borders through beating or killing any people who come from rival areas, including civilians.

La Campanera is the turf of Barrio 18. I visited with Doctors Without Borders, which runs a free medical clinic there. There is a police checkpoint to pass, but a few hundred yards from it, gang members still openly hang out, sitting on chairs outside shops or standing on corners.

Away from the main road, steep alleys cut through cinder block homes built by the government. Many are abandoned by families who fled threats and murders, leaving behind scattered possessions like children’s clothes and toys. This forced displacement is a worrying mark of gang violence that is painfully reminiscent of the civil war.

Sitting on his porch, Mr. Montoya, the construction worker, told me that he supports Mr. Bukele, a sentiment shared by various residents I talked to. “He is the first president who has given food to people and has cared about security and poverty,” said Mr. Montoya, who worked in Maryland for a decade before being deported in 2006. He now makes $10 a day, so the handouts are a big deal for him. He noted that the security situation has considerably improved.

The president credits his Territorial Control Plan, which increased police presence and sent more troops onto the streets. He regularly tweets the results of raids and busts that he attributes to the plan.

However, in September, El Faro released a story alleging that the government had brokered a deal with gang leaders to order their minions to stop killing in exchange for better prison conditions and other benefits. A similar truce was attempted in 2012 but fell apart after public criticism. Mr. Bukele denied the report and announced on television that he was investigating El Faro for money laundering.

Opposition politicians question whether the government is working with gangs, which have been involved in coercing voters. “You go into the field, and you see that the dominion, the political and social control of the territories, is in the hands of the gangs,” Gen. Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, a veteran lawmaker for Arena, told me. “There are territories where they don’t let anyone go in, only those from New Ideas.”

In the center of San Salvador, a leader of market traders complained that the gangs are still shaking down businesses, demanding that stalls make regular payments to them. The extortion of millions of informal vendors, taxi drivers, buses and small shops is the main racket of gangs, and it has hammered growth in the nation. This is another throwback to the war, when guerrillas demanded payments from businesses in certain regions.

“The territorial control by the gang members has intensified,” the market leader said, asking his name not be used, for fear of repercussions from the gangs. “They have complete control, and nobody says anything. They don’t kill publicly because their business is intact.”

Mr. Bukele claims he has a long-term plan for social change in neighborhoods notorious for gang violence. Iberia is another such barrio, which is more centrally located and urban than La Campanera and is the turf of the rival MS-13. There the president has launched a social work project that he promotes as the blueprint for what he will roll out across the nation.

The project is centered on the CUBO (“cube”), which in Spanish stands for the Urban Center of Welfare and Opportunity — another example of political marketing. The center is a large, cube-shaped building with transparent glass walls. It has computers for residents to surf the internet and kids to do their homework, comfy cushions and books, mats for youths to break dance and a studio to record music. The idea is to create a safe space, equipped with quality resources, away from gang violence.

Facing the CUBO is a serene mural of the president’s father. “Everything you do counts,” reads a quote from Armando Bukele painted on the mural. I visited the CUBO with Carlos Marroquín, a young government official whose title is director of the reconstruction of the social fabric. He grew up in a barrio and was a graffiti artist known as Sliptone before he started working with Mr. Bukele when he was a small-town mayor.

The vision for the government policy “is about more than going into a community and being repressive,” Mr. Marroquín said. “It is about bringing opportunities, with art, with culture, with education, with scholarships.” Local youths are trained for six months to work at the CUBO, which he said develops positive leadership that can transform the barrios.

The El Faro report alleges, based on visiting records, that Mr. Marroquín was involved in meeting with gang leaders in prisons. He denied this and told me there is no truce. “They are newspapers of the opposition to the government of President Nayib Bukele, and they are looking to discredit him,” he said. “Show me a photo.”

Governments across Latin America have struggled to stop the criminal violence of the 21st century. I have reported on other cities, including Medellín, Colombia, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that at various times were the most murderous on the continent. In both of those cases, there are credible reports that the criminals made truces to reduce the bloodshed. It is a thorny issue, and a hazardous one for politicians to talk about, but I believe that we must discuss truces as a realistic way of reducing catastrophic murder rates.

The presence of troops, along with the reduced body count, gives residents the perception of improved security in El Salvador. But as Mr. Martínez, the journalist, pointed out, gangs could be getting stronger and may unleash worse violence in the future. A truce “only makes them more powerful,” he said. “The question is whether it is sustainable.”

Inside the CUBO, Mr. Marroquín took me to watch a group of rappers called Sivar Crew perform a freestyle. They passed around the mic. “We won’t be defeated,” rapped one. “Health to President Nayib Bukele, who is going to represent.”

I’ve covered so much bloodshed and suffering in Central America that it warmed my heart to see the hope in these teenagers. Yet I fear, like the critics of Mr. Bukele, that this new peace is fragile like the walls of glass in the giant cube and may one day shatter.

Ioan Grillo (@ioangrillo) is the author of “Blood Gun Money: How America Arms Gangs and Cartels.”

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