El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's Crackdown on Crime

Nayib Bukele

By Joanna Button

Who is he? El Salvador voted Nayib Bukele into office in 2019, making him the first non-major party president to rule over the Central American country since the 1980s. He has cracked down on violent crime—El Salvador’s murder rate, once the highest in the world, fell by 50 percent in 2020, his first year in office. Critics have called him authoritarian for his tough-on-crime stance.

Tackling crime: Following a surge of gang violence in March 2022, Bukele announced a state of emergency, which has been extended and is still ongoing, allowing the arrest of suspected gang members. Over 60,000 arrests have since been made, making El Salvador’s incarceration rate the highest globally and leading Bukele to open the world’s second-largest prison. The efforts proved effective: Homicide fell by another 57 percent in 2022.

Can he take credit? The U.S. has accused Bukele of negotiating with gangs to reduce violent crime. Some also say the drop in crime is exaggerated because government homicide data excludes certain deaths (like those found dead or buried in graves). Yet even some of his critics agree that gangs are weaker and El Salvador is safer under Bukele.

Criticism and support: Left-leaning critics say Bukele’s methods violate human rights and that innocent people have been imprisoned. They’ve called Bukele authoritarian for having Supreme Court judges fired and marching armed forces into the legislative chamber to pressure parliament. His supporters, including some U.S. conservatives, believe he’s proven that a tough-on-crime mentality is necessary to reduce violence.

What now? Despite outside criticism, Bukele is extremely popular in El Salvador—his approval rating is 91 percent. Some Latin American politicians view him as a role model, and his ideas are gaining popularity in other countries. Critics may be right to remain cautious of his more heavy-handed methods, but his success in tackling El Salvador’s violence is undeniable.