San Salvador, El Salvador – He suspended civil liberties. Led a mass incarceration effort. And provoked international criticism for human rights violations.
But five years after he was first elected, President Nayib Bukele appears on track to secure a second term in office when El Salvador holds its general elections on Sunday.
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Bukele himself has embraced the condemnation he faces, labelling himself “the world’s coolest dictator”.
“On the surface, his base appears unwaveringly loyal to him even if he implements policies that negatively impact a large number of people,” said Rafael Paz Narvaez, a professor from the University of El Salvador.
Still, despite Bukele’s solid base of support, some observers question how long voters will back his strongman approach, particularly as more and more people feel its sting.
Under Bukele, El Salvador has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with an estimated 2 percent of its adult population behind bars.
The country once had one of the highest homicide rates too: In 2015, there were 105 murders for every 100,000 residents, a towering sum.
But Bukele has credited his “mano dura” or “iron fist” tactics for causing that number to tumble to just 7.8 homicides out of every 100,000 people — the lowest in Central America.
Security a primary concern
That argument has proven compelling for many Salvadorans, who have struggled with decades of widespread gang violence.
Douglas Guzmán, 35, counts himself among Bukele’s ardent supporters. Wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan “Bukele 2024-2029”, he recently joined dozens of people to watch the daily performance of street dancers in the Libertad Plaza, part of downtown San Salvador.
“This square used to be deserted because of how dangerous it used to be, but now thousands of people come to enjoy life,” Guzmán told Al Jazeera.
Gúzman arrived at the plaza with a selfie stick: He is part of an online community of content creators who use social media platforms like TikTok to preach their support for Bukele.
When asked about the accusations of human rights abuses under Bukele, Gúzman was quick to dismiss the reports.
“It doesn’t matter if they want to write negative things about the president,” he said of Bukele’s critics, among them non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
“I’ve walked through the dangerous communities, and until those NGOs walk through those streets, they won’t understand that this isn’t what they’re calling human rights violations.”
He emphasised that life had improved since Bukele took office in 2019. “The government is finally valuing human life. Bukele is saving the lives of Salvadorans.”
An ongoing state of emergency
Bukele’s ascent to the presidency marked a shift in Salvadoran politics. Only 37 years old at the time of his first presidential campaign, Bukele positioned himself as a political outsider, opposed by major parties on the right and left.
His inauguration five years ago made him the youngest president in Latin America, and he proceeded to make good on his ambitions of shaking up the status quo.
The designation curtailed certain rights — including the rights to due process and public gatherings — and expanded the government’s authority to surveil, arrest and prosecute suspected gang members.
An estimated 75,163 people have been arrested since then, according to government figures. Bukele’s administration also opened last year a new mega-prison, designed to house 40,000 people.
In addition to the state of emergency, El Salvador’s legislative assembly — controlled by Bukele’s New Ideas party — approved a series of judicial reforms last July that gave prosecutors the ability to conduct mass trials.
Under the reforms, up to 900 people could be tried at once, limiting their ability to prove their innocence. That tough-on-crime approach has formed the centrepiece for Bukele’s re-election campaign, as well as those of his fellow party members.
To maintain his party’s hold over the legislature, Bukele has narrated radio advertisements, warning: “If we lose one Congress member, the opposition will let all gang members free.”
Other party officials have echoed similar themes, playing on fears that the country could return to the high rates of crime it saw before.
For instance, Christian Guevara, the head of the New Ideas caucus in Congress, posted on social media, “The opposition has already said it would open the prison doors and let [suspected criminals] free.”
Narvaez, however, said that Bukele’s popularity is buoyed in part by a strong government communications strategy, one that has heavily invested state-run news sources and social media.
Bukele himself is renowned for his media savvy: On the social media platform X alone, he has more than 5.8 million followers.
“The Salvadoran people are grateful to not have to pay extortion any more. They’re grateful to be able to roam around the city with peace, but this is a feeling that has been constructed through the usage of public funds for Bukele’s propaganda machine,” Narvaez explained.
“As long as undemocratic actions can be justified as bolstering Bukele’s carefully crafted image, they will continue to be applied, not only with no significant backlash from the other state powers but with their compliance.”
Opponents say Bukele ‘went off the rails’
While Bukele’s government maintains his “mano dura” measures are necessary to confront high rates of gang violence, critics argue the powers granted to the police and military have opened the door to civil liberty violations.
As of January, the organisation Humanitarian Legal Aid has filed more than 1,700 habeas corpus petitions to El Salvador’s Supreme Court on behalf of people who have allegedly been wrongfully detained.
Some of the relatives of those unjustly imprisoned have formed the Movement of Victims of the State of Emergency (MOVIR). Together, they advocate for accountability and legal redress for the human rights violations perpetrated under the state of emergency.
Santos Arevalo, a 53-year-old agricultural worker and member of MOVIR, used to be an avid supporter of Bukele. He was one of the 1.4 million Salvadorans who voted him into office in 2019. And at first, he was optimistic about the change in leadership.
“Politicians were working only for the people in power,” Arevalo said of previous administrations. “We wanted to give him [Bukele] a shot because he said he was different.”
But then, Arevalo’s son was accused of being a gang member and arrested. So far, he has spent more than nine months awaiting trial in jail, where he is allowed no access to the outside world.
Arevalo has therefore been unable to ascertain his son’s wellbeing. The experience has left him feeling betrayed by the Bukele administration.
“Now he has turned against us for no reason,” Arevalo said of Bukele. “The president was supposed to go after all the gang members. That’s what he promised, but he went off the rails and now is going after innocent families.”
Arevalo only makes the minimum wage: about $243 dollars a month. Nevertheless, he spends $100 each month to deliver a food package to the penitentiary where his son is imprisoned, three hours from his home in the eastern department of Ahuachapán.
Since he is unable to reach his son, Arevalo never knows if the care packages reach him.
“This isn’t a war against gangs. This is a war against poor people,” Arevalo said. He hopes to have his son set free, although he fears his child could face a mass trial, where he would be lumped in with gang members.
For experts like Narvaez, a Bukele victory in Sunday’s election would signal a continued backslide away from democracy.
“If President Bukele scores a re-election, it will solidify his concentration of power and pave the way for further erosion of the rule of law,” he said.
But for Arevalo, the upcoming vote is personal. He plans to stand up against Bukele’s state of emergency for as long as it takes.
“The government has this idea of whipping human rights from this country,” he said. “We know that we and our families have rights, and we are going to continue fighting for them.”