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In El Salvador, self-styled ‘world’s coolest dictator’ Nayib Bukele heads for re-election amid human rights concerns

When Jocelyn Zelaya was caught in a hail of gunfire on the streets of San Salvador in 2017, the young mother was simply “in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” says her aunt Jackelyne.

A group of gunmen armed with automatic weapons had opened fire to assassinate a member of a rival gang on the other side of the road. Zelaya, then 20, was caught in the line of fire. She was hit by eight bullets, her aunt told CNN.

“But she didn’t die then, they took her to hospital,” Jackelyne Zelaya recalls, struggling to contain her tears. “The attack was at about six in the afternoon, and when I got to the hospital at ten, she had just died. Her body was still warm.”

Jocelyn’s death, which deprived one-year-old Marcela of her mother, was just one of thousands of killings that year in El Salvador, a period when the tiny Central American nation of six million people had the highest murder rates in the world according to the World Bank.

Many of the dead, like Jocelyn, were innocent bystanders caught in a turf war between two enormous criminal gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18.

To this day Zelaya doesn’t know which gang was responsible for killing her niece. “We were left alone in our pain. We buried her and raised her daughter having to explain to her why her mom isn’t here,” she says.

But, like many others who have lost their loved ones, she does know who she credits for taking on those gangs: Nayib Bukele, the country’s strongman president and self-styled “world’s coolest dictator” and “philosopher king.” Despite being criticized by opponents and international human rights organizations for alleged large-scale human rights abuses in his crackdown on crime, Bukele is widely tipped for re-election when El Salvador heads to the polls this Sunday.

Employees of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal load boxes containing electoral material for the presidential and legislative elections at the Electoral Organization Directorate in San Marcos, El Salvador, on February 2, 2024. - Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Employees of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal load boxes containing electoral material for the presidential and legislative elections at the Electoral Organization Directorate in San Marcos, El Salvador, on February 2, 2024. - Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

‘The Bukele Method’

A canny politician, Bukele began his race to power while his family’s advertising agency worked for the government of the FMLN, the former Civil War guerrilla group that would win two presidential elections, in 2009 and 2014. But Bukele’s true ascent to the pinnacle would take a leap after being expelled by his party in 2017 and becoming an outsider. As such, he won the 2019 elections on his first try, with a pledge to rid the country of corruption and graft.

The then-37-year-old swiftly gained a reputation as a disruptor and innovator. He adopted Bitcoin as legal tender in El Salvador in 2021 and invited the tech-bros of the world to surf in the Pacific.

But above all, it is Bukele’s ironfisted crackdown on criminal gangs that has fueled his popularity both domestically and across Latin America, making him the runaway favorite this Sunday.

Bukele boasts one of the highest approval rates in Latin America, regularly faring above 70% in most independent polls.

The opposition, meanwhile, is spread across several candidates. Under Bukele, El Salvador’s homicide rate has plummeted. Within a year of him coming to power, it had fallen to just a third of what it was in 2017, the year Jocelyn Zelaya was killed.

Today, the government claims, it is less than two murders every 100,000 – a rate of homicide lower than in the United States, although national and international NGOs have expressed doubts on the transparency of the government’s figures.

Some of that early success could be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, but few doubt the influence of what has since come to be known across Latin America as the “Bukele Method.”

In March 2022, an outbreak of gang violence that killed 62 people in a single day had left Bukele facing the bloodiest crisis of his presidency. He responded by introducing emergency powers he said would deal with the gangs once and for all. Last year, a Justice Department investigation unsealed in a court in New York stated that Bukele was secretly negotiating a truce with the same gangs he was claiming to fight, but the state of emergency was not revoked. Bukele has denied negotiating with the gangs.

Constitutional guarantees were suspended, allowing the police to detain a person without charge for up to 15 days and tap anyone’s phone without a judicial order; the Army was deployed; and the number of detentions rocketed.

By early 2023, Bukele’s government had built a sprawling penitentiary complex with capacity for up to 40,000 inmates dubbed “Center for the Confinement of Terrorists.”

But not everyone is a fan. Critics accuse Bukele of recklessly committing large-scale human rights abuses in his fight against the gangs, and of dismantling the country’s checks and balances by attacking El Salvador’s legislative and judicial powers.

Nearly two years after the March killings, El Salvador’s state of emergency and restriction on civil liberties remain in place following multiple renewals approved monthly by Congress.

Even more people are now in prison; over 75,000 as of January. So, while El Salvador no longer faces record murder rates, it now boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In between, Bukele also managed to increase his control of state institutions that are meant to be independent from the presidency and check its power. In January 2020,  he famously entered Congress surrounded by fully armed soldiers to press the lawmakers to allow an emergency loan to purchase new armaments.

A year later – following his party New Ideas’ absolute majority in the legislative elections – the new Congress loyal to Bukele dismissed El Salvador’s Supreme Court judges, as well as the attorney general who had resisted some of his early reforms.

Police officers stand guard in the center of San Salvador on December 3, 2023. - Camilo Freedman/AFP/Getty Images
Police officers stand guard in the center of San Salvador on December 3, 2023. - Camilo Freedman/AFP/Getty Images

A tale of two victims

Jackelyne Zelaya does not see the enduring state of emergency as a problem. Nor is she concerned by claims that Bukele is changing the political system to amass power; Bukele is running for a second mandate on a special provision by the new Supreme Court because six separate articles of the Constitution specifically prohibit presidential re-elections.

“We have security, now. It’s not perfect but let it last until all the people who caused pain have paid the price,” she says, adding that she won’t spend election day idling at home.

“I will go out, and call all my neighbors, all my friends to come and vote for the president. Could you imagine what will happen if he loses? All those people full of hate that are now in jail would get out and come for us,” she says.

But what about the citizens whose lives have been ruined by Bukele’s policies?

Maria, 28, is nearly the same age that Jocelyn Zelaya would have been if she were still alive. She too has lost someone to the gangs: one of her brothers, almost a decade ago.

Maria is not her real name; CNN has agreed to hide her identity for security reasons. She is afraid she will be attacked for telling her story, after seeing the dark side of Bukele’s tough-on-crime approach.

One Friday, two policemen arrived at her family home and asked her to go to the police station – an anonymous tipster had accused her of gang membership.

“They told me it was an anonymous call: someone had rung the police to say I was in a gang. I told them I was innocent, and demanded an explanation, and all they did was put me in a cell,” she recalls.

By the following Monday, she says, she was charged with criminal association and sent to the female penitentiary in Santa Ana. She says that in the six months she was held in jail, she never saw a judge. When she was ultimately set free, release documents seen by CNN show she was never found guilty.

The detention affects her to this day. Despite her release, Maria is now barred from leaving the country – even though she has a valid visa to work in the United States, she says – and must sign in every two weeks at the local police station. Maria has also struggled to find a job in her tightknit community because of her incarceration, she told CNN.

Maria is far from alone in alleging mistreatment. Since Bukele introduced the state of emergency, allegations of human rights violations including abuses by law enforcement, detentions of innocent people and dehumanizing conditions behind bars have been widespread.

While Salvadorian authorities question some of the data put forward by human rights organizations, they do not deny making what they characterize as inevitable mistakes – numbering in the thousands.

In May last year, the government released almost 5,000 people it admitted had been mistakenly detained.

Two months later, Marvin Reyes, the secretary of a National Police workers union, accused the government of imposing “arrest quotas” for police units to meet at the start of the state of emergency, according to EFE.

Security minister Guillermo Villatoro has even quipped that there was nothing strange in such a high number of errors. “If the police detain only the culprits, what’s the point of having the Attorney General and the court system?” he told local media last year in May. Villatoro also said the government would investigate any death that occurred behind bars, following reports that a number of inmates who had been detained under the state of emergency laws had died in prison.

Salvadorean Sandra Hernandez with a picture of her husband Jose Dimas Medrano, who was detained under the state of emergency and died of kidney failure while in prison, in El Rosario, El Salvador, on January 29, 2024. - Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
Salvadorean Sandra Hernandez with a picture of her husband Jose Dimas Medrano, who was detained under the state of emergency and died of kidney failure while in prison, in El Rosario, El Salvador, on January 29, 2024. - Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

’250 to a cell’

Neither Salvadorean police nor the Security Ministry responded to several questions from CNN on the allegations of police abuse and security crackdown in the country.

Maria says she still has nightmares about the conditions she experienced inside the prison. “I was put in a cell with 250 women, and there were only 20 bunkbeds for all those people.”

Going to the bathroom meant stripping naked in front of other inmates and prison guards would beat anyone deemed to be taking too long, she says.

Even worse, was the food: “Not a single day went by that I didn’t find a bug, a fly, or some animal in my meal. Every day we had to eat that food because there was nothing else, and if someone refused to eat, she was taken for punishment.”

Her account tallies with allegations made by Human Rights Watch regarding mass detentions and alleged torture in El Salvador jails.

But Bukele has appeared at times even to celebrate the concerning conditions in El Salvador’s prisons; in the past, he personally published sleekly edited videos depicting inmates forced to run with their hands on their heads and pushed against each other in overcrowded cells.

In January, Bukele tweeted that he felt ‘HONORED’ [sic] to be criticized by US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who along with with 13 other Democratic representatives is urging the US to review its relations with El Salvador in light of the alleged abuse.

Samuel Rodriguez of MOVIR, an association that assists victims of the crackdown, says there’s a reason that Bukele doesn’t shy away from such controversial images: It’s what his supporters want to see.

“Bukele knows that those images give him votes,” he says.

Soldiers patrol in front of the National Palace building at the Barrios square in the historic center of San Salvador on January 31, 2024. - Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers patrol in front of the National Palace building at the Barrios square in the historic center of San Salvador on January 31, 2024. - Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

A model for the region?

Human rights advocates across the region fear Bukele’s popularity could lead other leaders to emulate his methods.

Honduras, which has long faced deep-rooted problems of its own with organized crime, announced a similar state of emergency in December 2022, which remains in place. As in El Salvador, the provision means the suspension of several constitutional rights, including freedom of movement, the right of association and assembly, and the inviolability of the home, according to WOLA, a regional think tank based in Washington DC.

In Ecuador, new President Daniel Noboa has also announced plans to build a raft of new prisons and even floated the idea of putting penitentiaries in abandoned cruise ships, as he cracks down on the country’s gang-fueled security crisis, though he told CNN he “did not intend to copy anyone’s model,” and that Bukele’s approach would not be applicable to Ecuador.

In at least 13 countries in Latin America, most of the population “wouldn’t mind an undemocratic government rising to power if it resolved problems,” according to a 2023 poll by Latinobarometro.

Asked the same question, Jackelyne Zelaya is undecided. She concedes that she’s also afraid that, like ‘Maria’, she too could be thrown in jail on the basis of nothing more than an anonymous call.

But Zelaya says her worries are outweighed by a bigger picture – the hope that her own children could have a more normal life than was possible when her niece was shot.

“I know it’s not perfect, maybe of a thousand they detained, a hundred were innocent,” she says. “Then I look at my sons, I have two aged 16 and 23, and seeing them being able to go out at night, go to play ball down the road with their friends without fearing they could be killed or recruited for something bad, that has no price.”

Maria, though, sees a different bigger picture. She wants her country and the world to open their eyes to what is happening inside El Salvador’s prisons. Some of the people who were wrongfully incarcerated in recent years may never have the chance to leave, she believes.

“I often think of all the people who died in jail, and all those who were innocent,” she says. “They were in a place they were never supposed to be, and they died there.”

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