El Salvador’s Scripture-quoting president to run for reelection
President Nayib Bukele has presided over a significant and controversial transformation
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador–Under President Nayib Bukele, the streets in El Salvador are becoming safe once more. The murders and gang violence have plummeted to their lowest rates in years. Bukele gives the credit to God.
“El Salvador is demonstrating as a living testimony that things can change if God so decides,” he told a crowd of Christian journalists, communicators, and pastors gathered in the main ballroom of the Hotel Barceló San Salvador in early October. Leaders of the host countries don’t typically address the annual Ibero-American Congress of Communicators and Christian Media (COICOM), but El Salvador has a large evangelical population–44 percent of Salvadorans identify themselves as evangelicals, according to a Gallup survey.
Bukele, whose crackdown on crime has raised accusations of rights violations, makes frequent references to God and quotes the Bible though he does not claim to belong to any particular religion. He is descended from Palestinian Christian immigrants, and his father was an Islamic imam.
On Oct. 29, Bukele registered to run for reelection as president–something the El Salvadoran constitution technically prohibits. A court of constitutional judges appointed by Bukele approved an exception that would allow him to hold one more term. That move, along with the president’s strong arm tactics for cracking down on crime, has raised international concern. El Salvador’s transformation has made Bukele immensely popular at home, and polls show he would win reelection by a large margin.
“The country needed a restoration, a transformation,” Bukele told COICOM attendees. “When we assumed the presidency in 2019, El Salvador had many problems, and there are still problems, but violence was the main scourge, and we had to solve it.”
In 2019, the year Bukele took power, El Salvador registered 2,398 murders. On average, seven murders were carried out every day in the country of just 6 million inhabitants. By comparison, New York City has over 8 million residents and saw 319 murders that same year.
Bukele introduced a “state of exception,” which restricts constitutional rights and allows for the arrest and mass incarceration of suspected gang members. He also approved laws that stiffen prison sentences for gang members, prohibit graffiti alluding to gangs, and sanction media and journalists who disseminate their messages.
In 2022, the number of homicides in El Salvador had dropped to 496, according to the country’s minister of defense.
By August of this year, the government said more than 72,000 people had been arrested on gang affiliation charges. In January, Human Rights Watch released images and a report of overcrowded prisons, prisoners chained together, and alleged human rights abuses of detainees. The next month, Bukele announced that 2,000 inmates were moved “at dawn, in a single operation” to the so-called Terrorism Confinement Center, which he claims is the largest prison in the Americas. The prison was built to house more than 40,000 suspected gang members.
“This will be their new home, where they will live for decades, all mixed together, unable to do any more harm to the population,” Bukele said.
In response to accusations that incarcerated gang leaders had been granted privileges, the president published photos of prison yards full of half-naked prisoners with shaved heads and challenged his critics to “show me a single privilege” those prisoners had received.
International organizations such as the United Nations and UNICEF have questioned those actions, expressing concern about respect for the human rights of detainees and minors involved in gangs.
Bukele has defended his strategy as the only way to combat crime and guarantee security. His critics warn that this repression may have counterproductive effects such as increasing the cohesion and power of the gangs, generating more violence, and forced displacement, and eroding the rule of law.
Bukele sees vindication in the country’s transformation and expressed it to the crowd at Hotel Barceló: “God’s goal was to tell all the nations of the world ‘ask, give Me the glory, and I will heal your land.’ Nothing is impossible for God, we all know that, but here He demonstrated it again.”
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