What is happening in El Salvador? The small Central American country that is emerging from an internal armed conflict that lasted more than 10 years and is sadly known for the phenomenon of street gangs, called maras or pandillas, arouses concern among international observers for its president who shows increasing disrespect for democratic institutions and is centralizing the powers in its hands, while enjoying extraordinary popularity among compatriots.
Nayib Bukele was elected president in 2019 at the age of 37, beating the candidates of the two traditional parties, which have alternatively won all elections since the birth of the post-war democracy. These parties are Arena (rightwing party) and FMLN (leftwing party). Bukele – a former publicist of Palestinian origins – belongs to one of the richest families in the country and is an effective communicator on social media.
Some of his Twitter bios became popular, such as “El Salvador’s CEO”, “The coolest dictator of the world”, and “Emperor”. They were all polemically written to answer to the protests and critics against his course of action. However these critics remained a minority, since his popularity has always been enormous: in May 2022 people approved the government management with an average score of 8,34 out of 10, and 7 out of 10 citizens claimed they would support his reelection for a second term.
Ever since the presidential race, he presented himself as an outsider who wants to evict, to uphold the will of the people, “los mismos de siempre” or “the same ones as always”, i.e., politicians belonging to traditional parties, doomed as corrupted, to finally drive El Salvador into the future thanks to bitcoins and free the country from the plague of the pandillas.
2. The rise of Bukele
In 2019, Bukele won the elections thanks to an anti-parties’ rhetoric and the promise of public investments to support the local economy and the fight against criminal gangs. Nevertheless, in the past he has been mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and the capital San Salvador, as a member of the FMLN party.
On 9 February 2020, Bukele stormed the National Assembly with the army, to put pressure on the parliamentarians who were deferring the approval of the budget for his plan to combat pandillas.
His management of the Covid-19 pandemic made people forget this outrageous event, thanks to some popular measures, like a $300 subsidy to families without income and the distribution of food baskets. However, Bukele adopted even controversial measures, for example he gave police and healthcare professionals authorization to enter people’s homes without a warrant and arrest and transfer anyone who was not respecting the national lockdown to Covid internment camps.
Bukele's influence and power grew enormously after the 2021 legislative elections. His party, Nuevas Ideas, won a two-thirds majority in Parliament and since then all the draft laws proposed by the president have been passed without any changes and almost without being debated. Moreover, five judges of the Constitutional Court, who were considered hostile, and the Attorney General of the Republic, who was investigating the pacts between the government and criminal gangs, were immediately dismissed.
The new judges, elected by the National Assembly, have already paved the way for the president’s re‑election in 2024, despite the constitutional ban. A recent sentence indeed affirmed that the will of the people prevails on constitutional norms and established that to run for re-election the president in charge only needs to resign five months before the end of the mandate.
3. Twitter and the bitcoin
Social media and the bitcoin cryptocurrency are two key elements in Bukele’s government. The president uses his social profiles, and especially Twitter, to announce his policies, and communicate with ministers and opposition leaders. However, he mainly uses them to project a juvenile image of himself and promote the idea of a modern and pioneering El Salvador. For these reasons, he always appears in jeans, leather jackets, baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, and publishes memes and sport jokes, as well as images of futurist projects like Surf City or systems using energy from the volcanos to power the bitcoins’ servers.
Bukele’s contempt for national and international institutions shines through social media. In 2021, right before speaking for the first time at the UN General Assembly, he took a selfie saying that “a couple of pictures on Instagram have more impact than any speech in this assembly”.
On 7 September 2021, the bitcoin became the official currency of El Salvador, alongside the dollar. The adoption of the bitcoin led thousands of Salvadoran citizens to protest in the streets of the main cities against the unsolicited technological breakthrough. Until now this has been the first and only case of clear disapproval of the president’s government.
International criticism rests on bitcoin volatility, the environmental impact and the energy issue related to mining, and the risk of fueling money laundering and criminal activities. National concerns are directly related to individuals’ context. On the eve of the bitcoin adoption, 72% of respondents in a national survey said they were unwilling to accept bitcoin payments. In a country where almost ¼ of citizens live in poverty, only 40% of the population has a smartphone and only 1/3 has regular access to the internet, people think they are not able to use the bitcoin, they are afraid that its value may suddenly collapse, unlike the dollar, and facilitates scams.
The government created and launched the app Chivo Wallet to exchange dollars and bitcoins and send money in the two currencies, without commissions. Every user who downloaded the app received 30 dollars as an incentive. Once exhausted this initial credit, however, only 20% of the population has used the app again and the Chivo ATMS have remained almost totally unused. Afterward, the bitcoin’s price dropped 45%. According to estimates, El Salvador lost roughly 40 millions, even if official data are not available.
4. The war against the pandillas
After the discovery of 87 corpses, killed by the pandillas, between 25 and 27 March this year, the president declared a state of emergency for thirty days and the suspension of the right to legal defense and the presumption of innocence, for members of criminal gangs. The state of emergency has been in place until today, after five extensions approved by the Parliament.
We must consider that the newspaper El Faro has provided sound evidence that the government had negotiated with the leaders of the two main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. In particular, concessions for imprisoned leaders have been granted and reintegration programs of the pandilleros have been put in place, in exchange for the end of violence. The deaths in March could be explained as a willingness of the gangs to renegotiate the agreement, after a two-year truce with the state.
Army soldiers patrol the streets and can arrest suspects without a warrant, sometimes just for having tattoos. More than 50,000 people have been arrested so far, including some 12-year-olds. According to Amnesty International, at least 18 people arrested during the state of emergency were reported to have died while in state custody.
The rights to association and information have been severely restricted, for instance anyone who shares information about gangs can be punished with up to 15 years in prison. Sentences have been increased: between 20 and 45 years in prison for adults belonging to a gang, 10 for twelve-year-olds, and up to 20 for those over 16.
Several families of those arrested, as well as national and international human rights organizations reported thousands of cases of arrests of innocents who were not linked to the gangs and violations in prison. Despite this, according to an IUDOP survey, 80% of Salvadorans support the state of emergency and say they feel safer.
Nowadays, in El Salvador the independence of powers is not guaranteed, since the executive, the legislative and the judiciary powers respond almost directly to the will of the president. Yet Salvadoran society seems to support an authoritarian leader, in exchange for the illusion of security. Many people indeed seem convinced that only extreme measures can crush the phenomenon of pandillas.
At the same time, the country is experiencing a serious economic crisis related, among other things, to the collapse of the price of bitcoin, promoted to official currency. Despite this, the president still enjoys high levels of consensus. The population is probably deceived by the images of innovative power spread by the president, which clashes with the socio-economic reality of the country.Bukele is an unprecedented fusion between the figure of the strongman, who has many precedents in Latin America and is unfortunately well received in a national context so used to violence in the streets (because of the civil war before and the abuses of the pandillas after), and the image of the contemporary populist leader, anti-caste and active on social media. We could be faced with a "millennial authoritarianism", which is a political strategy that combines traditional populist appeals and classic authoritarian behavior, with a youthful and modern personal brand, built through social media.
Moreover, Bukele's attitude and actions are reminiscent of the undemocratic fall of another leader duly elected and launched as an outsider like Alberto Fujimori in Peru or an anti-system and very active figure on social media such as former US President Donald Trump. Finally, if negotiating with gangs is not a new phenomenon for El Salvador, the frontal war that Bukele started after the alleged breaking of the truce has a clear unprecedented dimension.
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 A civil war between the Salvadoran army and the rebels of the Farabundo Martí Front that lasted from 1979 to 1992.  The Nationalist Republican Alliance and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front respectively.  Even though the national press has criticized the lack of clear and transparent allocation criteria.  “A couple of images on Instagram have a greater impact than any speech in this assembly” (The Guardian).  The dollar has been El Salvador’s official currency since 2001, in replacement of the Salvadoran colón.  At the time of writing, the last extension of the state of emergency was passed on 16 August.  Instituto Universitario de opinión pública.  Expression coined by the PhD student in Government at Harvard University, Manuel Melendez-Sanchez, (see “Latin America erupts: Millennial Authoritarianism in El Salvador”, Journal of Democracy).
Amnesty International Spain, 25 April 2022, «El Salvador: El estado de excepción ha creado una tormenta perfecta de violaciones de derechos humanos»
A. Bayoud, France24, 2022 «La paradoja de Bukele: apoyo alto en su país y críticas a nivel internacional»
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