El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, who calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator,” appears to be on course to win reelection by a landslide Sunday’s election, in a show of approval for his tough anti-gang security policies and a rebuttal to his critics who accuse him of widespread human rights violations.
The millennial president, who catapulted to the presidency in 2019 shortly after creating a new political party, has become a one-man juggernaut, a committed fan of bitcoin and one of the most popular leaders in all of Latin America, as he has relentlessly pursued powerful street gangs like MS-13 and overseen a massive reduction in homicides.
But this has come at a heavy cost: an indefinite, state of emergency has been in place nearly two years, undermining democratic safeguards, threatening freedom of the press and resulting in the arrest of more than 76,000 people. Critics accuse Bukele of flagrantly violating human rights and systematically dismantling the country’s democracy—an idea he often seems to endorse.
“We were sold a fake security, a fake democracy, fake institutions, and a fake liberty. All the recipes they gave us failed. In over two centuries of our history, Salvadorans never knew peace,” Bukele said in a speech he posted in January on X, formerly known as Twitter. Democratic principles, he seemed to suggest, are overrated.
The election is a reflection of Bukele’s indifference to democratic norms: El Salvador’s Constitution expressly prohibits presidents from running for a second term. But last year, a powerful court staffed by Bukele allies cleared the way for his re-election to another five-year term, saying it had reinterpreted the Constitution. Most Salvadorans supported the move.
“I don’t care if he’s violating the Constitution,” said Arnulfo Cristostomo Mazariego, who sells pupusas and sodas at a street stand in San Salvador. “If the people decide that they are happy with what he’s doing and they want to see more improvement for the country, I don’t see a problem. The people are going to decide whether it’s unconstitutional. We have the last word.”
Mazariego said that for years he had to pay a monthly extortion fee of around $250 to the MS-13 street gang just to be left in peace and operate his business. When Bukele initiated his crackdown, the extortion finally ended. Instead of paying MS-13, he used the money to get a much-needed operation on his eyes, he said.
“There are a lot of people who complain that there is no liberty or human rights under Bukele,” Mazariego said. “But I have seen children killed because they didn’t want to do a favor for the gangs. Where were human rights then?”
Bukele rose to prominence in 2015 as mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital. The former head of his family’s public relations firm, he upended the image of a traditional politician, favoring leather jackets, jeans and backwards baseball caps. He quickly built a communications machine, including secret troll farms to blast critics.
In March 2022, amid a spike in homicides, Bukele imposed a state of emergency that has come to define his presidency. Authorities have sweeping power to arrest anyone they suspect of being a gang member regardless of evidence, hold them indefinitely, and convict them in mass trials of up to 900 people. El Salvador now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 1 percent of its population behind bars.
The results have been staggering. El Salvador registered a nearly 70 percent reduction in murders in 2023, according to government figures. The new homicide rate of 2.4 per every 100,000 people is the second lowest in the Americas after Canada, according to El Salvador’s Justice and Security Minister.