World How El Salvador loves its ‘cool dictator’ who shut...

How El Salvador loves its ‘cool dictator’ who shut down the gangs – but at the cost of human rights


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Yet Bukele’s success at halting the gang warfare has come at a huge price. Human rights norms are routinely flouted while there is a growing climate of fear as Bukele and cybermobs of his online trolls attack journalists and others who dare to question his growing authoritarianism and alleged corruption.

The United States has even blacklisted several of his closest allies for negotiating a secret, illegal truce with the maras. They are accused of offering jailed gang leaders everything from mobile phones to prostitutes, casting into doubt Bukele’s hardline law and order credentials.

Meanwhile, the president’s grandiose economic plans, including his adoption of Bitcoin as the national currency – to the bewilderment of ordinary citizens – appear to have stalled.

Ground has yet to be broken on his £12 billion “Bitcoin City” project. Nearly 90 per cent of Salvadorans did not use the cryptocurrency in 2023. Public debt is at a three-decade high of around £20 billion and extreme poverty has doubled since Bukele took office.

Many fear that the 42-year-old former advertising executive and heavy user of TikTok and X, formerly known as Twitter, really is on the verge of becoming the latest in a long line of Latin American despots.

A mural depicting Nayib Bukele, El Salvador's president, in the Zacamil neighborhood of San Salvador

Under the national state of emergency declared by Bukele, constitutional rights were suspended, allowing arrests based on unverified tip offs, detention without charge, and unrestricted government access to citizens’ emails, text messages and phone calls.

Human rights groups say that wrongful detention by police desperate to hit arrest quotas are rampant and have documented thousands of cases.

Often suspects are seized for failing to pay officers money or because a vengeful neighbour anonymously accuses them of being a gang member, says Samuel Ramírez, an IT engineer from San Salvador, who founded the Movement for Victims of the Regime.

“We have no rights anymore. There’s no due process. You don’t even get a trial,” Ramírez says. “This is all about Bukele wanting more and more power and to instil fear in the entire population.”

Allegations of torture

Nearly half of the detainees are held in a new mega-prison, a half-hour outside of San Salvador, reputed to be the largest in the world. Inmates only leave their severely overcrowded cells to be interrogated or strip-searched, with numerous allegations of torture and deaths in custody.

But instead of responding to serious questions about human rights and economic policy, Bukele vilifies his critics, including El Faro, an award-winning news site that has been forced to move its administrative headquarters to Costa Rica to avoid fines and accusations of tax evasion.

Julia Gavarrete, one of its reporters, who discovered Pegasus spyware secretly installed on her phone, is concerned that Bukele’s authoritarianism will intensify if he is re-elected.

“The attacks from him and his officials are already aggressive. My concern is that this will lead to physical attacks,” she said. “I think this may just be the start and that there are worse things to come.”

Yet democracy is the least of most people’s concerns back in Italia. “Only God and the president know if they have detained innocent people,” says Maura. “Here they have arrested gang members. God put him [Bukele] here to do that.”

El Salvador’s constitution only allows a single term for each president. But Bukele packed the constitutional court which then came up with an improbable reinterpretation to allow him to run for re-election.


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