When Populism Succeeds
El Salvador’s brutally effective gang crackdown is creating a dangerous new model for aspiring autocrats.
The most dangerous political experiment in Latin America is underway in El Salvador. A strange breed of populism is tipping the scale in the region’s age-old tug of war between authoritarianism and democracy. Rather than dividing the country, like populism usually does, it’s uniting it solidly behind a new consensus. More than anything, though, it’s succeeding, and doing so in the kind of impossible-to-miss way that turns heads up and down the hemisphere.
At the top of it all is the self-described “coolest dictator in the world,” the startlingly energetic Nayib Bukele. Having rounded up tens of thousands of suspected gang members in a series of police and military actions that don’t even pay lip service to due process of law, Bukele has become something of a national hero, with approval ratings now north of 90%. Under his watch, one of the most violent countries on earth has become considerably safer: a startling transformation that nearly all Salvadoreans seem profoundly grateful for.
It's not the first time a charismatic but brash young leader has come to power vowing to take radical steps to root out crime in their country at the expense of basic human rights. Most often, such leaders fail, leaving behind a pile of ruined lives and an unstable political system. But once every great while, you get a leader like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew: ruthless, authoritarian, but so successful at building a stable, prosperous society that their far-from-pristine human rights record gets rinsed out of the historical record, becoming a footnote on page 4 rather than the headline. This is the model Nayib Bukele has set out to follow—explicitly.
After a false start as the world’s first crypto-bro commander-in-chief following his election in 2019, Bukele made a hard pivot to security, the most salient issue in what had long been one of the world’s most violent countries. Granted, by the time he took power, El Salvador’s once astronomic murder rate was already on the decline. Previous governments had alternated between heavy-handed crackdowns on the street gangs—known as maras—that terrorized El Salvador, and non-aggression pacts brokered between them. Bukele publicly lambasted the pacts, even as he quietly sought to keep them in place.
In March 2022, when a truce between the government and maras fell apart, the gangs began killing people in large numbers once again. Bukele saw his chance, adopting an emergency decree that suspended constitutional guarantees.
A shockingly aggressive, army-led dragnet followed, sending anyone even vaguely suspected of being a gang member to jail, without so much as the suggestion of due process or any prospect of a trial. The country as a whole seems to have given up on the mother of all civil liberties, habeas corpus, the 800-year old principle that the government can’t deprive you of liberty without a specific reason, grounded in evidence and law. If you were young, male, poor and had prominent tattoos, you were probably going to get rounded up, and the chances of a court even agreeing to hear your plea were vanishingly small.
All kinds of horror stories about people wrongfully scooped up in the dragnet soon began to appear in foreign media, from U.S. citizens to tattooed former gang members who had found Jesus, gone straight, and led community initiatives to bring people out of the maras.
Disregard for democratic norms and precedents is baked into the Bukele brand. Congress is now a rubber stamp, the Supreme Court a virtual fan-club. The press is muzzled, dissident journalists are constantly spied on and harassed. El Salvador’s democracy is dead. Nobody mourned it.
The standard account stresses how populists thrive on polarization. But whatever problems El Salvador may have, polarization isn’t one of them. Rather than dividing the country, Bukele’s extreme security approach has united nearly all Salvadoreans behind him. How wide is this consensus? In polls, a head-spinning 91% approve the job he is doing. 70% support his re-election, even though he is barred by term limits from seeking it. The 6.9% who oppose his autocracy are a tiny, marginal force in Salvadorean politics, about on the same level as the 7% of Americans who think the moon landings were faked.
Why? Because democracy had failed to protect Salvadoreans from the country’s uniquely brutal gang culture—a bloody affair largely hatched in U.S. jails and brought over by gang members deported back to their country. Unlike in Mexico where organized crime makes the bulk of its revenue from drug trafficking, the maras in El Salvador live mostly off of extortion: terrorizing local people and violently squeezing every last dime out of them.
It made for a miserable, hopeless situation that seemed to elude orthodox solutions. Police hardly had the resources to investigate gang members and try them one at a time. That retail approach, even if it had been feasible, would have done little good: pick off 1 gang member out of 10 and the mara was still in place and, finding itself short-staffed, could well become even more violent. Salvadoreans were left to grimly conclude the only way to stop the maras would be to throw all their members in jail in one go: a crazy idea, too harebrained to be entertained seriously. Until Nayib Bukele went and did it.
The result is a civil liberties disaster. Yet Salvadoreans understandably have little tolerance for pious discourses about human rights from outsiders who’ve not been through what they’ve been through.
Regular people who had been living in fear of the maras for years were ecstatic for their comeuppance. Suddenly, life moved outdoors. Neighborhood parks and soccer fields that had sat idle for decades were suddenly crowded with neighborhood kids. Everyday Salvadoreans felt free in their own streets and communities in a way that hadn’t been possible for a very long time. How could a democrat not feel ill-at-ease tut-tutting a policy basically everyone in a country supports?
More than anything, what the Bukele experiment shows is that it’s not failure that makes autocrats dangerous; it’s success. Nobody in their right mind would have wanted to imitate a Perón, a Chávez or a Bolsonaro, because these kinds of leaders left their countries much worse off than they’d found them. Failure was the ultimate firewall against the spread of populism.
The flip side is that success can be a great cross-border accelerant. In country after country, Bukelismo is becoming the go-to alternative to democratic systems seen as too sclerotic to be reformed. Already, Guatemala’s new president is sounding plainly Bukelean, vowing to repeat El Salvador’s success against his own maras. Lima’s mayor Rafael López Aliaga plans to adopt an explicitly Bukelean agenda. One of Argentina’s most popular TV presenters, Santiago Cúneo, just announced his presidential bid vowing to “follow Nayib Bukele’s steps in Argentina.”
Nothing succeeds like success.
Look, Bukelismo may not be sustainable. Zero tolerance policies against gangs in the region—though less energetically pursued—have often backfired. With no plan of any sort to rehabilitate the tens of thousands of gang members he has detained, Bukele may just be storing up trouble for later, if not unwittingly creating a prison army too strong to control. New maras may arise to take advantage of the vacuum left by the imprisoned gangs. The hoped-for investment boom in the wake of the arrests may never materialize.
But democracy’s success—hell, its very survival—in Latin America is not assured either, and the rise of an attractive and workable alternative ought to be grasped as the crisis it really is. Dissatisfaction with democracy is rife throughout the region, with just 25% of Latin Americans satisfied with the way their democracies function, according to an influential 2020 study. People are looking for alternatives that deliver levels of security and prosperity they consider minimally acceptable.
There is one possible future where, in 2060, a by-then 79-year-old Nayib Bukele is still president and El Salvador really has followed Singapore’s trajectory—becoming safe, prosperous and unfree—a magnet for foreign investment and an impossible-to-ignore billboard for the nation-building potential of a certain brand of populist authoritarianism.
Small-d democrats are going to have to step up and propose solutions to security problems and gang violence that are every bit as effective as Bukelismo, but without the human rights disaster. I don’t know how to do that, presumably nobody knows. But we better find out, because if we don’t Latin Americans will be sorely tempted to trade in their civil liberties for Bukele-style hipster dictatorship.
Francisco Toro, a journalist and the Content Director for the Group of Fifty, is a contributing editor at Persuasion.
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