Finding a New Way Forward for U.S.-El Salvador Relations

Nayib Bukele's imminent reelection represents an opportunity for the United States to find new—and politically viable—approaches to public security in the region.


Source: Jose Cabezas/Reuters.

Nayib Bukele’s imminent reelection represents an opportunity for the United States to find new—and politically viable—approaches to public security in the region.

It appears almost certain that the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, will be reelected this February 4.

Bukele is polling at over 80 percent and has approval ratings hovering around an astonishing 90 percent. The only real barrier to victory was El Salvador’s constitutional prohibition against re-election, which he overcame when the country’s (politically friendly) supreme court carved out a controversial and legally questionable exception.

It is easy to see why Bukele is so popular among Salvadorans. Through a frontal assault on organized crime, he has brought at least a semblance of order to the chaos that the country has endured for so long. 

Organized crime has practically run parts of El Salvador since the end of its civil war in 1992. Demobilized soldiers and weak state institutions created a deadly parallel power that transformed the country into one of the most dangerous in the world and triggered huge migrant outflows towards the United States.

In contrast, by the end of 2023 the government was reporting a precipitous reduction in homicides, supposedly making El Salvador the safest country in the region save Canada. Even if these numbers were significantly exaggerated, it would still represent a large reduction in serious crime—one even Bukele’s political opponents have been forced to recognize. Pizza Hut knows, too: in January 2023, it resumed pizza delivery to a number of lower-income neighborhoods previously too dangerous to operate in.

The policies behind this change, however, have relied on a very heavy hand. Bukele declared a state of emergency in March 2022 that remains in place, suspending key constitutional guarantees, including freedom of association; the right of detainees to be informed of the charges against them; and the right to a defense attorney. This has been accompanied by other legal measures such as the suspension of certain government contracting rules and oversight of public spending, and mass trials of those accused of participating in organized crime.

Bukele has used this new authority ruthlessly. Almost two percent of the country’s adult population is now incarcerated in a prison system rife with abuse, many in a new mega-penitentiary, the largest in the Americas. Given the limitations on due process, this prison population likely includes many innocent people. Evidence has also swiftly and predictably emerged that people have taken advantage of the situation to attack political dissidents, engage in corrupt behavior, or settle scores through false accusations of gang affiliation. 

Beyond the anti-crime emergency measures, the government has attacked democratic institutions more broadly, by eliminating the joint Salvadoran-OAS anti-corruption effort, packing the supreme court, and sending troops into the legislature to pressure lawmakers. The overall impression is one of rapidly advancing one-man rule, charismatic as that man may be.

But to the average Salvadoran, how Bukele has gotten things done pales in importance to the fact that things have been done at all—hence his polling numbers. 

The Biden administration has struggled, however, to maintain a positive bilateral relationship given the democratic costs of Bukele’s policies. While it understands the importance of El Salvador’s security in ensuring regional stability and controlling migrant flows, it has also correctly viewed these political developments as eroding democratic institutions in a historical moment characterized by weakening support for democracies.

The honeymoon period with the Bukele administration was brief, ending when U.S. criticism, suspension of certain foreign assistance, and sanctions on Salvadoran officials suspected of corruption elicited an angry, public response and diplomatic row

At some point, however, recognition of Bukele’s popularity and inevitable reelection forced an accommodation in Washington. The White House has largely been silent on the matter in the run-up to February 4—a tacit acknowledgement that it needs to bring another vision to the table if it wants to have any chance of cooperating with Bukele on foreign policy priorities.

But what should that new vision be? How can the United States be realistic about the essential need for societal order in El Salvador, and the thirst that Salvadorans have for something resembling normalcy, while still upholding democratic values? In other words, if not Bukele, then what, exactly? 

To pretend to have the whole answer to this problem would be both presumptuous and naïve. Nonetheless, three starting points come to mind.

First, any new approach must start with a recognition that El Salvador, like much of Latin America, needs strong—but lawful—responses to criminal activity. No government, regardless of political alignment, can last for long (or be taken particularly seriously) when it permits non-state actors to challenge the state’s essential functions. This is especially true in a region with an average homicide rate 10 times that of other emerging markets.

Source: IMF (December 2023).

Citizens are tired of this persistent problem. Polling, and election results, reflect that. Most people just want to be able to order Pizza Hut on a Friday night.

This acknowledgement is hardly limited to the political right. No less a progressive political eminence than former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau recognized this when he declared a state of emergency in 1970, during the October Crisis:

“I think the society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country, and I think that goes to any distance. So long as there is a power in here which is challenging the elected representative of the people, I think that power must be stopped.”

A power vacuum does not advance human rights and democratic institutions, something Article 27 of the American Convention on Human Rights acknowledges. After all, can one really say that the rule of law exists when a parallel power can make a claim to governance? Is a government whose power is effectively contested able, for example, to enforce decisions by the Inter-American human rights system?

Consequently, focusing on the rule of law and democratic institutions without acknowledging the fundamental need the Salvadoran electorate has for public safety will (1) appear naïve to the public and (2) provide an easy pretext for the second Bukele administration to push back on U.S. criticism. Recognizing this need for basic societal order is also likely the only effective pathway to sustain bilateral cooperation concerning  migration flows from the country.

Second, that recognition needs to be accompanied by concern over the outcomes of Bukele’s approach beyond the short-term. These hardline approaches, while often effective in reducing crime at the outset by isolating criminal elements, often falter over the medium- and long-term. Some inmates will eventually be released, and imprisonment often acts as an incubator for gang activity among inmates with no prior organized crime affiliation. More generally, imprisonment can increase recidivism rates among some inmate populations (including the innocent individuals caught up in the sweeps).

This concern should be demonstrated through proactive measures, as well, and not just by pointing out problems. For example, many countries around the Americas have had significant success piloting alternatives to incarceration programs for non-violent offenders. When properly implemented, these programs reduce recidivism, help participants improve their lives and communities, safeguard human rights, and save state resources. The OAS and many of its member states have been very active in this area, and there are many opportunities for collaboration. 

Similarly, authoritarian approaches towards public safety, such as states of emergency, foster distrust in the very systems of justice required for resilient democratic institutions to form and endure. Thus, if this drop in crime is to last, an “off-ramp” from the state of emergency will be necessary. 

But transitioning away from states of emergency is very difficult. Those who institute them often fear imprisonment, destitution, or worse at the hands of their political enemies upon leaving office—and therefore often avoid leaving office. And when a political transition does inevitably arrive, the successor government will be sorely tempted to wield the sword its predecessor forged.

That is why the third foundational principle for a more productive bilateral relationship is to press for a post-election discussion with El Salvadoran officials about transitioning back to political “normalcy”: that is, establishing clear and public benchmarks for when and how these emergency powers should be allowed to expire. Even if that transition lies in the future, benchmarks will inject some accountability into a situation whose very nature favors unaccountable decisions.

But to do this, the United States must be willing to more forthrightly recognize the societal crisis and needs that have created both the Bukele presidency and the state of emergency in the first place. If it cannot, it will likely torpedo the chance of a productive bilateral relationship with the second Bukele administration—and the anti-democratic norms Bukele’s approach has fostered are almost certain to entrench themselves and spread.


Jeffrey Zinsmeister is a Global Americans Fellow specializing in rule of law, cybersecurity, data privacy, and organized crime, with over 20 years’ experience in law and international affairs. A former U.S. diplomat and Organization of American States official, he has worked extensively throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, with particular experience in Mexico and Brazil. He is also currently Of Counsel at the law firm Holcomb & Ward LLP, and co-author of the book Lost (and Found) in Translation: How to Find, Hire, and Work with the Right Professional Translator for Your Business, published in 2022. All opinions expressed are solely those of the author in his personal capacity.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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