To his many critics, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has become a ruthless strongman, trampling due process and other civil protections. But within Latin America, his militarized crackdown on gangs is winning him a fan club that won’t stop growing. Prominent politicians and everyday people in countries from neighboring parts of Central America to far-flung Peru and Chile have professed their admiration for his policies—and expressed a desire to see their own countries adopt a similar approach.
Bukele’s mano dura security strategy, which escalated after he declared a state of exception last March, has slashed El Salvador’s homicide rate and brought relative safety to communities wracked by violence for years. But it has also virtually eliminated the right to a fair trial for those accused of belonging to gangs, imprisoning many on broad charges with little to no access to legal defense. Some 60,000 Salvadorans have been put in jail in just under a year. Bukele’s administration has been the target of rebuke and sanctions from the U.S., and condemnation by human rights organizations. But in many parts of Latin America, the reaction has been altogether more positive.
In violence-prone Guatemala and Honduras, citizens have held pro-Bukele marches and cheered the Salvadoran president’s visits to the country. Costa Rica’s security minister, Jorge Torres, called for his government to follow in Bukele’s footsteps. Colombia’s narrowly defeated presidential runner-up, Rodolfo Hernández, made a pre-election pilgrimage to San Salvador to study Bukele’s policies firsthand. The mayor of Lima and right-wing presidential hopeful, Rafael López Aliaga, promised a “Bukele plan” to crack down on urban crime. As far away as Chile, which is in the grips of its own crime surge, pro-Bukele street parades have made waves on social media.
Meanwhile, Bukele’s Latin American critics have been remarkably few and far between. When Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso—pressed by critics to explain his own country’s deteriorating security situation—implied Bukele had gone too far, he sounded like a voice in the wilderness. No wonder: A recent poll showed Bukele was twice as popular, among Ecuadorians, as any of the country’s politicians.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
Bukele’s soft power—unusual for a president of such a small nation—is the fruit of years of diplomatic labor. While he expressed an interest in drawing his neighbors closer even before winning the presidency, in 2019, the real opportunity came after. The COVID-19 pandemic, a death knell for incumbents across the region, became Bukele’s launching pad.
He capitalized on his government’s relatively effective—if draconian—pandemic response to begin promoting his international image. In May 2021, his government donated 34,000 vaccines to cheering crowds in Honduras, where corruption and incompetence had produced a shortfall. After devastating hurricanes hit the region, his government also sent emergency food medical aid to Honduras and Guatemala—and offered to hire Nicaraguan doctors let go for criticizing Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship. Like his boyhood idol Hugo Chávez, Bukele ran roughshod over term limits and purged the judiciary at home. Meanwhile, he cultivated an image as benefactor abroad, cushioning his government against criticism.
Fast forward to 2023, and Bukele seems to be repeating the script—only this time, he’s exporting his security policy. Salvadoran security minister Gustavo Villatoro told Honduras’ El Heraldo late last year that authorities in the country have met regularly with their Guatemalan and Honduran counterparts since last March to share information on the movement of suspected gang members across borders. In December, Guatemala turned over to El Salvador one gang leader with an arrest warrant for a string of homicides, while Honduran president Xiomara Castro dispatched military police to the border with El Salvador to prevent suspected criminals from crossing the border. “What we have achieved in El Salvador is available to all countries,” said Villatoro after a February meeting in which the security ministers of Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and several Central American countries agreed to coordinate their anti-gang strategies.
Ideology doesn’t seem to dictate who joins Bukele’s foreign followers. Castro, who campaigned as a leftist with an emphasis on reining in abuses by Honduras’ security forces, has called Bukele a model to follow and put 16 of the country’s 18 departments under an ongoing state of exception, although mass detentions have yet to come. Next door, conservative Zury Ríos—widely predicted to become the frontrunner for this year’s presidential election in Guatemala—praises Bukele’s security policies on social media and has forged her own ties to members of his inner circle.
Porfirio Chica, a Salvadoran media strategist who has worked closely with Bukele, told AQ Ríos had consulted him twice on political strategy in the context of the upcoming elections, adding that Bukele has strictly respected his neighbors’ sovereignty. But on security policy, Bukele is projecting influence even further afield. In January, Salvadoran Vice President, Félix Ulloa, said that government officials had met with Prime Minister Ariel Henry to set up an office in Port-au-Prince to work on an anti-gang strategy for Haiti.
All Bark, No Bite?
For now, Bukele’s ideas and rhetoric are spreading fast. It remains uncertain to what extent they will influence concrete policies beyond El Salvador’s borders. Several forces could take the wind out of his sails: for one, there is El Salvador’s low growth and colossal foreign debt. The IMF predicts that the country’s debt—fueled jointly by the costly anti-gang campaign and populist economic reforms—will reach 97.5% of GDP by 2027. If the government can’t cut checks, it’s difficult to imagine that police and soldiers will keep patrolling the streets for free.
The sheer diversity of Central America, which has thwarted many past attempts to integrate its countries, is another potential obstacle. Governments in Guatemala and Honduras face larger, more geographically diverse territories and more mobilized civil societies—and could struggle to copy Bukele’s most aggressive policing methods. In Costa Rica, and perhaps the Dominican Republic and Panama, relatively strong rule of law institutions appear more likely to rein in attempts to emulate Bukele’s approach. Last but not least, citizens themselves might put up resistance. Although Bukele has fashioned himself as a latter-day Francisco Morazán—the 19th century independence hero who sought to keep much of Central America united—others will see echoes of Operation Condor.
But Bukele’s quest for soft power in Latin America has been too successful, so far, to write it off just yet. Violent crime feeds demand for Bukele-style policies and, in Latin America, it is a major problem virtually everywhere. From former islands of tranquility like Chile and Ecuador, to chronically violent Haiti, Honduras and Colombia, fed-up citizens have seen conventional security policies fail too many times before. Bukele’s appeal, for many, is his radical approach to fighting crime. Self-styled mano dura presidents who came before him in the region, like El Salvador’s Antonio Saca or Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina, look cautious and rule-abiding by comparison. And for now, Bukele’s peers are taking notes.
Tags: Crime and Security, El Salvador, Guatemala, Human Rights, Mano Dura, Nayib Bukele