top of page

Could El Salvador Push the Rest of Latin America Away From Democracy?

Updated: Mar 31

Humberto Gallego

Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s recently re-elected president, spent his first five-year term

prioritizing one issue - reducing the country’s homicides. El Salvador has historically been

plagued by gang violence; the country previously had the highest murder rate in the world. In 2015, the homicide rate in El Salvador reached a record 103 per 100,000 residents or the

equivalent of more than 18 homicides per day. Today, that figure has been reduced to an

estimated 1.7 homicides per 100,000 people, or less than one murder per three days, compared to a rate of 6.3 in the US, 25 in Mexico, and 0.2 in Japan.

While the 2024 figures for El Salvador are based on limited data, Bukele and his

government claim that El Salvador is now the safest country in the Western Hemisphere - safer than all of Latin America, the US, or Canada.

His success comes after the El Salvadorian legislature granted him emergency powers in 2022, allowing him to suspend several constitutional protections afforded to El Salvadoran citizens, including the right to assemble, access to a lawyer, and law enforcement's obligation to notify arrestees of their reason for being detained. Most importantly, prisoners can now be held indefinitely and without charges.

As a result, the police have arrested anyone suspected of being a gang member, especially those with visible tattoos. Many of these prisoners have been transferred to El Salvador’s new 40,000-inmate prison, Cecot, which is now at overcapacity as the country’s penal system deals with the massive influx in arrests.

In prisons like Cecot, inmates sleep on bunks stacked four stories high on bare metal beds and are not even provided utensils at meals. These measures have been implemented to prevent inmates from fashioning weapons of any kind, and prisoners are held to extreme disciplinary standards. Cecot’s inmates are only allowed out of their cramped cells for only 30 minutes per day, during which they can exercise in the prison’s hallway. Military guards, wearing face masks and hoods and carrying riot shields and rifles, are posted throughout the entire complex, and the lights stay on 24/7.

In total, 2% of El Salvador’s adult population is in jail. Human rights groups and NGOs

have claimed that thousands of innocent people have been detained and are denied access to counsel or their families, that inmates are tortured, and that hundreds of prisoners have died in captivity, a fact which these organizations claim the government is obscuring.

The government of El Salvador has refused journalists’ requests to release information

concerning exact detainee numbers and prisoner deaths.

But among the public of El Salvador, Bukele is beyond popular; he carried reelection in

February by an unprecedented margin of 85%, with his party securing 54 seats up for election in the legislature. Of the remaining six seats, half were won by ardent allies of Bukele’s New Ideas party. Most remarkably, experts consider the election in El Salvador free and fair, making this winning margin one of the most substantial in world history.

Bukele is making international headlines for rebuking critics who claim that he is

violating human rights, arguing that countries like the US or UK are also complicit in locking up innocent civilians. At a speech from the balcony of the Presidential Palace in February, Bukele was cheered on by thousands of Salvadorans from the square below as he decried the hypocrisy of the establishment and the media for supporting the unnecessary death of his fellow countrymen and women at the hands of violent gangs.

Bukele is quick to rebuke any criticism that he receives about his methods, claiming that his government’s primary directive is delivering safety and security to his people and that in doing so, there will be some collateral damage, a price that he is very willing to pay.

However, the actual casualty in this situation could be much greater than even what his government’s critics have proposed. Bukele has created a duplicitous political environment to achieve this success. For instance, his government has begun altering how homicides are counted to lower the figure artificially; the families of prisoners are not being informed about the well-being, location, status, or even deaths of their loved ones, all in the name of making Bukele even more popular.

Furthermore, Bukele’s reelection comes after members of the Supreme Court were

sacked and replaced by his party. Not long after the replacement, the court ruled that Bukele was eligible to run for a second term as president, something explicitly banned under El Salvador’s constitution, as long as Bukele temporarily stepped down from the executive office for a short time.

During his first term, Bukele also sent the military into the legislative chamber during a

vote, in a move that critics labeled as intimidation tactics and carries eerie similarities to the scheme that Napoleon hatched to win Consularship of France and ultimately rise to Emperor.

The question remains whether Bukele will continue undermining democratic institutions in his country. So far, Bukele has not moved to prosecute his political opponents, but that is because he is overwhelmingly popular, and no political rivals pose a credible threat to his government. Until something threatens his popularity, like an economic downturn or an increase in crime, then it is hard to know if Bukele is truly democratic or not.

Nonetheless, Bukele’s government has engaged in anti-democratic practices, a practice that is not uncommon in the region. Latin American governments have been deeply unstable throughout the 20th century as they have contended with economic strife, violence, political extremism, and foreign meddling. Even some of the more democratic nations in the region, such as Mexico, did not achieve free and fair elections until 2000. As Bukele becomes more successful and popular, the leaders of other countries in Latin America may become emboldened to begin taking similar steps to dismantle the fragile systems within their own nations that uphold their rule of law. This process of democratic backsliding has clearly already begun in El Salvador, but the danger is that there will be a contagion effect that impacts neighboring states.

This effect has a basis in history and a clear impact on the politics of countries outside of their own borders. Donald Trump’s supporters’ attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential Election were echoed by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters almost exactly two years after the events of January 6, and American and Brazilian authorities have credited the assault on the US capital for inspiring the riots in Brasilia.

“Trump and Bolsonaro did step down - reluctantly - but they did step down. We don’t

know what will happen when Bukele loses an election,” says NYU Professor Patricio Navia,

who specializes in Latin American elections and political science. If Bukele and his government continue to behave anti-democratically, the entire region is more likely to do the same. Navia warns that the contagion effect is a real threat that could lead to democratic backsliding in the region “as [it did] with the Cuban Revolution.” The contagion effect also cuts both ways; after Spain and Portugal became democratic in the late 20th century, many countries in Latin America followed suit and adopted democracy, demonstrating that countries in the region are highly susceptible to outside influences.

Even if helmed by ostensibly effective leaders like Nayib Bukele, a more autocratic Latin America would plunge the region backward in time and threaten to disrupt the delicate social, civil, and political advances made over the 20th and 21st centuries. The real danger of El Salvador’s autocratic president is not the impact he is having on his country. Instead, it is the domino effect that his rule could set off in the heart of a region that has come so far but now balances so delicately between prosperity and despair.



Well written! Definitely concerns all over the world as more despotic rulers come to power. It's interesting when I was in Russia in 2017, the average Russian on the street in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Ekaterineburg, Kazan, and Irkusk all LOVED Putin. Hungary, Germany, Italy, Honduras, Guatemala, Myanmar, DRC are all fighting right wing authoritarian rule. The US is no longer the beacon of democracy.

bottom of page