MEXICO CITY – The Salvadorans were gambling when they elected the president of Nayib Bukele: he was a political outsider, a millennial who had largely run his campaign through social media and provided little concrete details on how he governed would.
However, voters in El Salvador have put him in office and hoped for a change that would improve life in a country that has long been haunted by corruption, poverty, and some of the world’s highest murder rates.
However, his actions in recent months have raised many Salvadorans – lawyers, business leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and others – that Mr. Bukele is falling back on the kind of authoritarian leadership that the country has waged in a civil war to overthrow.
In February, Mr. Bukele marched soldiers into Congress to intimidate lawmakers and enforce a bill. The following month, he wiped out the Supreme Court’s order to stop using the military to detain quarantine violators. He later advocated the use of lethal force to target criminal gangs that are increasing the country’s homicide rate.
“The president is more dependent on the military and police, and these forces are playing a repressive role again,” said Luis Coto, a priest who runs a community of 15,000 members in the center of the country. “We are taking a step back and going back in time to the war.”
The election of 38-year-old Bukele has pushed aside the two political parties that had been in power since the end of the brutal civil war in El Salvador in the 1990s. When he declared victory in jeans and a leather jacket, Mr. Bukele said that the country “turned the page” in the post-war period.
The majority of the population, tired of violence, continue to support him with sky-high approval rates. Mr Bukele’s office declined to comment on this article.
But his recent actions have shaken the country’s fragile democracy.
When lawmakers were slow to approve additional funds for the military in February, Mr. Bukele brought armed soldiers and police officers to the convention halls to urge them to act. The move triggered a constitutional crisis and evoked memories of the military dictatorships that had ruled the country for almost half a century.
The following month, he sent the army onto the streets to enforce one of the region’s strictest barriers and to prevent the spread of the corona virus. Soldiers and police officers locked thousands of people in security centers to break the quarantine and held them in the facilities for weeks. The Supreme Court ruled that the detention was unconstitutional and ordered Mr. Bukele to end it, but refused.
“Five people will not decide the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans,” said Bukele on Twitter of the judges’ decision. “The court is not authorized to implement or remove public health measures.”
Then, in April, a flood of murders shook them relative peace that had prevailed since the pandemic and questioned one of Mr. Bukele’s most important achievements: reducing violence.
In response, he authorized the police and the army to kill gang members if necessary. tweet“The use of lethal violence is allowed for self-defense or to defend the life of the Salvadorans.”
The President’s office also published a number of measures to punish detained gang members and published photos showing their harsh treatment by security forces.
One picture showed hundreds of prisoners crammed together on the floor, their shaved heads pressed against their bare backs while guards hovering over them with semi-automatic weapons. The scene indicated that the rules of social distancing that the state strictly enforces elsewhere are neglected.
“It’s a humiliation when everyone is half-naked and has to touch each other in public,” said José Miguel Cruz, Salvadoran organized crime expert at Florida International University.
Mr. Bukele announced that he would bring rival gang members into the same cell and seal the cells with welded metal sheets. “They’ll be in the dark with their friends from the other gang,” he tweeted.
According to Salvadoran security experts, the reversal in politics to tell gang members apart is a clear message. “It is an invitation for them to kill each other,” said Cruz.
Salvadoran lawyersBusiness groups and prominent think tanks have condemned the president’s actions. Many in the local and international human rights community warned that Mr. Bukele would slide towards dictatorship. Two top Democrats who sit on the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs wrote one Letter to the Salvadoran President Condemn the “unnecessarily degrading” images from the country’s prisons.
“People who have praised and trusted him in the past are now realizing that we are facing a president who is authoritarian, irresponsible and immature and who could do irreparable harm to the country,” said Celia Medrano, a Salvadoran activist from the Cristosal human rights group .
The Trump administration has remained silent. In one recently press conferenceMichael Kozak, the deputy secretary of the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau at the State Department said Bukeles’ defiance against the Supreme Court was “disagreement on how best to treat quarantine and social detachment problems in the country and praised the” extremely high popularity ratings “Of the president.
Surveys show that more than 85 percent of the population endorses the president, whose criminal personality plays well with Salvadorans tortured by gangs.
In Cojutepeque, a city that has long been a bastion of right-wing sentiment, many residents say they are happy with the way the government treats organized criminals.
“Families were put down by violence,” said Mr. Coto, who runs a community in the city. “People say,” Sure, kill them if you want to. “
Mr. Coto, 69, said his parishioners were tired of the two parties that had held the presidency for decades, misappropriated money, and did not make the country safer. Three of the country’s former presidents have been charged with corruption, and one of them has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The priest said that the people of the city trust Mr. Bukele, who founded his own party New Ideas, with the motto: “There is enough money if nobody steals it.” It doesn’t hurt that the government gave $ 300 to families affected by the pandemic and distributed free food to poor cities like Cojutepeque.
“He has the messianic personality of a rescuer in a situation where about half the population is poor,” said Coto. “You won’t criticize the government’s oppression.”
Nevertheless, the constant presence of armed soldiers has unsettled the city, said Coto. On a Sunday in late March, he and another priest drove a woman home after Mass. On the way back, a group of military officers pulled them over, questioned them and threatened to violate the quarantine.
“We were scared because we thought they would take us to a security center,” said Coto. “I tried to explain, but they had their guns.”
The soldiers finally released her with a warning. The priest has not left the church since then.
Gene Palumbo contributed to reporting from San Salvador, El Salvador.