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An American Senator in San Salvador

Marco Rubio’s appreciation for Nayib Bukele is based in advancing U.S. national interest.

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The “MAGA movement” has a “new favorite autocrat.” At least, according to Vox senior correspondent Zack Beauchamp, who “covers ideology and challenges to democracy.” It’s a good headline that hides the ball, but, spoiler alert, the man who has drawn the eyes of democracy watchdogs is Nayib Bukele, the current president of El Salvador.

Labeling Bukele an autocrat is at the least premature, but it’s certainly true that Bukele has surged in popularity among the American right in recent months. So much so that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida paid a visit to Bukele in the capital city of San Salvador last month. Rubio, tasked with representing a state whose population is over a quarter Latino and who has Cuban ancestry himself, is one of the more creative and outspoken conservatives on America’s strategy for its own backyard. Rubio's interest in and appreciation for El Salvador, like many on the right, is based in realpolitik and American national interest, not some blind fandom of right-wing strong men.

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A release put out by Rubio’s office in both English and Spanish read, “As Latin America and the Caribbean turn towards left-leaning, anti-American governments, El Salvador remains an important strategic ally in Central America.” Rubio, in a quote attached to the release, claimed he “had a productive meeting with President Bukele and U.S. Ambassador Duncan during my first official visit to El Salvador.”

Rubio’s quote continued:

“At a time when the Biden Administration actively alienates our allies and opts to appease murderous dictators in our region, it's important we stand in support of those democratic leaders in our hemisphere who are actually leading the fight against brutal gangs and criminals in Central America. For the future of our bilateral relations, it’s essential that El Salvador’s democratic institutions remain strong.”

The release also included pictures of the meeting between the senator and the Salvadoran president. Bukele is slight and handsome, pictured in a blue crew-neck sweater, jeans, and a white ball cap. At just 41 years old, recent polls from outlets in El Salvador suggest his approval rating is upwards of 70 percent, and even above 90 percent in others. But it’s not just because abuela might fawn over Bukele’s good looks.

As Sen. Rubio mentioned, Bukele “leads the fight against brutal gangs and criminals in Central America” and has challenged the establishment order that has permitted criminal gangs to wreak havoc. He has been effective

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And though his tactics might be unsavory to the western liberal who has become accustomed to living amongst disorder, they’re welcome for El Salvador’s people, who have had enough of living in fear and filth.

Bukele’s recent claim to fame, or as the left would have it, infamy, came in early March when Bukele opened a massive “megaprison” that can hold up to 40,000 inmates. Videos and pictures surfaced of law enforcement transferring thousands of prisoners to the facility. Many of the men are visibly gang members or affiliates, covered in tattoos from head to toe to signify their gang or cartel ties.

The megaprison was built to house the more than 60,000 gang members or affiliates arrested by Salvadoran law enforcement last year. The vast majority of them were arrested under a state of exception declared by El Salvador’s government dating back to 2022. Bukele’s request for a state of exception was approved by the Salvadoran legislature in the wake of the mass murder of sixty-two individuals on March 26 of that year. The legislature agreed to extend the state of exception several times, and by wide margins: In August 2022, sixty-six of eighty-four lawmakers voted in favor.

Liberal rights groups, however, were quick to point out that the state of exception does suspend or curtail certain rights, such as the right of association and right to know what one is accused of when arrested. Furthermore, the government has the ability to intercept calls and mail of one suspected of criminal activity, which, in the case of El Salvador, predominantly centers on gang activity. Furthermore, an individual accused of being in a criminal gang can be imprisoned for longer periods of time as prosecutors build a case against them.

Bukele and his government, however, has justified these efforts by claiming these gang members are “terrorists.”

And these alleged gang members aren’t doing themselves any favors by having “MS-13” quite literally tattooed on their forehead. The aforementioned rights groups were quick to point out that having a gang tattoo isn’t a crime on its own in El Salvador. (At least, not yet.)

Reporting on the opening of the megaprison, the Washington Post rebuffed Bukele’s claim that it was “a common-sense project.” “The reality is that the scale of the project defies common sense — and easy comprehension,” the Post’s report read. “And the social implications of the endeavor are no less striking. The citizens of El Salvador have tacitly accepted Bukele’s unprecedented crackdown on crime, and, for the time anyway, are ignoring its broader ramifications.”

It may be tough for the Post and other media outlets in the North to understand Bukele’s crackdown, but their difficulty to comprehend Bukele's solution is based on their inability to comprehend the size of the problem. El Salvador has an estimated 70,000 gang members among its population of 6.3 million. At times, they’ve wrestled territorial control in some areas away from Salvadoran authorities. In 2017, El Salvador’s murder rate per 100,000 people was 61.7—the highest in the world.

Although its murder rate is likely still among the highest in the world, the number of murders dropped 56.8 percent (excluding the deaths of gang members killed in fire fights with police) last year thanks to Bukele’s crackdown. The precipitous decline meant just under 500 people were murdered in 2022, compared to 1,147 in 2021. In a country where gangs kill indiscriminately, Salvadorans know their children, their parents, or themselves could have easily been among those 600.

Salvadorans are also well aware of the alternative to Bukele’s leadership and tactics, well encapsulated by modern-day Mexico under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. In many respects, Mexico is better off than El Salvador, in no small thanks to its proximity to the United States and the capital and trade it provides. But things are getting worse in Mexico—much worse. So bad that some on the right argue we have a failed state on our southern border, and our military should do something about it, rather than fighting a war thousands of miles away in Ukraine. 

Mexican gangs and cartels, emboldened by the killing they’ve made smuggling and selling fentanyl (mostly to the States), have also at times wrestled away territory from Mexican authorities. In some places, cartels police communities more than the police—everyone knows who the real sheriff in town is.

Yet, AMLO has taken a “laissez-faire attitude” toward the fentanyl crisis, as The American Conservative's own Jude Russo wrote in a recent column. While this approach is only advancing the cartel’s economic and military capabilities, AMLO is staying true to his campaign form. When he was elected in 2018, one of his main campaign slogans for combatting crime was “hugs, not bullets.” It sounds better in Spanish: “Abrazos, no balazos.” It doesn’t make it any smarter. 

Despite the Mexican government’s previous experience with cartels filling vacuums left by Mexican law enforcement, AMLO went through with his withdrawal, leading to a spike in gruesome cartel violence.

Surely, Bukele’s tactics come with big risks. Nevertheless, the directional contrast of El Slavador under Bukele and Mexico under AMLO helps explain why, according to some polls, a lower percentage of Salvadorans disapprove of Bukele’s leadership than the percentage of Americans who currently approve of Congress (18 percent)—even as Bukele challenges El Salvador’s constitutional order by attempting to run for a second presidential term of five years.

Which makes Rubio’s assessment of Bukele and the current Salvadoran government the correct one: Encourage and support leaders in the Western hemisphere willing to confront the problems and people who make their way north to the United States.

Bukele deserves a carrot. Many others deserve the stick.