The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, is inspiring politicians in Colombia. During yesterday’s annual United Nations assembly, he asserted that his country is now the safest in Latin America. In New York, the controversial Salvadoran leader highlighted his government’s actions in the realm of security. Since taking office in the small Central American state, the president’s policies have faced various criticisms due to the lack of guarantees and arbitrary detentions.
Almost 70,000 detainees are crowded in prisons, often without formal charges against them. President Bukele’s “iron fist” approach against the gangs and criminal organizations that plagued the country for decades has allowed him to maintain popularity ratings significantly above the regional average.
President Bukele has also become a reference point for right-wing politicians and, somewhat paradoxically, even for parts of the left-leaning electorate across the American subcontinent, which is grappling with rising violence levels that keep the population concerned about their leaders’ policies to combat insecurity. This influence has extended to Colombia, where his methods have seeped into the upcoming mayoral election campaigns in October.
Security Role Model
In his address to the United Nations, Bukele asserted that El Salvador had gone “from literally being the most dangerous country in the world to being the safest in Latin America.” He stated, “We are a security role model, and nobody can doubt that; the results are there.”
However, despite the Salvadoran government’s repeated triumphal proclamations, which include claims of 365 consecutive days without a homicide, the figures cannot be independently verified. The Salvadoran state has declared this information confidential, arguing that it affects national security, making it impossible to verify the data.
With a legislative assembly dominated by his party, Bukele managed to push through a judicial reform that guaranteed the elimination of constitutional checks and balances. Thanks to this reform, he removed the Attorney General Raul Melara and the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice two years ago.
This action sparked strong controversy both within and outside the country, with accusations that Bukele’s government had carried out a “technical coup.” The ousted magistrates had investigated and issued rulings contrary to the president’s policies.
In the specific case of Prosecutor Melara, the government accused him of having links with another party, Arena, in the country, an accusation that the magistrate consistently denied. “I have no material or formal ties to any political party,” explained Prosecutor Melara to the media at the time of his removal. Likewise, the prosecutor explained that with this measure, they “seek not to have any control or power that could restrain arbitrary and illegal actions.”
International Community Rejects the Reform
What does seem certain is that since then, El Salvador has been left without an effective counterbalance to the executive branch, which now has a legislative and judicial branch that favors its positions. Regarding the controversial reform, Bukele justified in his speech before the United Nations that “if we had left the previous prosecutor, if we had left the previous magistrates, we would still be the world capital of homicides.”
However, the removal of the magistrates was rejected by the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, and Costa Rica. In this regard, the OAS General Secretariat expressed that “in a democracy, majorities have the responsibility of being fundamental guarantors to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; access to power and its exercise in accordance with the rule of law; a plural regime of parties and political organizations; and the separation and independence of public powers.”
Similarly, the United States expressed concern about the situation. “I spoke today with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele to express serious concerns about yesterday’s decision to undermine El Salvador’s highest court and Attorney General Melara. Democratic governance requires respect for the separation of powers, for the good of all Salvadorans,” wrote Secretary Blinken on his Twitter account at the time.
The Ends Justify the Means
What is evident from Nayib Bukele’s political practices is that the end justifies the means. For many years, El Salvador was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Youth criminal gangs known as “maras” dominated public life in a country unable to provide solutions to insecurity and violence. For a long time, this situation led to significant waves of migration northward in search of a better life for Salvadorans.
In this context, human rights organizations have criticized arbitrary detentions, torture, extrajudicial killings, and the treatment of prisoners in the country. In one of his controversial measures, Bukele even threatened not to provide food to prisoners if violence in the streets continued.
The government has even used a state of emergency to carry out arbitrary detentions of people who later appeared dead. This happened in March of last year when, under the pretext of the state’s war against the maras, constitutional rights were suspended. In the following 13 months, between March 2022 and April 2023, a total of 153 deaths occurred in Salvadoran prisons of individuals who were being held there.
Followers in Colombia
The controversial policies of President Bukele generate both admiration and aversion. What is certain is that in Latin America, he has earned the admiration of many political leaders who face the same problem of violence and insecurity in their countries.
Beyond politicians, many citizens of different ideologies and political preferences support President Bukele’s “iron fist” policy. Given the high popularity ratings that such methods achieve in societies living under the constant threat of insecurity, some politicians have made proposals inspired by the Bukele model.
One such politician is Diego Molano, a former minister and current candidate for the mayorship of Bogota in the upcoming October elections. Molano has openly expressed his sympathy for Salvadoran policies. As part of his campaign, Molano has proposed the construction of a mega-prison in Bogota, following Bukele’s actions in El Salvador. According to the candidate from the Centro Democrático party, “crime is confronted with force and authority. Criminal gangs are dismantled, and their members are sent to the mega-prison we will build,” he stated in his proposal.
It is worth noting that insecurity is one of the hottest topics in the electoral debate in the Colombian capital. In this context, another candidate is a former general who served as the head of the police in Colombia, Jorge Luis Vargas, who has also promised to take strong measures against crime if elected.