An activist holds a poster that reads: "Bukele oppressor" as she participates in a protest against El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele at the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador, El Salvador February 10, 2020. Photo Credit: REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

By Jorge E. Cuéllar

On February 9, 2020, Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador, occupied the Legislative Assembly with armed forces to demand the approval of a $109 million loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE) as part of his Territorial Control Plan (PCT) to furnish the national military and police with modern weapons and equipment. This action, called the Bukelazo by activists, it turned out, was political theater of the most punitive kind. As armed forces were stationed behind Bukele in a carefully orchestrated and televised address to his supporters, he argued that increased funding for the military and the National Civilian Police (PNC) was necessary in order to safeguard Salvadoran lives. Bukele, ever the security salesman, touted the need for bulletproof vests, night-vision goggles, thermal cameras, drones, helicopters, patrol vehicles, integrated surveillance systems, and improved communications systems.

Bukele’s invitation to the military to stand by his sides in the chambers of the Assembly and oversee the ‘extraordinary session’ he convened was clearly a tactic to force the approval of the loan. Displaying some haunting signs of democratic breakdown and authoritarianism, many observers in the international community, including journalists and members of the U.S. Congress, saw Bukele’s address to the Legislative Assembly as a distressing backslide into the casual use of military in the civic sphere to guide the direction of political outcomes. To start to make sense of the Bukelazo we must look at past punitive measures and track how they have resulted in the gradual militarization of Salvadoran everyday life. And perhaps no set of policies have been more important to the operation of the modern political state in El Salvador than the anti-mara, or anti-gang measures that have deployed police and military forces against marginalized communities.

Bukele is not unique for his use of military displays of power in El Salvador. As detailed by historian Erik Ching, there has been a deep-rooted history of authoritarianism in the country since the military regimes of the late 19th century and into first half of the 20th century and more recently by U.S. supported military efforts in the region. Seeking to preserve law and order, this military culture has habituated punishment and criminalization in El Salvador against racial others, labor movements, and revolutionary guerrilla groups, up to today’s transnational gangs. These political forms of the long 20th century have, in the post-Civil War period, from 1992 to the present, distilled into a peculiar formulation of “domestic terrorism” now represented by the paradigmatic boogeyman: the maras (a name applied to members of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs or anyone suspected of gang involvement). Originating amongst Salvadoran youth in the streets of 90s Los Angeles, maras were subsequently made transnational by California’s legislative changes that expelled young people from an urban U.S. to a war-torn Central America ill-equipped to reintegrate them. Today, maras are routinely deployed in an alarmist manner to draw votes and popular support, riling up social fear and uncertainty as key governing strategies.

In the two decades after the close of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992), members of the right-wing, anti-communist, pro-capital party ARENA (Republican Nationalist Alliance) have held the executive. President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994), for example, participated in war atrocities and ushered in the neoliberal transition of the country. His successor, Armando Calderón Sol (1994-1999), became the first president to truly face off with a rising gang problem after it went unaddressed by preceding administration. Calderón Sol made reforms to the newly-established National Civilian Police (PNC) —an institution created after the reduction of the armed forces and their retreat from the civic sphere— and passed a series of emergency laws against organized crime and delinquency that led to occasional deployments of death squads in pursuit of “public security.” Through their implementation, youth were further marginalized alongside the communities within which they lived, and with little prosocial outlets, Calderón Sol’s response offered no real efforts to address root causes of gang violence. These are the precursors for the Mano Dura mutations that followed and the backdrops that inform Bukele’s brand of punitive populism.

The appearance of Mano Dura (iron fist) policies in Central America began with the importation of enforcement techniques adapted from urban metropoles like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC. Mano Dura’s first-run in the region occurred in Honduras in 2002, when armed forces patrolled the streets with civilian police to combat gang crime. The following year in El Salvador, as the country saw the arrival of masses of ‘criminal’ deportees from the U.S., then-President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) would similarly respond by introducing his own anti-gang policy, the Ley Anti-Mara (LAM). The LAM was part of his iron-first Mano Dura approach to combat gangs who by that time had already transformed in popular culture as sensational and transnational threats to law, order, and business as usual. As Sonja Wolf shows in her extensive writing on manodurismo, this practice became a central feature of political discourse and government activity in El Salvador. The fostering of worry and panic amongst Salvadorans became an indispensable tool for justifying the expansion of repressive and containment techniques as ways to eradicate the gang problem, which in turn, created prolonged states of emergency, and further pushed for the total securitization of Salvadoran society. These efforts also led to extreme profiling measures that stigmatized every young Salvadoran man as being gang-affiliated which led to regular roundups and numerous baseless arrests.

Antonio “Tony” Saca, President of El Salvador from 2004-2009, doubled-down on Flores’ LAM (declared unconstitutional in 2004) and repackaged it into a robust “all-hands-on-deck” approach against the maras with some reforms to the penal code for extended sentences, and further amplified police and military power. Saca’s Súper Mano Dura (2006) made the objective of state power to eliminate the gangs, all the while his administration, building on ARENA administrations prior, deepened concessions to transnational corporations in mining, water, and arable land. Thus, Saca’s expanding the use of force in El Salvador made anti-gang efforts an essential part of governance itself. The result was the mass incarceration of gangs into “gang cages”—that have since overwhelmed the prison system beyond its capacity—aggravating the problem by offering only a punitive response, and creating the conditions for what Dennis Rodgers has called the ‘dystopian evolutionary trajectory’ of these groups.

The everyday militarization and policing that became routinized during this phase of crime fighting in El Salvador effectively turned working-class barrios of Central American cities like San Salvador, Soyapango, San Martín, Usulután, San Miguel, as well as semi-urban colonias and cantons into bonafide warzones. As these skirmishes between anti-gang units (e.g. comprised of military and police) and local gangs intensified to great media fanfare, the rest of society—often the working poor and excluded social others—became caught in the crossfire of anti-gang policies and a neoliberal project that further reduced social possibilities. These mid-2000s conditions set the stage for added punitive responses to the gang crisis, more prison overcrowding, and to an FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) administration that would be forced to retaliate against gangs—to great loss of political capital amongst their supporters—as not doing so would be tantamount to electoral suicide.

For the countless affected by the violent crime which is commonly viewed as the source of all social ills such endemic poverty, lack of access to food, of educational opportunities, and social well-being, punitive state responses have always had a distinctive allure and enjoyed popular support. Anti-gang policies, and the menace of the maras, served to obfuscate structural inequalities and convinced populations that the inadequacies that plague Salvadoran governance, often with U.S. benefactors, are not the problem. The two Mano Dura approaches were a direct consequence of the social chaos and community disintegration caused by structural adjustments set in motion after the war, that coupled with the palpable aporophobia of traditional Salvadoran leadership took almost no steps to addressing social disrepair since 1992. It was more beneficial for landed interests (the ARENA governments that dominated postwar elections) to turn El Salvador into an enclave of cheap labor (national and transnational), cheap raw materials (water, precious metals, hydroelectric power), and a site of megaprojects, emerging consumer markets, to the detriment of its citizens. In this sense, Bukele fits squarely into the political habitus of a Salvadoran political class solely interested in making the country investable, playing with punitive discourse to capture political support and fulfill the needs of U.S. hemispheric power.

When the leftist FMLN arrived to power in 2009 through Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), the criminal problem had unquestionably worsened as a result of manodurismo. Salvadoran postwar governance patterns were practically cemented. Democratic institutions themselves were fitted to ARENA needs and their efforts to fully neoliberalize the country. Thus, the FMLN’s politics were bound up with responding to the real social need for security by Salvadoran citizens—experimenting with a gang truce (2012-2014)—while also seeking to prioritize its social welfare functions that were sacrificed to total neoliberalization: labor, minority rights, pensions, healthcare, transportation, and addressing economic inequality. In the end, the historic truce would fail as negotiating with gangs was politically unsellable to the Salvadoran people. Social programs would prove inadequate and piecemeal. Sánchez Cerén’s administration (2014-2019) would again turn to punitive anti-gang approaches emboldened by the designation of gangs as terrorists that would allow him to declare “extraordinary measures” in combating maras—a hallmark of his Plan Secure El Salvador (PESS). While using preventive strategies, Sánchez Cerén continued police-military collaboration for ensuring territorial and social control. Bukele, as analysts have shown, is building upon Sánchez-Cerén’s project who himself recycled ideas from Tony Saca’s government plan: País Seguro. Thus, for their 10 years in power, preexisting political and economic conditions made it difficult for the FMLN to deliver on the historical mandate of the revolution: to bring about ‘buen vivir’ or ‘good living’ via economic equity, social opportunity, and curb the neoliberal model that had all but privatized most sectors of El Salvador.

Given the contemporary history of El Salvador, punitive methods are part of an operating system that the country has been running on since the 1990s, and while it has seen some patches, updates, and fixes, it still has the same underlying code. Nayib Bukele’s Territorial Control Plan (PCT) bears the characteristics of prior approaches that privilege the punitive, opting for repressive options to spectacularly show, but never realize, their promise of citizen security. In this extended postwar conjuncture, or post-postwar if you ask Bukele, where the military was supposed to have retreated from participation in civilian institutions, we have gradually seen the opposite. The military, which proudly proclaims that “the Armed Forces shall exist as long as the Republic exists,” has become a staple of Salvadoran everyday life. The armed forces have become more police-like in their function, while the police have become more military-like in both its look and practice. Bukele has revealed his authoritarian (and fascistic) leanings and appears to promise more of the same. Despite the failures of past administrations, punitive solutions have again latched onto the imaginaries of young and old, citizens in-country and abroad, as the appropriate way forward.

Returning to February 9, it is telling that the first citizens to take to the streets after Bukele’s acts that day were groups of Salvadoran feminists and LGBTQ+ organizations, rapidly identifying the ghastly convergence of religion and militarization. Queer and feminist groups, pointed to Bukele’s invocation of god in prayer inside the Legislative Assembly as an existential risk to their communities, a threat to their well-being under what has been described as a misogynist government. Gathering at Salvador del Mundo, an important site in the capital city, activists mounted an impassioned call to protect the secular state and critique the extensions of police and military power. These groups identified in Bukele’s appeals to Evangelical religion and the military an unnerving intensification of state power in its most patriarchal forms. They shouted “militarism, never again!” citing memories of recent Salvadoran history and the military’s long shadow over the civic sphere. Queer and feminist activists urged their compatriots to recognize that this patriarchal institution par excellence—the military—has never, in the history of the country, improved the lives of the people.

Due, in part, to the poor optics of his political miscalculation, Bukele wrote editorials in The Miami Herald and in The Washington Post to defend his actions. He argued that that the central presence of the military in his performance was simply a measure taken for crowd control and to show Salvadorans that he was serious regarding his mandate to protect their lives. Addressing the U.S. business community (who have applauded his presidency), as well as Salvadoran voters living in the diaspora, he restated his support for constitutional order and the separation of powers. This was an inadequate defense. Recalling tense histories, Bukele’s closing to The Miami Herald editorial read as a call for U.S. support for his actions: “The United States should always side with the good guys”— echoing U.S. interventions in 1980s Central America, of the Salvadoran Civil War, while clearly dog-whistling to Donald Trump for assurance. Bukele’s editorial for The Washington Post would repeat points from February 9th, restating that we must take back our country from terrorist groups, and that despite loud naysayers (e.g. international observers), his efforts enjoy more than 90% of support from Salvadorans.

The Bukelazo, this display of military force that impinged on the functioning of already-weak political institutions in order to demand funding for repression, was a reminder of the enduring presence of El Salvador’s authoritarian legacy. No matter how much it is dressed up—in this case, in slick millennial garb—activist fractions of the citizenry remain vigilant of populist maneuverings, aware that punitive options remain unconvincing and regressive, that military authoritarianism has no place in the future of El Salvador.


Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow (2019-2021) and Assistant Professor (2021-) of Latin American, Latino & Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College.