LOS ANGELES — Carlos Zaragoza's 17-year-old son was tortured and killed by gang members in El Salvador three years ago, after refusing to join them.
Zaragoza, a Los Angeles resident, is one of many who support Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele's hardhanded strategy against the country's gangs, saying it is necessary to “claim our country and try to provide a better future for our future generations.”
Bukele's recent roundups and crackdowns, which have included reports of fatalities, have drawn international scrutiny. According to human rights groups, authorities have committed “serious human rights violations,” including dozens of arbitrary arrests. Over 43,000 people have been arrested since the state of emergency began in late March, according to official data. There are over 60 “credible reports” of deaths in custody, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Bukele has branded his government as breaking with the past, fighting corruption and ensuring security, an efficient state and opportunities for Salvadorans,” said Juan Pappier, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But in practice his policies show that he’s following similar or in some cases even worse practices than his predecessors.”
But in El Salvador and among the diaspora in the U.S., many are OK with Bukele’s strategy, even if it chips away at the country’s fragile democracy.
In El Salvador, the approval rating of Bukele, a 41-year-old populist, has soared to almost 90%, even as he curbs civil liberties.
There are no U.S.-based polls indicating the level of support for Bukele. But in the Los Angeles area, home to the largest Salvadoran-born population in the U.S., as well as in other cities, he's garnering support.
Bukele recently tweeted about large rallies held in his support in Los Angeles, Houston and Long Island, where people chanted for his re-election.
Zaragoza, who heads the El Salvador Foundation, a nonprofit that helps families in need, said Bukele is doing the "best" work in that area.
Like Zaragoza, much of the appeal of those who support him comes from the president’s crackdown on gangs. Bukele declared a state of emergency in March after Congress granted him the power to suspend some civil liberties in order to rein in street gangs. It came after a deadly weekend in which gangs were blamed for 62 killings. A giant prison with space for 40,000 gang members is under construction. The "Terrorism Confinement Center" will be ready within 60 days, Bukele wrote in a tweet.
While Bukele has clashed with U.S. officials over his tactics, he regularly reaches out to Salvadorans in the U.S., who can participate in elections in their home country. Politicians from his political party, Nuevas Ideas, have traveled to U.S. cities to meet with members of the diaspora.
"The popularity of Bukele, right now, especially among the diaspora has to do with the deep frustration of the Salvadoran people with the performance of previous governments," said José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University's Latin America and Caribbean Center. He once headed the Public Opinion Institute at the University of Central America.
Many Salvadorans have grown tired of the violence and lawlessness that have plagued the country for decades. Although the homicide rate fell in recent years, the small Central American country has been referred to in the past as the murder capital of the world. For decades, violence has prompted many Salvadorans to migrate to the U.S., leading the Salvadoran immigrant population to explode from 95,000 in 1980 to over 1 million today. There are over 2.3 million people of Salvadoran origin residing in the U.S., comprising the third largest Hispanic group.
After El Salvador’s bloody civil war ended in 1992, the U.S. deported thousands of Salvadorans that had ties to gangs founded in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Once in El Salvador, the gangs flourished into a transnational criminal network. The years of violence and instability has caused frustration, with government leaders unable to control it.
"Many people in the diaspora left in the past 20 years," said Cruz. "They hear from their relatives now that there seems to be a little bit more security and they have bought into the narratives."
Iris Lara Cubias, president of Juntos Por Una Sonrisa Shulton L.A. Foundation, said Bukele is doing a good job in providing the country with a heightened sense of security as well as more hospitals and resources — “a lot of help that was never seen before in the country."
Bukele’s supporters point to the decline in gang violence since the millennial leader took office in 2019.
But some experts say violence has fallen because Bukele’s government brokered a truce with the gangs. Bukele denies it.
Using social media, taking swipes at U.S.
Bukele, an avid social media user, boasts about the arrests of gang members on his Twitter account and has taken swipes at the U.S. government.
President Joe Biden’s administration has not had warm relations with Bukele, a reversal from Bukele’s embrace of former President Donald Trump.
Early in Biden’s presidency, El Salvador's National Assembly, dominated by Bukele’s party, removed the attorney general and five supreme court judges in what many saw as an effort to consolidate power. Months later, the top court ruled the country’s president can serve two consecutive terms, clearing the way for Bukele to run for re-election. Both moves prompted condemnation from the Biden administration.
Late last year, Biden sanctioned Salvadoran government officials over corruption and allegedly facilitating and organizing secret meetings with incarcerated leaders of the MS-13 and Barrio-18 gangs.
Bukele fired back on Twitter calling the accusations "absurd."
“It is clear that the United States Government does not accept collaboration, friendship or alliance,” he said.
In a move that shows how rocky relations are between the two countries, Bukele skipped the Summit of the Americas, hosted by the U.S. in Los Angeles, a rare snub from a small country like El Salvador.
But despite the wariness over democracy, Salvadorans in the U.S. and back home continue to support him. Pro-Bukele rallies in Los Angeles, Long Island and Houston were recently organized by Salvadoreños en el Exterior. People chanted "re-election." Bukele, keen on cultivating support in the U.S., tweeted videos of the rally.
Politicians allied with Bukele have traveled to different parts of the U.S. to hold meetings with the Salvadorans. Last year, Bukele urged voters in a California congressional district to vote out their representative, Guatemalan-born Norma Torres, a Democrat, after a spat between the two on Twitter. Torres said that after the exchange of harsh tweets, she was sleeping with a gun nearby because she received “hateful messages.”
Torres is up for re-election in November and her district is heavily Democratic. Her office did not respond to several emailed requests for an interview.
More perception than reality?
Yesenia Portillo, a Salvadoran American activist raised in Los Angeles, said there is a perception that Salvadorans in the U.S. are overwhelmingly supportive of Bukele.
But Portillo said there are many in the U.S. who don't support him, and are “becoming more vocal about their concerns, especially as more political exiles arrive in the U.S."
Portillo said that in El Salvador, there is more opposition to Bukele than polls reflect.
“Feminists, LGBTI+, labor, and environmental organizations in El Salvador have been taking to the streets by the tens of thousands to criticize his policies and that often doesn’t get highlighted,” she said.
South Central, Los Angeles resident Benedicto Benavides, 54, says Bukele’s high approval rating isn’t reflective of what the majority of Salvadorans truly think.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t agree with him,” Benavides said, though he added that Bukele he is “very social media savvy” and everything about him “looks good.”