4 years into term, El Salvador’s President Bukele rides wave of popular support

BOGOTA, Colombia

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele completes four years at the helm of the Central American nation on Thursday, having made headlines internationally for policies ranging from a countrywide crackdown on gangs to becoming the first-ever government in the world to accept Bitcoin as legal tender.

The 37-year-old businessman took office on June 1, 2019, elected on a ticket to eradicate poverty and corruption while improving the economy and public services. One of his top pledges was to restore security in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Four years into his term, he celebrates a dramatic decrease in homicides amid his government’s widespread crackdown on gang violence, a popular move within the country but heavily criticized by rights groups.

The war against members of the so-called maras, or gangs, began on March 27, when Bukele’s government declared a state of emergency after three days of violence that left 87 dead was blamed by the president on a street gang known as MS-13.

Parliament approved Bukele’s request for a state of emergency that has been renewed several times, allowing authorities to detain thousands of suspected gang members. He built a 40,000-person complex, the largest prison in the Americas, that more than doubled the country’s penitentiary capacity.

Nearly 69,000 suspected gang members have been arrested so far, though about 5,000 were later released for a lack of evidence, according to government figures.

Human rights organizations have come down hard against the security policy, saying it has allowed serious violations, including arbitrary arrest and inhumane prison conditions.

But, walking the streets in many parts of El Salvador’s cities would have been unthinkable before Bukele, who once jokingly called himself the “world’s coolest dictator,” avoiding interviews and instead using social media as his main channel of communication.

Recent polls show that an overwhelming 95% of the population endorse his security strategy that officials say lowered the country’s sky-high homicide rate. Support for Bukele’s reelection has also soared to nearly 92%, according to a poll by Ciesca Centroamerica.

New ground in currency, foreign policy

Bukele’s tenure has seen many other transformations in the country as well.

In June 2021, he ordered all businesses in the country to accept Bitcoin as payment alongside the US dollar, in a move to boost economic development and benefit expats by saving millions of dollars in commissions on remittances.

However, international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have warned against the adoption of cryptocurrency, saying it could increase risks for financial institutions.

His administration also established a National Bitcoin Office in November last year to oversee the country’s projects related to the cryptocurrency.

In terms of foreign policy, the president, whose father is of Palestinian origin, has strengthened bilateral relations with new international partners, including Türkiye.

He paid a historically significant official visit to Türkiye last year, the first from a Salvadorian head of state, where he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed six cooperation agreements. Since then, relations between the two nations have gained momentum.

With his favorable poll numbers, Bukele announced he would run again in next year’s general elections. The vote will be held on Feb. 4, with a runoff to take place on March 3 if necessary.

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