When El Salvador celebrates its Independence Day in mid-September, it will be a year and a half into an indefinite State of Exception. Elected in June 2019, President Nayib Bukele, young millionaire and former public relations man, has remilitarized politics and criminalized dissent; his increasingly authoritarian regime has drawn comparisons with the country’s darkest decades of military rule and repression. The difference, for now, is Bukele’s enduring popularity. He is poised to secure an illegal second term in the upcoming 2024 elections.
Bukele’s propaganda machine has earned him both renown and notoriety worldwide. Through strategic use of paid influencers, trolls and aspirational ‘inspo’ content, he crafted a messianic image. His outlandish vision for the country – rebranding it as a tech investment hub, using cryptocurrency as legal tender, diverting geothermal energy resources to bitcoin mining – collapsed with the price of bitcoin last year. Yet he quickly moved to consolidate his rule and neutralize discontent over the faltering economy, adopting draconian security policies which have sustained his approval ratings and become a reference point for would-be autocrats across the hemisphere.
Bukele’s New Ideas (NI) party imposed the State of Exception on 27 March 2022, after the breakdown of secret negotiations between the government and the country’s criminal gangs resulted in a spate of mass murders that saw 74 people killed in a single weekend. Since then, the thirty-day order has been renewed seventeen times and counting. A de facto declaration of martial law, it suspends constitutional guarantees including the right to due process, freedom of association, the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel and protections from illegal searches and seizures.
In this constitutional vacuum, Bukele has waged his so-called ‘war on gangs’. More than 72,000 people have been arrested so far, with only 7,000 subsequently released for lack of evidence. The prison population has nearly tripled. With 2% of its people behind bars, El Salvador’s incarceration rate now surpasses even that of the United States. Inmates are denied contact with their families or legal representatives; survivors report conditions of overcrowding, disease, starvation and torture. In July, the legal aid group Socorro Jurídico Humanitario confirmed at least 170 deaths in custody, 84 of which appeared to be violent and another 52 the result of apparent medical neglect. By the beginning of September, the toll had surpassed 180. According to the non-profit Cristosal, not a single one had been convicted of a crime.
Analysing the data from March 2022 to January 2023, Cristosal found that more than 99% of arrestees faced charges limited to gang affiliation; fewer than 1% are accused of committing serious criminal acts like extortion, assault or homicide. Thanks to further penal reforms pushed through in recent weeks, suspects will be processed by the hundreds in mass trials. Legislators have also eliminated the two-year limit on pre-trial detention, while multiplying the length of prison sentences for gang members, including minors.
Despite such horrors, most Salvadorans continue to support the crackdown. Street-level gang activity has demonstrably lessened in the working-class communities that have suffered extortion and violence for decades. Whatever sinister bargains it may obscure, the temporary respite has renewed popular support for Bukele, just in time for the next elections.
The repression, however, has not gone uncontested. While legal aid and human rights groups scramble to provide services and document abuses, organizations like the Movement for Regime Victims (MOVIR, in Spanish) are mobilizing relatives of the incarcerated. Part of the leading opposition coalition, the Popular Rebellion and Resistance Bloc (BRP), MOVIR is fighting to destigmatize victims and provide support to families struggling to find lawyers, get news of their loved ones or make ends meet without them. Predictably, such groups are subject to harassment and persecution. The State of Exception has not only targeted alleged gang members and unfortunate bystanders; it is also being used to criminalize protest and prosecute dissidents, with public-sector union leaders and organized rural communities in the crosshairs.
Conditions for public-sector workers have deteriorated markedly under Bukele’s revenue-starved administration. Tens of thousands have been laid off since 2019; the Movement of Fired Workers (MDT) counted over 2,500 legislative employees, 3,800 city employees fired from NI-run municipalities and 14,000 from central government institutions. Those who have kept their jobs face state repression. According to the MDT, at least sixteen public-sector unionists have been arrested under the State of Exception, many of them during disputes over unpaid salaries.
In the countryside, Bukele’s security forces have used the pretext of fighting gangs to lay siege to historic bastions of popular militancy and resistance, including Liberation Theology-inspired Christian Base Communities and ‘repopulated’ towns that were resettled by organized refugees in liberated FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) territory during the civil war. In January, the ‘Santa Marta Five’ – a group of Cabañas activists who turned a local struggle against toxic gold extraction into a national campaign to ban metals mining – were imprisoned. Their treatment sparked international outrage. But campaigns of mass arrests, military harassment and occupation have taken place across the country, targeting organized peasants in the Bajo Lempa region and repopulated communities like Nuevo Gualcho in eastern Usulután. Residents, many of them survivors of a previous generation’s state terror, warn that militarization is a cover for land grabs for extractive industries and real estate development for coastal tourism.
The State of Exception has thus provided the president with a powerful weapon. But well before this, Bukele was using lawfare to disable and demoralize his opposition. He rose to power by leveraging prevailing anti-corruption discourses against his opponents on both the right and the left, drawing false equivalencies between the oligarchic ruling class and the ex-guerrillas in his own former party, the FMLN. Harassment of journalists and NGO workers has drawn widespread condemnation, but the prosecution, imprisonment and exile of left politicians have provoked less sympathy – a testament to the success of the efforts to discredit his progressive predecessors.
Some two-dozen former FMLN cabinet members, elected officials and party leaders have faced trumped-up corruption charges since Bukele’s election. These include the first FMLN president, Mauricio Funes, as well as former guerrilla commander and president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, both of whom were granted asylum in Nicaragua. These former politicians, many of them elderly ex-combatants, are confronting a range of flimsy to outright false accusations of embezzlement, money laundering and even gang involvement over the Funes administration’s efforts to support an ill-fated 2012 truce between the country’s warring criminal groups.
As well as undermining opposition leaders, these prosecutions have helped to erase the social gains of FMLN governance from popular memory, creating a depoliticizing tide of cynicism, as well as rancour toward the left. In electoral terms, the highly publicized prosecutions of party leaders, coupled with the sweeping repression of its historic bastions of support, has effectively neutralized the FMLN as a political force. For good measure, Bukele has also hobbled select adversaries from the notoriously crooked ARENA party, which implemented the neoliberal restructuring of the economy over four consecutive terms from 1989 to 2009. These include former president Alfredo Cristiani, enjoying exile in Europe, and the less fortunate former San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt, who has spent more than two years behind bars.
As a result, no political actor poses a credible threat to Bukele and his party in the forthcoming elections, which will see legislative and presidential voting in February and municipal contests in March. Despite his robust popularity and the absence of viable challengers, Bukele is nevertheless going to great lengths to insulate his project from democracy. El Salvador’s constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms, but in 2021, NI’s new legislative super-majority illegally ousted the Attorney General along with the entire constitutional court, and replaced them with loyalists who dutifully authorized Bukele’s candidacy.
In June this year, with the primary process already underway, Bukele’s party imposed a package of seismic electoral changes that quite literally redraw the map of Salvadoran democracy. Legislators voted to eliminate 83% of municipalities, slashing their number from 262 to 44, and to cut the number of legislative seats from 84 to 60. They also jettisoned the remainder method of apportioning the legislative seats, which had favoured smaller political parties. Under the new measures, the remaining municipalities will be converted into districts, which will be governed by unelected managers appointed by the president. As the BRP summarized in a communiqué, the reforms are designed to prevent opposition parties from regaining power in NI-run municipalities; to ensure NI’s overrepresentation in the legislature; to eliminate local autonomy; and to centralize power in the executive, ensuring one-party rule at every level of government.
Once a beacon for internationalist revolutionaries, then a posterchild for liberal-democratic transition, El Salvador’s autocratic spiral is tragic and alarming. In a regional context, however, the country’s path is hardly exceptional. Central America’s tenuous post-war bourgeois democracies, while governed by very different regimes, have all been roiled by crisis in recent years. This speaks to the profound exhaustion of a neoliberal political economy that has reproduced the subordinate role of the isthmus in the capitalist world system since the defeat of the insurgent movements of the 1980s. While the 1990s peace agreements dismantled military dictatorships and demobilized former insurgents, the region’s highly unequal economies continued to rely on vast reserves of low-wage labour and US-bound exports. In a deregulated landscape of scarce formal employment and woeful wages, millions were displaced to the United States. There, their labour fed the lowest segments of the deindustrializing economy’s growing service sector, while their remittances became an increasingly critical source of household income and foreign exchange back home.
The successive shocks of the global financial crisis and Covid-19 have laid bare these contradictions. This has produced divergent responses, including within El Salvador itself. The FMLN’s brief conquest of state power suggested, at its best, an emancipatory exit from the wreckage of neoliberalism, oligarchy and dependency – a promise that has propelled progressive popular forces into power in Honduras and, most recently, Guatemala. The FMLN’s trajectory, however, also offers a grim warning about the limits to transformation within the existing system. It is a lesson that Bukele has taken to heart.
Bukele offers no real solutions to El Salvador’s crisis. His cryptodreams dashed, he has embraced a familiar foreign investment-driven accumulation strategy centred on tourism and the export of low-wage migrants, maquiladora goods and call centre services to the US. This programme has failed to improve the country’s economic prospects, and while the anti-gang assault has buoyed Bukele’s approval ratings, economic concerns still top the list of perceived problems. As working-class youth swell a saturated prison system, the contradictions of poverty, inequality and dependency that produced El Salvador’s gangs are as glaring as ever.
The dozens of organizations that comprise the BRP are calling Salvadorans into the streets on Independence Day next week to march against the State of Exception, Bukele’s reelection bid and the latest slew of antidemocratic electoral reforms. These groups, most of them with origins in the FMLN, are working to rebuild the Salvadoran left in unenviable conditions. In the meantime, Bukele is remaking the country in his own image. It is an ugly sight.
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