On Sunday around 7 p.m., El Salvador’s 42-year-old president, Nayib Bukele, announced on X, the app formerly known as Twitter, that he and his party, Nuevas Ideas, had set “a record in the history of the democratic world,” winning more than 85 percent of the presidential vote and at least 58 out of 60 seats in the national assembly. A few hours later, he appeared before a jubilant crowd assembled in front of the Palacio Nacional, decked out in his trademark tech-bro uniform of jeans, sneakers, and a beige collarless shirt. In his speech, he reiterated the point about breaking records: Never before in the history of democracy, he declared, had a political project been ratified with such an overwhelming majority, with such a wide margin of victory over its opponents.
The numbers Bukele announced haven’t yet been ratified by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal—which for his detractors is just the latest indication that it isn’t historical records, but Salvadoran democracy itself, that he has broken. He has packed with loyalists not only the legislature, but the high court and the attorney general’s office, leaving no checks against his power. The fact that he was permitted to run for and win a second term, in violation of a constitutional prohibition, is proof enough of that. From the moment Bukele announced his run for re-election, his victory was never in doubt, leaving only the size of his party’s majority in the legislature as the only real question. On Sunday night, voters seemed to answer that question resoundingly, even though, given the lack of official results, some doubt lingers as to the true scale of the victory.
Regardless, Bukele’s popularity with average Salvadorans is undeniable, and it isn’t surprising that they overwhelmingly back a leader who has delivered a decisive blow to the street gangs that terrorized them for decades. But as he enters his second term, what remains less certain is whether he is capable of turning his law-and-order achievements—brought about through the indefinite prolongation of emergency rule—into an enduring model of governance, and whether he is able to deliver a level of economic development that might put the country on a new footing.
Bukele’s supporters and detractors would agree on one thing: He has now thoroughly demolished the political order put in place when El Salvador’s horrific civil war came to an end in 1992. Already in the legislative elections of 2021, two years into Bukele’s term, Nuevas Ideas reduced the two previously dominant parties—the right-wing ARENA and the left-wing FMLN—to rump status. For the vast majority of Salvadorans, it seems, that is a welcome development, and warnings about democratic backsliding or creeping authoritarianism are unlikely to change their minds.
“By nearly all accounts, the country is better off today than when Bukele assumed office.”
The reason for this is simple enough: By nearly all accounts, the country is better off today than when Bukele assumed office in 2019. The rival gangs that exercised de facto control over much of the country, La Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, made extortion and murder part of everyday life; for some time, the country was considered to be one of the most dangerous on the planet, on par with war-ravaged Syria and Somalia. After Bukele’s first term, at least according to the official numbers, El Salvador is the safest country in Latin America and rivals Canada in the Western hemisphere in homicides per capita.
Many Salvadorans feel nothing but contempt for the country’s previous governing parties, because they failed to perform the basic state function of protecting citizens from rampant criminal violence. Bukele has done so—at what his critics argue is too steep of a cost: a state of exception that has lasted two years and enabled the imprisonment of close to 75,000 people, or roughly 2 percent of the population, without anything like due process. No one is under the illusion that some innocent people haven’t been caught up in this sweep—indeed, the government has conceded as much, and released some prisoners accordingly. But the election results seem to show that for most voters, such injustices are a price worth paying.
Bukele was by no means the first Salvadoran or Latin-American chief executive to declare a state of exception to address violent crime, or to take a “mano dura” approach against gangs. His predecessors in the right-wing ARENA party, which held the presidency from 1992 to 2009, repeatedly adopted hard-line anti-gang policies—which only succeeded in boosting levels of violence. The arrival of the left-wing FMLN to the presidency in 2009 brought about a new security strategy. Outwardly, the party’s first president, Mauricio Funes, continued the same hard-line policies as his ARENA predecessors, but covertly, national and municipal FMLN officials began negotiating with gang leaders. In exchange for privileges and benefits from the government, the gangs agreed to limit violence.
Bukele’s initial rise to prominence occurred during this period of FMLN ascendancy; in 2013, he became mayor of the small municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán as a candidate for the left-wing party, with which his family had long been associated. He then ascended to the mayorship of San Salvador, still on the FMLN ticket. Interestingly, given his current reputation as a tough-on-crime hard-liner, Bukele was reputed to be one of the FMLN’s most effective administrators of secret gang-state negotiations as mayor of San Salvador. The resulting security gains enabled him to execute a revitalization of San Salvador’s city center. Between 2015—when Bukele became mayor—and 2020, San Salvador saw annual homicides fall to 106, up from more than 500. Over the same period, under Bukele’s predecessor in the presidency, the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Cerén, the national homicide rate declined 70 percent, to 36 per 100,000, down from 103.
It has been alleged that after becoming president, Bukele continued negotiating with gang leaders, although he denies this—but in any case, it wasn’t until the third year of his term that he imposed the state of exception for which he has become best known. Prior to that, it seemed as though the security strategy that the president had adopted from his predecessors would continue to yield results. By the start of 2022, homicides had fallen to their lowest point in 25 years. But this relative peace broke suddenly and acrimoniously following a spike of 87 murders during a single weekend in March 2022.
“Bukele’s efforts have brought violent crime to a level that no one thought possible.”
At first, there was little indication the state of exception Bukele declared in response would be more than a limited success. Like iron-fist policies, states of exception have been used and reused throughout Latin America and have seldom achieved lasting gains on the security front. But almost two years later, Bukele’s efforts have brought violent crime to a level that no one thought possible in the country or the region. In 2022, homicides fell to 7.8 per 100,000, down from 17 per 100,000 in 2021. And in 2023, homicides fell to an astonishing 2.3 per 100,000, with the rate expected to fall to 1.6 per 100,000 this year. And the decline in homicides doesn’t even tell the full story. By all accounts, extortion—the chief means by which the gangs finance themselves—has been all but eliminated.
Why has El Salvador’s state of exception succeeded where so many others have failed? The simple answer is that, contrary to the platitudes of many progressives, incarceration is a crucial remedy for violent crime. More specifically, the success of tough-on-crime policies relies on reducing impunity. The problem with hard-line policies in Latin America has usually been that they fail to address the underlying weakness of the justice system in states like El Salvador. Up until 2022, fewer than 3 of every 100 arrests in the country led to convictions. Under the current state of exception, effectively all of those who are arrested go to jail, and the suspension of constitutional guarantees enables easy convictions via mass trials of suspected gang members.
In other words, when the state deprives citizens of individual rights, reducing crime becomes a less daunting prospect. This is why Latin America’s past and present dictatorships have typically been better at controlling violent crime. Bukele, who once playfully dubbed himself “the world’s coolest dictator” in his Twitter bio—it now reads “philosopher king”—needed full control of the legislative branch and the courts to accomplish what he has on the security front; he acknowledged this in his Sunday night victory speech. This is why other regional leaders seeking to emulate his model may find themselves unable to replicate his results—unless they are first able to seize near-total control of the state.
The deep unpopularity of the traditional right and left parties derives, beyond their failure to guarantee security, from their inability to improve people’s economic standing. Whether Bukele can improve on their record in this area remains less clear. With a formal workforce of just 30 percent and an economy that consists mostly of tourism, low-grade textiles, and a handful of cash crops, El Salvador is highly dependent on both imports and remittances from its large diaspora in the United States. The level of security achieved under Bukele has boosted tourism and promises to attract more foreign investment, but it doesn’t alter the basic equation.
On the developmental front, Bukele has shown himself to be ambitious, but not nearly as focused or single-minded as he has been in the domain of public safety. His time in office has displayed competing tendencies towards both neoliberal pro-market policies and economic populism. In the first category, he has promoted free trade and offered tax breaks to tech companies interested in doing business in El Salvador. He has also slashed funding for public services and essentially privatized the servicing of water in the country. In the ensuing strikes by utility workers, the government expediently jailed workers under the ongoing state of exception. In 2023, authorities arrested striking municipal workers in San Salvador for demanding months of backpay.
“Bukele has championed major public works projects.”
On the other hand, Bukele has championed major public-works projects. Indeed, much of his popularity as San Salvador mayor, which propelled his rise to the presidency, came from his revitalization and beautification of the historic city center. Across the central plaza from where he delivered his speech Sunday night stood the recently opened national library, a gleaming glass edifice built with support from the Chinese government. The prior left-wing FMLN government normalized diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic in 2018, while ending recognition of Taiwan, but it is Bukele who has reaped the political and economic benefits of growing cooperation with the Middle Kingdom. A new national soccer stadium is also in the works thanks to the largesse—and geopolitical ambitions—of Xi Jinping.
Given the high levels of spending on public works he has overseen, Bukele is no debt hawk; El Salvador’s debt-to-GDP ratio has remained around 73 percent since he first assumed office. Social spending has played a role here, too: During his first term, the legislature raised pensions by 30 percent and the minimum wage by 20 percent, while expanding food handouts during the pandemic. None of this is all that surprising: Former FMLN members play a major role in Nuevas Ideas, and the party has achieved hegemony by co-opting many of the economic promises of the left, as well as the security promises of the right.
The area of economic policy where Bukele has attempted to strike out in a new direction is his unprecedented embrace of cryptocurrency. On Sept. 7, 2021, he declared Bitcoin legal tender alongside the US dollar, which the country adopted as its currency in the early 2000s. The timing proved unfortunate: The price of Bitcoin plummeted almost 70 percent by June 2022. Having invested more than $100 billion in cryptocurrencies from the country’s public coffers, El Salvador was on the verge of default throughout 2022. By the end of the year, Bukele suffered a humiliating blow as the country was forced to buy back substantial sums of its own debt. Polls show that the adoption of Bitcoin is far and away the government’s most unpopular measure.
By early 2024, El Salvador managed to recoup most of its associated crypto losses, enabling Bukele to take a victory lap. But there is little indication thus far that El Salvador is on the path to broader economic development under his rule. Despite the benefits of lower crime, GDP growth remains virtually unchanged since Bukele took office at around 2 percent; a figure that remains the lowest in Central America. Security gains have halved El Salvador’s emigration rate and encouraged repatriation, but Salvadorans continue to arrive at the US southern border at around 100,000 per year. Despite Bukele’s immense popularity, the one criticism one commonly hears from average Salvadorans is that economic opportunities remain scarce.
After Bukele finished his triumphal speech, REM’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” blasted over the loudspeakers. A better selection would have been hard to find: Whatever concerns were being voiced elsewhere about the now two-term president’s consolidation of power, the crowd assuredly felt fine—better than fine. The most likely scenario in which that stops being the case is if the country continues to falter economically, or worse, faces a serious economic downturn. If and when the president’s luster wears off, Salvadorans will have to decide if they still feel fine about his complete control over the nation’s institutions.