El Salvador’s risky tradeoff: Exchanging democracy for security

If you lived in constant fear, would you support a leader who crushed terrorizing gangs without any regard for law? Would you give up democracy in exchange for security? Voters in El Salvador have just given a resounding answer. They overwhelmingly reelected President Nayib Bukele, the gang-smasher who is also the killer of his country’s democracy.

For much of the last decade, many towns and regions in El Salvador were under the control of horrifically violent gangs. People locked themselves indoors, and if they went out, they never showed valuables. Everyone from bus drivers to business owners had to pay tribute or face attack. In entire neighborhoods, every young male was pressed to join a gang. Girls were abducted and forced into servitude. Salvadorans in the United States could not send money to relatives at home because gang members would steal it. Gangs killed relentlessly. Defiance meant death.

All of that has changed. Gangs that plagued the country until two years ago are gone. The murder rate has plummeted. People freely walk the streets, ride taxis, shop, and use their cellphones in public. Rarely has daily life in any country changed so completely in such a short time.

In March 2022, after members of the MS-13 gang murdered 83 people in a single weekend, Bukele declared what he called a state of exception. He sent the army on military-style raids in which 70,000 young men — more than 1 percent of the population — were captured at gunpoint. For the two years since, those men have languished in specially built mega-prisons. Among them are notorious gangsters who for years plundered, tortured, and murdered with impunity. Some of the other prisoners were undoubtedly swept up unfairly.

All are held in harsh conditions, as government propaganda videos make gleefully clear. The prisoners have no legal rights and are allowed no contact with the outside world. Some have been convicted by hooded judges at group trials, but none are given a chance to prove their innocence. A gang tattoo is considered sufficient evidence for indefinite detention. El Salvador, which only a few years ago had one of the world’s highest murder rates, now has the world’s highest incarceration rate. “These psychopaths,” the warden of the main prison recently declared, “will spend the rest of their lives behind these bars.”

Not only do most Salvadorans not recoil from this pitiless approach, they cheer it. The flamboyant Bukele, just 42 years old and by his own account both a “philosopher king” and “the world’s coolest dictator,” enjoys astronomical popularity. His approval ratings are over 80 percent. He has 7 million TikTok followers. To test his appeal, go to your local Salvadoran restaurant, order a pupusa, and ask the folks what they think of Bukele. You’ll almost certainly get a big smile and a thumbs-up.

Over the last few years, Bukele has systematically dismantled his country’s political system. This month’s election consolidated his absolute power. He had already turned the Legislative Assembly and Supreme Court into puppets. He ran for a second term although the constitution forbids presidential reelection. Voters were fine with all of it.

“The brief, very brief democratic era of El Salvador’s history has ended,” the brave journalists of El Faro — Salvadorans who have had to flee the country and now report from nearby Costa Rica — lamented in an editorial after this month’s election. “Nayib Bukele has written his name into one of the worst Central American political traditions: that of the dictator.”

At the same time Bukele was wrecking El Salvador’s fledgling democracy, he was also freeing millions of Salvadorans from lives of unrelenting fear. He offers his people a deal: I will guarantee your security if you give me absolute power. In this month’s election, Salvadorans overwhelmingly embraced that deal.

How could they not? Thanks to Bukele, they may now lead normal lives instead of cowering in dread. That is real; democracy is diffuse and ephemeral. People anywhere might vote to surrender their political freedom if that was the only way they could walk their streets and raise children safely.

Bukele’s approach has won applause in several other Latin American countries. In Ecuador, which has suddenly erupted into spectacular drug-gang warfare, there are calls for a fierce and lawless crackdown modeled on the one that has pacified El Salvador. One scholar, Gustavo Flores-Macías of Cornell University, says Ecuador is “almost like a second laboratory for Bukele’s policies. People are so desperate that they buy into the need for these iron-fist policies to bring down crime.”

In troubled times, the strongman who ignores law to enforce order is always appealing. History suggests, however, that trouble looms for countries whose voters endorse authoritarian rulers. Modern Latin American history is littered with examples of elected authoritarians, from Juan Perón in Argentina to Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Voters propelled them to power to solve an urgent crisis. Worse crises, however, came years later.

Once given absolute power, leaders are loath to surrender it. That sets off spirals of upheaval and national pain. El Salvador, which has known plenty of both, may face more in the future.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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