Sexuality Policy Watch

Bukele: A ‘caudilho’ Dies and A Messiah is Born in El Salvador

SPW begins a series of brief analyses of the Covid-19 crisis in contexts that are generally under-reported by the mainstream press and which are characterized as regressive in relation to gender and abortion policy. The second article in this series is about El Salvador. We thank educator Amaral Arévalo for his collaboration!

By Amaral Arévalo*

El Salvador is a country of 20,700 square kilometers with approximately six million inhabitants – not taking into consideration the three and a half million Salvadorans that live outside the country, mainly in the US. It is located in Central America, bordering Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, bathed by the Pacific Ocean.

El Salvador has been marked by serious episodes of violence. The country has a long history of massacres, genocides, ethnocides, and homicidal violence at exorbitant levels. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the political repression of the country’s military dictatorships led to processes of selectively murdering people and exposing their tortured bodies along the main public roads in the capital San Salvador as an example. Between 1980 and 1992, an internal armed conflict in the country killed 75,000 civilians and drove another million Salvadorans from the country.

In the post-conflict era that began in 1992, social violence continued through organized and armed youth groups, known as “Maras”. During this period the ultra-right began to rule the country, applying neoliberal economic policies in El Salvador for 20 years. In this post-conflict period, there was a reform of the country’s Penal Code, in which the exceptions in the law that permitted abortion in the country were eliminated. This situation has transformed El Salvador into a country where women are imprisoned for abortion, even in cases of miscarriage. Women thus accused and convicted can receive prison sentences of between 30 and 40 years.

In 2009, a democratic regime change occurred when Mauricio Funes won the presidency of the republic under the banner of the FMLN, becoming the first leftist president in the history of El Salvador. Funes governed between 2009 and 2014 and during this period a new political figure began to appear on the scene: Nayib Bukele. In 2012, Bukele was elected mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, a small municipality in the ​​San Salvador metropolitan area. In 2015, he was elected mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital. In both elections, Bukele ran on the FMLN ticket. In 2017, problems and differences began to manifest themselves in Bukele’s relationship with the party. He left the FMLN and created the “New Ideas” movement. Under this banner, he competed for the Presidency of the Republic in 2019, winning with a wide electoral margin. On June 1st, 2019, he took office as president.

On Friday, February 7th, 2020, Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador, urged the Salvadoran people to exercise their right to popular insurrection because of the refusal of the Legislative Assembly to approve a loan of US $ 109 million, destined for the Plan of Action Territorial Control Phase III, which was geared to violent crime prevention. There was no clarity on how the requested funds would be used and congressmen ignored the President’s demand.

On Saturday, February 8th, 2020, Bukele renewed his call for popular revolt, summoning the Salvadoran people to participate in the Legislative Assembly on Sunday, the 9th, at 3 pm, in order to force deputies to approve the loan.

That Sunday, the Legislative Assembly was surrounded by the military and police. Bukele supporters participated in the Assembly and government officials were invited to “voluntarily” participate. The military invaded the Assembly, followed by Bukele. A few congressmen who were present left the legislative chambers when they saw the military invasion. Bukele sat in the chair of the President of the Legislative Assembly and said a prayer. Upon leaving the Assembly, he informed his followers that “God” had spoken to him and asked for “patience” with the Congressmen. This action was nationally and internationally interpreted as a failed attempt at self-coup, and the President’s popularity was affected.

That same weekend, at San Salvador airport, store employees and immigration officials began to wear masks and gloves, an action that was in line with the WHO’s internationally implemented health safety measures. When passengers passed through immigration, they were asked if they had traveled to China in the past 15 days. If the person answered yes, they would have a routine medical check-up and, if the answer was negative, they would be allowed to enter El Salvador unimpeded. Nothing out of the ordinary.

With regard to the use of the armed forces in the coup attempt, the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber warned Bukele to refrain from “using the Armed Forces in activities contrary to established constitutional purposes and to the republican, democratic and representative form of government, the pluralist political system and, in particular, the separation of powers”. Bukele did not respond to this admonishment, not even on the social networks he uses as an official means of communication. Actors close to the president began to stir up his followers, however, to pressure the Legislative Assembly to finally approve the 109-million-dollar loan. This climate dominated national debates during practically the entire month of February, with opportunists stirring up the masses on Bukele’s behalf while their role in the events of February 9th was erased.

In the last week of February, however, Bukele’s social networks began to agitate around COVID-19. Since the end of January, Chinese citizens have been banned from entering El Salvador, a rule later extended to people from South Korea, Iran, and Italy and to those who had been in transit through those countries. Right about this time, shocking information from countries in Europe began to circulate regarding the epidemic. Whenever a country entered onto the list of those most affected, its citizens were prohibited from entering the El Salvador. The promotion of these “strictly sanitary” measures has contributed to diluting the memory of Bukele’s attempted coup.

In early March, actions against the epidemic intensified in the country. The bans on foreigners entering the country were maintained, but a 30-day quarantine was also decreed for any Salvadoran who entered the country. This measure was both premature and surprising, as the country was not prepared to deal with the resulting situation. El Salvador experiences constant national crises and emergencies, as almost every year there is a natural event that activates the country’s civil defense system in order to aid victims of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and hurricanes. Nevertheless, the country was not prepared to establish and sustain a long quarantine in order to limit the massive spread of a highly infectious disease. The civil defense system began to treat all who were quarantined as if a natural disaster was underway and isolation measures were not entirely imposed.

Although there were no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in El Salvador during the first 15 days of March, the improvised quarantine was extended. Schools and universities, ports, airports, and shopping centers were closed and mobility within the country began to be restricted via a State of Exception decree that the Legislative Assembly approved, but limited to 15 days. However, on March 21st, Bukele issued an Executive Order to establish a mandatory 30-day residential quarantine across the country. These types of restrictive measures were interspersed with promises of social benefits such as the payment of US $ 300 per household (based on energy consumption), the delaying of bill payments for basic services for three months, the suspension of credit payments for three months, a three-month ban on the firing of quarantined people, and a $150 bonus for public officials currently working to contain the crisis, in addition to measures being recommended at the international level.

“Not everything that glitters is gold,” as the old saying goes, however, and the same is true for Bukele. In the effort to contain the first wave of the epidemic in the interior of El Salvador, he revived the country’s old practices of repression and the violation of human rights through the employment of legal resources that are specifically exempted from the hegemonic ideology of the country’s Penal Code, seeing in these as an easy solution for all types of crises. Despite these draconian rules, on March 31st, El Salvador registered 29 imported cases of Covid-19, along with three apparently communal contagions. The imported cases are from Salvadorans coming from Italy, the United States, Guatemala, Spain, Colombia, France, Canada, and Brazil. In the case of community transmission, one person entered through a blind spot at the border and two others were detected in home quarantine, one of them infected via a supposed contact with people from the United States. Of the imported cases, 28 are in the epidemic containment centers, in which the Salvadorans who entered the country after the closure of borders were forced to remain. These currently house 4,098 people.

On the other hand, within three days of implementing the mandatory home quarantine decree, 607 people were arrested as criminals. Due to the abrupt application of the measure, that number could reach 6,000 people in the first 30 days of the quarantine. However, the Supreme Court intervened with a Habeas Corpus measure, determining that those people detained by police for violating isolation measures were not criminals and therefore should be placed in appropriate containment centers. If this wasn’t possible, then the people should be returned to their homes. Thus, on March 31st, there were only 712 held in “detention” at the national level. Many of these people are informal workers who need to move around the streets, not because they want to, but because they need to earn money to survive. Maintaining 30 days of quarantine is a privilege of social class that most Salvadorans are not a part of.

From a political point of view, however, one result of this “war against the virus” operation has been that the image of the president who had promoted a failed self-coup has practically disappeared from public memory, both in El Salvador and internationally. Segments of the video that are circulating in the region highlight the “generous and conscious” side of Bukele’s speech about the measures being taken to contain COVID-19, mobilizing the empathy of people and groups that consider this the right path to be followed. However, the videos propagated by Bukele’s social networks are decidedly partial. It is essential that his speech be watched in its entirety, so that people from outside the country can better perceive the President’s schizophrenic traits, such as when he declares that “we must have hope in God”, “we are facing the third world war”, and “in El Salvador we will have 3,145,728 infected people on May 20th, if we don’t take drastic measures”.

Bukele uses fear, panic and terror to manipulate and control the country’s population. In the current context, the ghosts of past political repression, torture, ill-treatment, humiliation, and the violation of human rights are being reborn by the public security forces, justified as necessary measures to “save” the population from a new internal enemy: COVID-19. Quite clearly, the “sanitary measures” being adopted, which are repeated ad nauseam by the national media (and which have the approval of the PAHO representative) fulfill the function of cleaning up the image of the warlord of February 9th, giving rise to a new “messianic savior ”. If El Salvador manages to contain the COVID-19 epidemic, Bukele — with the help of his advertising machinery in the social media — will clearly sell this image worldwide.


Two days before the publication of this article, a crowd of people took over the center of the capital of El Salvador, as can be seen in the image below. They broke all the rules established by the “State of Exception” and put their lives at risk by crowding in front of government buildings to get the $300 basic income supplement announced by Bukele and approved by Congress the day before. This potentially deadly chaos was also caused by the populism of the president, who announced the benefit in the national media, informing that all households with energy consumption rates of less than 250 KWH per month would be able to receive it. However, the criteria and rules defined by the policy are, in fact, much more restrictive. A significant portion of the population that took to the streets will not receive aid, in addition to having been unnecessarily exposed to COVID 19.

*Educator; Master in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies; Doctor in Gender and Sexuality Studies.

Photos by El Faro, Victor Pena and Carlos Barrera.

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