El Salvador's popular millennial president waging war on gangs

San Salvador (AFP) – Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's controversial war on gangs has led to tens of thousands of arrests and sparked criticism from rights groups, but helped win him sky-high popularity three years into his term.


First seen as a young challenger to the status quo but later accused of authoritarian tendencies, the 40-year-old Bukele -- a relentless presence on social media -- has brushed off the criticism and boasts a 91 percent approval rating, according to a poll by Cid Gallup.

Bukele has made reducing the murder rate in the violence-plagued Central American country a key priority.

After a wave of murders left 87 people dead at the end of March, he declared a state of emergency, sending troops onto the streets and giving his security forces special powers to arrest people without a warrant.

Since then, 35,000 suspected gang members have been locked up, adding to the 16,000 already behind bars out of an estimated total of 70,000 in the country.

Political analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez described the move as an "audacious action, necessary in the face of a complicated phenomenon that is the gangs."

It "can be seen as a bitter medicine, but it is necessary," he added.

Fall in murders

Criminologist Ricardo Sosa said that while the war against gangs is "impacting their capacity to cause damage" and forcing them to "disband or go into hiding," they will not disappear in the short term at least.

Even so, eight out of every 10 Salvadorans approve of the government action, the University of Central America says.

Bukele has pointed to falling crime figures as evidence of his policy's effectiveness.

Murders dropped by more than 50 percent in two years -- from 2,398 in 2019 to 1,147 in 2021. But critics attribute the decline to alleged secret government negotiations with gangs, which authorities deny.

Bukele has also come under fire for creeping authoritarianism, with the United States and numerous rights organizations demanding he respect human rights following allegations of mass arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of detainees.

In May 2021, aided by a Congress dominated by allies, Bukele sacked all five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial authority in the country.

He also fired the attorney general and a third of the country's 690 judges -- all those aged over 60 or with more than 30 years of service.

The United Nations, the Organization of American States and the United States all called on El Salvador to respect the rule of law and press freedoms.

Eduardo Escobar, director of the Citizens Action association, said: "This has been three years in which his government's tone has been authoritarianism, attacking the separation of powers to have a government tailored to him, without opposition to his actions."

Bitcoin bet

On the economic front, Bukele is trying to secure a $1.3 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to clean up the finances of a country where public debt is around 90 percent of gross domestic product.

Despite rampant volatility in the cryptocurrency markets, the millennial president also wants to issue Bitcoin bonds worth $1 billion to build a "Bitcoin City" close to the Conchagua volcano that would be able to provide it with an inexhaustible source of renewable energy.

Bitcoin has been legal tender in El Salvador since September 2021, alongside the US dollar, which was adopted more than two decades ago.

Economist Rafael Lemus said negotiations with the IMF are dragging on because the government is refusing to accept the global financial institutions' conditions.

"What the government does not want is IMF standards, which demand transparency, accountability and a fight against corruption," Lemus said.

The economist fears the country is at risk of "instability" and being unable to pay its debt.

Finance Minister Alejandro Zelaya, for his part, has dismissed predictions of default by "prophets of chaos," and insists the country is merely fighting for "the best conditions."