Opinion: Why most Salvadorans want Bukele’s re-election despite his growing authoritarianism

A Salvadoran perspective on why people want to re-elect the controversial president
By Eddie Galdamez |  Oct 7th, 2022
This article by Eddie Galdamez originally appeared on GlobalVoices.org on October 7, 2022.
President Nayib Bukele
Nayib Bukele. Image by Flickr.com image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On El Salvador’s Independence Day on September 15, President Nayib Bukele publicly announced that he would run for the presidency again in 2024. This statement didn’t surprise anyone but drew criticism from many parts.

Local and international organizations, media outlets, politicians, reporters, and civil society leaders immediately denounced Bukele’s electoral intentions as unconstitutional.

“Bukele’s announcement to seek re-election violates the Salvadoran Constitution, which prohibits it, and is the foreseeable outcome of his rapid crackdown on the rule of law. Today, the future of El Salvador’s democracy is more at risk than ever,” Tamara Taraciuk, America’s deputy director at Human Rights Watch wrote on Twitter.

Since taking office in 2019, Nayib Bukele, the most popular president on the American continent, has been condemned for his authoritarian tendencies. Many organizations, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Cristosal, and Citizen's actions, have accused Bukele’s administration of human rights violations.

The most recent example of human rights at risk is El Salvador’s seven-month-long “State of Exception,” a state of emergency requested by Bukele to quell a homicide spike earlier this year.

The state of emergency approved in late March temporarily suspends some constitutional rights. For example, the right to be informed of the reasons behind detention no longer applies.

Also, the limit for the general attorney to file charges gets extended from two to 15 days, and the police can now listen to phone conversations or view text messages without the need for a judicial warrant.

Under the Salvadoran constitution, the state of emergency is approved for 30 days; as of today, it has been extended six times. This has resulted in the arrest of over 53,000 people in fewer than six months, with many claims of lack of due process and detentions of innocent people unaffiliated with gangs.

The country’s improved security is likely the principal reason most Salvadorans want Bukele’s re-election despite his growing authoritarianism.

Over the last 25 years, El Salvador has been one of the most violent countries in the world. This violence has been mainly perpetuated by criminal gangs formed by individuals with gang affiliations deported from the United States in the mid-1990s.

These gangs use violence to intimidate communities and control territory, and Salvadorans were in constant fear of getting killed or being targeted for extortion. The fear of gang violence forced tens of thousands of Salvadorans to leave the country.

So, security has always been a top priority for Salvadorans. The previous governments failed to make Salvadorans feel safer — and based on surveys and statistics, it looks like Bukele’s administration has succeeded.

There is no denying that security has improved since the Bukele administration began. According to the daily data released by the Salvadoran National Police, the country’s homicide rate has declined.

Additionally, the government claims that there have been more days without homicides during the Bukele administration, and the state of emergency has taken alleged gang members off the streets. According to a variety of survey results taken this year, the vast majority of Salvadorans approve of the controversial state of emergency.*

When Bukele took office three years ago, the daily murder rate was 6.6; by 2021, it had dropped to 3.1, and as of September 30, it is 2.0. El Salvador is reaching a new record low murder rate this year.

With the information gathered from the Salvadoran National Police and the Interinstitutional Technical Table for the Reconciliation of Figures of Victims of Homicides, I created the following table of the homicide rate in El Salvador. These include all homicides — not only those committed by alleged gang members.

The best way to keep track of figures is to combine the police’s daily data with those released by the Attorney General and forensic medicine’s offices. It’s an extremely politicized issue in El Salvador — the police’s daily figures are not enough to count all violent deaths.

El Salvador Homicide Rate from 2010 to 2022
Year Total Homicides Daily Homicide Rate Homicides per 100,000 Inhabitants
2022*
(September 30th)
546 2.0 11.5
*Projected
2021 1147 3.1 17.5
2020 1341 3.7 20
2019 2398 6.6 36
2018 3346 9.2 50
2017 3962 10.9 60
2016 5280 14.5 81
2015 6656 18.2 103
2014 3921 10.7 61
2013 2499 6.8 40
2012 2594 7.1 41
2011 4371 12.0 70
2010 4004 11.0 64

Many people question the homicide rate and the days with zero homicides reported by the Bukele administration, arguing that they do not include mass graves with victims of forced disappearances and the deaths of alleged criminals who have died in confrontations with security forces. Still, even when including them, the homicide rate is lower than in previous years.

Roberto Valencia, a well-known and independent journalist in El Salvador, confirms that as of September 30, there were about a third fewer homicides than in the same time period in 2021.

“At the current rate, El Salvador would close 2022 with 730 homicides, for a rate of 11.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants,” writes Valencia. This would be a historic achievement for El Salvador.

Nonetheless, many allegations of a secret truce between Bukele’s government and gangs have surfaced, leading to questions as to how Bukele achieved this sense of security. In 2021, the US sanctioned two Salvadoran government officials and accused them of negotiating with gang members to seal a secret truce and shore up political support.

Also, the independent online investigative media El Faro has revealed images and audio of this alleged pact between the Bukele administration and gangs. However, not many people believe these reports despite the evidence released by El Faro.

Many believe that Bukele’s propaganda and his attempts to mock and silence the press have influenced public opinion, and they could be right. Yet it seems likely that the main reason why most Salvadorans want him as president again is to feel safe, despite the allegations of lack of human rights, growing authoritarianism, and secret gang negotiations.

So, the average Salvadoran is not interested in whether Bukele’s re-election is unconstitutional. They want to feel safe when going to work, school, or to the market, and to them, this is something the Bukele administration has delivered. For the time being, many are willing to support Nayib Bukele at all costs.


* CID Gallup recorded a 91 percent approval, another survey from a local independent university registered that people gave it a “7.99 grade out of 10,” and a local news media (whose editorial line often criticizes Bukele’s administration) recounted 74 percent approval. As a matter of fact, the latest CID Gallup survey showed that 85 percent of Salvadorans are in favor of implementing even tougher measures against gangs.

This article by Eddie Galdamez originally appeared on GlobalVoices.org on October 7, 2022.