Nayib Bukele's military stunt raises alarming memories in El Salvador

The country’s popular, social media-savvy president marched troops into the parliament to demand $109m in security funds

It was a scene evoking bad memories of a bloody era in a country with a recent history of authoritarianism and civil war.

Soldiers in combat fatigues marched into El Salvador’s parliament, before the country’s popular young president, Nayib Bukele, sat down in the speaker’s chair and gave the assembled deputies an ultimatum: approve a loan for new security equipment or be summoned back in seven days for another session.

“Pray,” he told supporters. “Ask God to grant us patience for a week.”

The episode last weekend stunned El Salvador, where memories are still vivid of the 1979-1992 civil war between US-backed military dictatorships and leftist guerrillas.

“I lived the war as a child, so it seemed incredible – something out of movie or some sort of farce,” said Juan Meléndez, El Salvador director of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy.

Bearded, millennial and fond of slick suits, Bukele has captured international attention with his social media skills and a penchant for publicity stunts – even taking a selfie during his speech to the UN general assembly.

Bukele, 38, a former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, won a landslide victory last year on the promise of cracking down on corruption and improving security.

El Salvador has a population of just 6.45 million, but rampant gang violence, corruption and extrajudicial executions have helped push its murder rate to one comparable with a country at war.

His popularity hit a staggering 91% shortly after taking office and he has 1.3 million Twitter followers.

But the episode at the assembly has cast a critical spotlight on the young president, and raised fears that his public persona is cover for authoritarian tendencies.

“For the first time in his career, he wasn’t the ‘cool’ president for the international community,” said Óscar Martínez, an editor with the digital newspaper El Faro.

President Nayib Bukele arrives at a graduation ceremony for new police officers in San Salvador on Tuesday.
President Nayib Bukele arrives at a graduation ceremony for new police officers in San Salvador on Tuesday. Photograph: José Cabezas/Reuters

In a blistering editorial, El Faro said: “With the military takeover of the assembly, Nayib Bukele laid to rest the last doubts about his character: he is showboating, populist, anti-democratic, and authoritarian. With the cheapest tricks – vile, dangerous, and claiming he has God on his side – he turned over a dark page in the history of our young democracy.”

Bukele had tried to convene a special session of the assembly so lawmakers could approve a $109m loan to pay for security equipment, including police vehicles, uniforms, surveillance equipment and a helicopter. But the deputies called for more time to study the issue.

The country’s supreme court later ordered Bukele to abstain from using the military “contrary to constitutional purposes and which jeopardise the republican, democratic and representative form of government”.

Analysts say Bukele purposely picked a fight with a pair of the least popular institutions in the country: the assembly and traditional political parties.

Bukele won election by portraying himself as an outsider who had come to clean up the mess left by successive governments (on the left and right) in the postwar period, said Sonja Wolf, an El Salvador expert at the Cide university in Mexico.

“His popularity is making him a little arrogant,” she said.

Bukele has promised to end the violence, launching a program known as the “territorial control strategy” to achieve it.

But analysts say the plan seems reminiscent of the iron-fisted approach employed by previous presidents.

“Nobody has seen this plan,” Wolf said. “We don’t even know if a document exists, which explains what the plan is.”

El Salvador has seen a sharp decline in homicide rate since Bukele took office, however, from 8.8 per day to just 3.8 per day in 2020. The sudden drop has prompted some observers to speculate if the government had copied another tack from his predecessors and opened negotiations with the powerful gangs – something Bukele denies.

“I’m not saying that he’s negotiated. I’m not saying that he hasn’t negotiated,” said a Catholic source in El Salvador. “But the only other time we saw this kind of dramatic drop was when there was a negotiated truce [with the gangs] back in 2012.

Contributor

David Agren

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spanish trial of soldiers who killed priests raises hopes of ending impunity in El Salvador
US-trained elite troops killed six Jesuits and two women at Central American University in 1989. Now the perpetrators face a criminal trial

Nina Lakhani in San Salvador

08, Apr, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Nayib Bukele calls himself the ‘world’s coolest dictator’ – but is he joking?
El Salvador’s president is consolidating power and seems intent on rewriting the country’s constitution

Mat Youkee in San Salvador

26, Sep, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Anti-graft candidate poised to win El Salvador presidency
Nayib Bukele favoured to win Sunday’s vote, after running on a platform targeting corruption

Anna-Catherine Brigida in San Salvador

01, Feb, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Scepticism grows in El Salvador over pioneering Bitcoin gamble
Country will be first to adopt cryptocurrency as legal tender next month – but economists are sounding warnings over risks

Mat Youkee in El Zonte

30, Aug, 2021 @4:30 AM

Article image
Former El Salvador president granted asylum in Nicaragua, government says
Mauricio Funes, facing legal cases back home and under scrutiny over a truce with gangs during his administration, says he is not dodging judicial process

Guardian staff and agencies

06, Sep, 2016 @8:30 PM

Article image
New group of migrants heads for US after leaving El Salvador
Homeland security secretary claims ‘crisis at the border’ as group of more than 300 migrants reaches Guatemala border

Staff and agencies in Sonsonate, El Salvador

28, Oct, 2018 @9:37 PM

Article image
Living without water: the crisis pushing people out of El Salvador
El Salvador will run out of water within 80 years unless radical action is taken, a study found, while corporate interests, corruption and gangs worsen the problem

Nina Lakhani in Nejapa

30, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
El Salvador court frees woman on trial after bearing rapist's baby
Imelda Cortez, 20, faced an attempted murder charge under draconian abortion laws after being raped by her stepfather

Nina Lakhani

17, Dec, 2018 @10:11 PM

Article image
El Salvador arrests negotiators of gang truce in new get-tough policy
Psychologists, teachers, senior police officers and prison wardens are among 16 held for role in brokering a 2012 deal that led to sharp drop in homicides

Nina Lakhani in Mexico City

04, May, 2016 @5:29 PM

Article image
El Salvador massacre: forensics teams dig for remains as US envoy faces grilling
Potential El Mozote mass grave yields little as Trump’s Venezuela envoy praises Reagan-era policies

Heather Gies in El Mozote

15, Feb, 2019 @7:30 AM