Bukele’s El Salvador shows the West that another way to develop is possible

Opinion: Western criticism of El Salvador's strict war on crime under President Bukele, citing human rights concerns, overlooks a key solution: promoting youth programs to deter gang involvement, rather than condemning his approach

Anna Mahjar-Barducci|
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine,” says the famous rock song that was used as a soundtrack at the celebration event in San Salvador’s central square to celebrate the landslide re-election of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele. Indeed, Bukele’s victory represents an important achievement not only for El Salvador, but also for an awakening of the West.
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In his first five-year term, Bukele managed to do the unthinkable: from the most dangerous place in the world, El Salvador turned into the safest country in Latin America. It is now possible to walk without risk in the streets of the capital at night, something that it’s no longer feasible in Los Angeles and not even in New York’s Manhattan.
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נשיא אל סלבדור נאיב בוקלה אחרי שהצביע בבחירות לנשיאות במדינה
נשיא אל סלבדור נאיב בוקלה אחרי שהצביע בבחירות לנשיאות במדינה
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele
(Photo: Marvin RECINOS / AF)
Bukele was the first leader in Latin America to reclaim for his country its role as a member of the West and not of a leftist Global South that feels victimized by the Global North. In doing so, Bukele’s El Salvador regained its sovereignty, and decided to solve its security, social and economic problems on its own, without waiting for the world superpowers’ aid, which is the form in which neocolonialism presents itself today.

Spread of pandillas in El Salvador - the West's fault

Throughout its contemporary history, El Salvador was used as a battlefield terrain in the power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, which led to one of the world’s bloodiest civil wars (1979-1992).
Later on, Washington was directly responsible for the creation of the pandillas (criminal gangs) in the country. People who were displaced by the war moved to the United States, ending up living in ghettos where the pandillas were formed as Salvadorans victimized by Mexican gangs in California responded by forming their own.
However, in 1997, former president Bill Clinton irresponsibly decided that the best solution was to deport thousands of convicts who belonged to murderous gangs back to their countries of origin, which included El Salvador. Among them were members of the vicious LA-originated MS-13 and their LA rivals, the Eighteenth Street gang (also known as Mara Barrio 18).
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אסירים ב בית כלא ב אל סלבדור עם מסכות בזמן ה קורונה
אסירים ב בית כלא ב אל סלבדור עם מסכות בזמן ה קורונה
Thousands of pandilleros (gang members) held at the Terrorism Confinement Center in Tecoluca, San Vicente, El Salvador
(Photo: Reuters)
As if it wasn’t enough, the West pushed El Salvador to accept all sorts of “recipes” that caused the whole country to further plunge into chaos. In fact, commenting on Clinton’s criminal idea to deport LA-born gangs to El Salvador, Bukele said: “As a cherry on top, they gave us another recipe to follow: Pass the Juvenile Offender Law. And with that, we couldn’t arrest the gang members coming in, most of whom were minors at that time… we took their advice, and what happened? The gangs grew, and eventually took control of 85% of our national territory. They murdered over 100,000 Salvadorans [the country’s population is estimated to be around 6.5 million], who are not here with us today.”
So instead of allowing the state to arrest these minors and support rehabilitation programs in order to make them capable of returning to society, the West pressured El Salvador to pass a law that not only would not create any deterrent to future crimes but that allowed the gangs to feel untouchable and free to brainwash, exploit and recruit young people.
Those convicts that now are detained in the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT), a maximum-security prison in Tecoluca, San Vicente, El Salvador, could have been by now law-abiding members of the community if they had been stopped and rehabilitated twenty-five years ago. Most of them probably would have never been even recruited by gangs! And more importantly many Salvadorans would still be alive.

'They are afraid of the power of our example'

Hence, now, after having created misery and destruction in El Salvador, certain Western governments, NGOs and newspapers, instead of doing a “mea culpa,” tell the Bukele government that it is not respecting human rights. Yet, they give no solution whatsoever to solve the problem of the pandillas.
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 נשיא אל סלבדור נאיב בוקלה
 נשיא אל סלבדור נאיב בוקלה
(Photo: EPA)
It is a fact, that — since Bukele came to power — El Salvador is now the safest country in Latin America (on Jan 3, 2024, Reuters reported that the number of homicides in the country dropped nearly 70% during 2023. The Salvadoran Justice and Security Ministry stated that 154 murders were committed last year, down from 495 the year before, which implies a homicide rate of 2.4 per every 100,000 people that is “the lowest in the Americas apart from Canada.”)
Apart from CECOT, where pandilleros don’t have privileges, like family visits (it is worth noting that many of these inmates don’t even remember the number of the people they have kidnapped, tortured and killed as so many were the people they have murdered), other jails provide several rehabilitation programs.
Instead of criticizing the Bukele government, the West would do a much better job in promoting deterrence programs and projects for the Salvadoran youth to prevent them from falling into the hands of the pandillas.
“Perhaps we have prioritized the rights of the honest people over the criminal’s rights… I ask these organizations, I ask the governments of these foreign nations, I ask these journalists: Why do you want them to kill us? Why do you want to see Salvadoran blood being spilled?” asked Bukele.
It is actually shameful that Western governments did not participate in the building of the new Chinese-funded National Library of El Salvador, a magnificent building erected in the center of the capital, where once was dangerous to go for a stroll.
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חברי הכנופיה הלטינית 13-MS
חברי הכנופיה הלטינית 13-MS
An MS-13 gang member
(Photo: AFP)
The library, which is open 24/7, features a “children’s area, robotics section, spaces for comic, film and series enthusiasts, a gaming area, an art gallery, among other cultural attractions,” providing youth with a safe space for productive alternatives to occupy out-of-school time, while keeping them off the streets.
It appears as if the West prefers developing countries to remain poor and underdeveloped. But here comes a leader from the Global South, Bukele, telling the West that we want to be like you, maybe we can even be better than you, and maybe you can even learn from us.
The Salvadoran President himself stated: “I once told a group of ambassadors… ‘We admire you so much that we will do what you do, not what you want to order us to do… [but] why so many eyes around the world are watching the smallest country in the Americas? …Because, plain and simple, they are afraid of the power of our example.”
Not surprisingly, both the Democrats in the U.S. and the EU bureaucracy found ways to criticize Bukele while seeming to praise his recent landslide victory.

Conclusion: 'U.S.'s demise has to come from within'

Bukele is not against the West, to the contrary, he and the Salvadoran people are part of it. However, liberal, left-leaning Western leaderships fear Bukele because, over the last decade, they have been promoting a destructive “woke” ideology, which involves massive debt, mass illegal immigration and even the defunding of the police among other things.
As Bukele stated: “The demise of the U.S. has to come from within. No external enemy can cause this much damage… I mean, I’m from El Salvador, a third-world country in Central America, and I myself see cities here [in the U.S.] and say I wouldn’t live here. That would be unthinkable three decades ago, that a Salvadoran wouldn’t want to live in a U.S. main city.”
El Salvador is showing the West that another way to develop and to live is possible. And this is how we may realize that it is we in the West that are living in an all-encompassing totalitarian woke ideology, which pretends to be tolerant, but accepts no disagreement.
  • Anna Mahjar-Barducci is a journalist and author, residing in Jerusalem
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