El Salvador Braces for Five More Years of the World’s Self-Proclaimed “Coolest Dictator”

Earlier this year, El Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele won reelection by a wide margin. His Nuevas Ideas party also won 54 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Assembly and the vast majority of the country’s mayorships. His power is now almost absolute.

But the elections were marred by a large number of irregularities documented by the Organization of American States, damaging Bukele’s international reputation. Could it be a sign of troubles to come?

Bukele officially began his second five-year term on June 1. He’s probably the most popular president in Latin America due to his success in quelling gang violence in the country.

But the fact that he broke El Salvador’s constitution to allow himself a second term, along with the large number of human rights violations and lack of transparency during his “state of exception,” is leading to international criticism. The Canadian government, for example, refrained from congratulating Bukele after the election. And Bukele’s government remains unable to attract the foreign investment it craves.

Approximately 80,000 people have been detained under Bukele’s “state of emergency” since March 2022. Estimates for how many of those people are innocent range from 30 to 70 percent.

Those arrested include leaders of dozens of unions and civil organizations, among them five environmentalists and water defenders from Santa Marta in the Department of Cabañas. Organizations from many countries have dedicated the last year and a half to an international campaign under the leadership of John Cavanagh, former director of the Institute for Policy Studies — and co-author, with Robin Broad, of The Water Defenders —  to get the charges dropped.

At a press conference held by social and civil organizations on May 30, Ivania Cruz — a member of United for Human and Community Rights (UNIDEHC), which is part of the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc — said that “there is a deterioration of the rule of law and the country’s institutions.” She warned that “the repression of the most vulnerable sectors of the population is increasing through unjust arrests and the elimination of all guarantees for all citizens.”

Roberto Zapata of the organization AMATE (Love Yourself) denounced Bukele as part of an ultraconservative wave in the region — also including governments in Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador — against human rights for LGBTQ people. He mentioned that there are 132 registered cases of legal actions against LGBTQ people and recalled that Bukele pronounced himself against “gender ideology,” calling it “contrary to nature.”

Salomón Alfaro of the Movement of Dismissed Workers said that he is one of the 21,000 workers dismissed from public institutions without any of the procedures that the law dictates. “This government wants to control everyone, disappearing institutions and union structures,” he said. “So far 22 unions have been eliminated.”

Tutela Legal, an organization of Salvadoran human rights lawyers, remains extremely busy helping to defend innocent people and civil society leaders. International organizations have worked with them on an amicus brief for the five water defenders to be submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the Association for Economic and Social Development of Santa Marta (ADES) continues to lead the defense of the five water defenders. ADES and many international organizations have documented the Bukele government’s efforts to overturn a hard-won law that banned metallic mining in the country in 2017.

At the press conference, ADES leader Vidalina Morales expressed her concern about the possible reopening of mining in El Salvador and the growing interest in the mineral thorium, in addition to gold. She denounced the criminalization of struggles against extractive projects as a desperate response to the failure of Bukele projects such as Bitcoin or Surf City. Bukele, she says, “is selling the country to the highest bidder and will do with it whatever he wants.”

In May, the Bukele government initiated a trial against the five water defenders of Santa Marta for an alleged murder during the country’s civil war, despite the fact that there’s no proof for the allegations — and in violation of the amnesty passed as part of the peace accords that ended the fighting.

In a show of international solidarity, representatives of embassies from Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Union attended the first hearing of the trial, warning the Salvadoran government that the world is watching. Advocates have tried to inform other governments, such as Mexico and the United States, about the general crisis of human rights and democracy in El Salvador.

Organizations in El Salvador are concerned about the possibility of an even greater wave of arrests of civil society leaders during Bukele’s second term. They’re hoping that international solidarity will help curb his abuses.

As Alexis Stoumbelis of the International Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) said, “thanks to the work of journalists and human rights organizations, the world knows about the violations committed by Bukele.” How long will governments like Mexico and the United States continue to turn a blind eye to the self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the world”?

A version of this article originally appeared in Spanish in La Jornada.