Since taking office in 2019, Nayib Bukele, El Salvador’s charismatic young autocratic leader, has transformed El Salvador from the world’s murder capital into the safest country in Latin America. Despite its efficacy, Bukele’s anti-gang crackdown has sparked international controversy. On March 27, 2022, the Salvadoran national legislature approved a state of emergency decree, temporarily suspending prisoners’ rights, including due process. And since August 2023, Bukele’s administration has detained 72,000 people, more than 1 percent of the country’s population. While these actions have brought condemnation from human rights groups and the United Nations, Bukele has doubled down on his approach, declaring, “This isn’t a promise anymore. It’s the reality that Salvadoran people are living through, and anyone from abroad is welcome to go and see it for themselves.”
Just like it propped up authoritarian Salvadoran regimes during the Cold War, the US government failed to express concern for human rights in El Salvador when gangs held sway, institutionalized extortion, and made the country unsafe for families, prompting widespread emigration and mass murders. Now, the tide appears to be turning, with the United States strongly criticizing the Bukele administration for violating prisoners’ human rights. Yet, the US condemnation of Bukele has not been backed by tangible humanitarian efforts, showing that American leaders have only become more furtive in their complacency. National interests, not a genuine commitment to promoting human rights and democracy, have driven American foreign policy in El Salvador—both historically and now.
Despite a professed commitment to human rights, US support for authoritarian regimes in Latin America stretches back to the Cold War. The United States sought to prevent countries from falling into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, no matter what type of government emerged as a result. In El Salvador’s 12-year Civil War, which began in 1979, the United States funded El Salvador’s rightist military junta—leading to the deaths of over 80,000 Salvadorans and one of the deadliest massacres in Latin American history, El Mozote, during which the junta committed grave human rights abuses including torture, rape, murder, and kidnapping. During this time, the United States, the self-appointed leader of the “free world,” turned a blind eye to the grave human rights violations of the regime it was funding.
Similarly, the United States did little to quell the major gangs, like MS-13 and 18th Street, that terrorized the impoverished country prior to Bukele’s administration, prompting mass emigration and economic stagnation. Gangs generated approximately $500 million annually through the extortion of businesses and residents. In 2015, the country became the world’s murder capital, with 107 homicides per 100,000 people. Notably, Bukele’s gang crackdown has lowered homicides by 92 percent since 2015. Although the country still faces extreme poverty, economic growth has rebounded; in 2021, the nation’s economy grew by an impressive 11 percent. Bukele’s anti-gang campaign has even garnered him an approval rating of nine out of 10 Salvadoran citizens.
The Biden administration has repeatedly condemned Bukele’s tactics, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticizing the administration’s state of emergency because it “lends itself to attempts to censor the media, prevent reporting on corruption and other matters of public interest, and silence critics of the Salvadoran government.” While Blinken recognized gangs as a threat to El Salvador’s national security, he urged “El Salvador to address this threat while also protecting vital civil liberties, including freedom of the press, due process, and freedom of speech.”
Despite the administration’s concerns, US politicians have not implemented any harsh policies against El Salvador aside from sanctioning Bukele’s aides for alleged collusion with gangs—an examination of US policy goals in the region helps explain why. In recent years, the United States has focused on reducing “irregular migration” from Latin America, particularly El Salvador. Concerns about immigration have dominated right-wing politics, and many Democrats are likewise spurred to combat the issue to stay in office.
Between 2020—Bukele’s first full year in office—and 2023, Salvadorans went from being the fourth largest group of immigrants to the United States to the 11th—a drop that can be attributed to Bukele’s controversial anti-gang measures. With gang members in prison, crime and extortion have been greatly reduced, providing Salvadorans with an improved sense of safety and opening a window for economic opportunity. Although actively condemning Bukele’s anti-gang campaign tactics, the main US concern is immigration. The reality is that Bukele’s tactics have reduced out-migration from El Salvador, preventing the United States from taking any serious action against Bukele’s controversial regime.
From supporting a human-rights-violating military regime during the Cold War to condemning Bukele’s gang crackdown with empty threats, the United States has consistently benefited from El Salvador’s authoritarian leaders. Stephen Kinzer, former longtime New York Times foreign correspondent and Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs at Brown University, argues that the US condemnation of Bukele’s human rights violations is “a performance.” He notes that America’s “number one concern is its national interests”; while during the Cold War “all we cared about was what [Latin Americans] thought about Russia,” now the United States primarily focuses on immigration. American policy has not changed, but its interests have.
US hypocrisy has become more tacit, with American leaders openly condemning Bukele without real action. The United States puts up this performance because, as the self-proclaimed leader in human rights, praising a leader known internationally for violating human rights would be inconsistent with American ideals. Therefore, by condemning Bukele but not taking any actual measures against him, the United States saves face and still receives the benefits of Bukele’s prisoner-rights-violating regime.