To many, El Salvador’s president is a national hero who took on the country’s violent gangs with an unrelenting hand. To others, the populist is a 21st century autocrat who has committed mass human rights abuses and has altered the rules of the game to concentrate power in his own hands.
Bukele has captured the world’s attention in a way few other Latin American leaders have in recent times.
The self-described “world’s coolest dictator” is likely to easily skate into a second presidential term in the country’s election on Sunday. After sidestepping El Salvador’s constitution prohibiting reelection in six different places, Bukele has the support of from seven to nine of every 10 voters, according to recent polling.
Bukele’s almost certain victory will further cement his grip on power as his tough tactics ripple out from this small Central American nation to other places with their own security crises like Ecuador, Honduras and the Dominican Republic. But that worries rights advocates across the region.
“People in El Salvador are living in an indefinite state of emergency, with human rights being massively and systematically violated every day,” says Alejandro Diaz from Salvadoran legal organisation Tutela Legal María Julia Hernández, a partner organisation of UK Catholic charity CAFOD.
“This is being presented to the public as something totally normal and publicised as a model for national security to be exported across Latin America. Today innocent people are arrested, tortured and killed. There is no fair trial and no impartial judges.
“An important part of our heritage is our historical memory. Yet the government want to deny history by saying ‘El Salvador is a new country, there is a re-birth of El Salvador’ They are also trying to legitimise the human rights violations and the rupture of the balance of powers in the country. These elections don’t respect the constitution and the international community must start speaking out about this and take more prominence,” says Alejandro.
“At stake is not just the elections, but also historic memory, democracy and the legacy and the blood of many people and figures like our Saint Oscar Romero, who stood alongside his people as they struggled against injustice.”
With the coming election in mind, Bukele recently made electoral changes, slashing the number of municipalities in a way that analysts say further stacks the odds in his favour, particularly in congressional and local elections to be held in March.
The president has built a sophisticated communication machine pumping out highly produced government propaganda while his government has harassed journalists, political opponents and critics.
It’s a situation that CAFOD itself is extremely concerned about. A spokesperson for the charity told The Catholic Network:
“El Salvador’s first Saint, Oscar Romero, was a partner of CAFOD, and his bravery to speak out against injustice in the country continues to inspire us today. Alongside our local partners, we will continue to echo concerns about the dismantling of human rights institutions, curbs to free speech, and lack of justice.”
- CAFOD is the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and part of Caritas International. Working with communities across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America to fight poverty and injustice. The agency works with people in need, regardless of race, gender, religion or nationality. cafod.org.uk
- CAFOD and Saint Oscar Romero: CAFOD has a long history of working with Saint Oscar Romero and promoting his legacy. In the 1970s, CAFOD supported Archbishop Romero’s famous radio broadcasts, which – at a time when the press was heavily censored – were often the only means by which people in El Salvador knew the truth about the atrocities occurring in their country. When Romero’s radio station was blown up, CAFOD provided funding to rebuild it. After Romero was martyred, the aid agency’s staff successfully petitioned Lambeth Council to rename the Brixton street where their office was located ‘Romero Close’. And when CAFOD moved to a new office in 2009, it was named ‘Romero House’.
- CAFOD’s work in El Salvador: CAFOD supports local organisation in El Salvador who are helping farmers to improve their crops, assisting communities in reducing the risk of disasters, building peace, defending human rights and trying to create a more just society.