The Authoritarian Tide in Latin America

Stephanie Seo, Jun 23, 2024

In February 2024, Nayib Bukele of El Salvador won the presidential election with a decisive 84.7 percent of the vote. However, this would be Bukele’s second consecutive presidential term, and the El Salvadoran Constitution explicitly prohibits an individual from holding the office of the President for any day longer than a five year period at a time. His reelection clearly goes against the Constitution. What is happening in El Salvador? 


It all has to do with his style of leadership. Bukele has been incredibly successful and popular among Salvadorans for his almost authoritarian approach to managing crime. The country has been plagued by gang violence, primarily from its Maria-Salvatruca “MS-13” gang and 18th-Street gang. From 2015 to 2022, the nation’s homicide rate plummeted from 103 homicides per 100,000 to 7.8 homicides per 100,000, owing to Bukele’s crackdown on crime [1]. 


The Bukele Method: 

The Bukele Method entails an aggressive approach to diminishing the power of domestic gangs through mass arrests of gang members and suspected gang members in order to prevent these organizations’ abilities to arrange a response resisting Bukele’s crackdown. This strategy relies on three principles: a looser interpretation of gang affiliation, harsh legal measures, and substantial political power surrounding the Bukele administration. 


This strategy has certainly brought a heightened sense of safety among El Salvadoran citizens. However, there have been reported human rights violations in which some of those imprisoned for alleged gang affiliation have been either murdered or disappeared without explanation. In March 2022, Bukele arrested approximately 75,000 people without definite charges, legal counsel, or other due process protections [2]. 


Even more concerning, some events point to the fact that Bukele’s authoritarian approach goes beyond just addressing crime. In order to obtain his second term, he dismissed the attorney-general and the five judges of the constitutional court and replaced them with appointed judges. The court quickly reinterpreted the articles of the Constitution that banned reelection and argued that a president could rerun if they stepped back from the presidency half a year before the inauguration. Further, the legislature, which is dominated by his Nuevas Ideas party members, gave him permission to run a second campaign [3]. 


In addition, the president detained human rights defenders, suppressed journalists, and silenced any critics of his actions [4]. Bukele ordered armed policemen and soldiers to raid the Salvadorian Parliament in 2020 to allegedly intimidate lawmakers to approve the President’s proposal of a $109 million loan. This loan was aimed at better equipping the police and military with vehicles, uniforms, video surveillance instruments, and helicopters as part of his crackdown on crime [5]. The use of military force within politics is especially alarming for El Salvador, a country with a history of authoritarianism and repression, as the brutal Salvadoran Civil War from 1979-1992 was also a conflict between the disenfranchised leftist groups and the authoritarian elites. It can appear as a repeat of history. Naturally, this is worrisome for citizens. A poll conducted in May 2022 shows that a rough majority of citizens either strongly disapproved, somewhat disapproved, only somewhat approved, or refrained from answering regarding their approval of the way Bukele is conducting his presidency [6]. However, of course, this indicates that there is still considerable approval of Bukele within the nation. Given that he is a populist leader and has enacted effective initiatives, his considerable approval suggests the dangers of this form of authoritarian leadership. 


Since Bukele took the presidency, there have consistently been mass protests against the path he is taking the nation down. In particular, the 2021 protests demonstrated discontent with Bukele’s authoritarian government as well as the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender through slogans and posters advocating for the preservation of democracy [7]. Again, protests erupted in 2023 against his reelection campaign and to condemn arbitrary arrests that were made as a part of his crackdown on gangs [8]. Again, these grievances and fears are not unsubstantiated but rather raise even more concern from opposers of Bukele. 


Bukele’s Influence on Regional Politics: 

Given Bukele’s popularity and effectiveness in reducing crime rates, however, other leaders in Latin American countries are inspired to apply the “Bukele Method” to their countries’ own issues with crime. As other countries embrace a similar approach to achieve equivalent results, it could mark a dangerous autocratic wave throughout this region, not only regarding crime but in all realms of governance. 


The “Bukeleism tide” has reached multiple countries, such as Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, and Chile. In these countries, presidential candidates, mayors, security ministers, and even citizens have expressed their hopes to imitate the Bukele approach. In fact, Rodolfo Hernandez, Colombia’s narrowly defeated presidential candidate, made a pre-election visit to El Salvador to study Bukele’s methods and policies. Even Rafael López Aliaga, the mayor of Lima, Peru, promised a “Bukele plan” to address urban crime [9]. 


Thus far, Honduras and Argentina are the major Latin American countries where executives have either already replicated Bukele’s approach or have pledged to do so. In Guatemala, many prospective presidential candidates are pledging to imitate Bukele’s extreme tactics by promising mega-prisons to house gang members and weaken their criminal organizations.


In Honduras, President Xiomara Castro adopted “Bukeleism” to her security policy. In 2023, she announced that she plans to build mega prisons on Swan Islands, off the coast of Honduras, and this vision has been dubbed the planning of a “Honduran Alcatraz.” In her own crackdown on crime and Honduras’gangs, the military police were granted permission to make arrests and search homes without a search warrant [10]. This sort of inflation of power was meant to be temporary, but it has not deflated since it began in December 2022. Throughout the nation, there have been hundreds of reports on arbitrary arrests and wrongful accusations of gang involvement, specifically targeting those from marginalized parts of the country. These are just the reported incidents; there could be plenty more cases that went unreported. These events of elevated military and government power are an indicator of the nation heading down a dark path of repression on the facade of addressing gangs and crime. 


The same is happening in Argentina. In early 2024, Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich stated that the country had an interest in applying Bukele’s model to its approach to organized crime. In fact, after his reelection in February 2024, Bukele announced that he had already spoken with Bullrich on the guidelines of his approach among the discussion of other issues. In the future, it appears that El Salvador and Argentina will work together to fuel the success of Argentina’s crackdown. 


However, it appears that Bukeleism is already implemented in Argentinian prisons. In March 2024, there were pictures released from a prison in Santa Fe, Argentina, with half-naked inmates arranged on the floor with their heads bowed. This is identical to the pictures released from Salvadoran prisons. The images from the Santa Fe prison were met with criticism from Argentinians fearing imminent extreme measures and human rights violations. An Argentinian human rights organization called the Center for Legal and Social Studies stated, “The humiliation in the prisons of Santa Fe, does not give anyone greater security” [11]. 


This trend of fellow Latin American countries adopting Bukeleism does not appear to be stopping any time soon. Just as Bukele holds exceptional power, a number of other Latin American leaders—namely President Noboa of Ecuador and President Milei of Argentina—have either requested or been granted exceptional power [12]. Each of these leaders justifies seeking exceptional power in order to address violence and crime. 


Resistance to Bukele and the Bukele Method:

Many opposing political figures, including lawmaker Claudia Ortiz of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, have renounced Bukele’s actions and have accused him of becoming increasingly dictator-like [13]. Therefore, Bukele’s inspiration of other presidents and national leaders calls for severe concern.  


Clearly, there is an “epidemic” of illiberal governments springing up throughout Latin America. These nations have long suffered under dictatorships, instability, and autocratic governments in the past. It is said that Latin America has undergone the sharpest regression of democracy in the twenty-first century, and has been declining for seven consecutive years on the Democracy Index [14]. 


The chances of halting this slip into authoritarianism and restoring sturdy democracies throughout the region are low. However, some ideas include the U.S. embracing a larger role in preserving democracy since the U.S. is involved in the region’s gang issue. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the U.S. deported masses of young men back to Latin America who fled to Los Angeles due to Cold War conflicts and civil wars in their homelands [15]. U.S. involvement may echo past efforts to preserve democracy in other countries, such as providing diplomatic and logistical support for pro-democracy movements in the Arab Spring of 2011. Even so, this solution depends on whether the U.S. would choose to get heavily involved in the region’s politics. U.S. involvement might even worsen and escalate matters.  


However, there is still a sliver of hope that democracy will persevere. The aforementioned lawmaker, Claudia Ortiz, is only one of three opposition members in Congress, and one of the leading figures of the opposition movement. She won reelection in 2024 with the highest vote tally of any non-Bukele candidate. Her campaign was based on dissent on the government making exceptions to normal legal processes and the diminishing prominence of checks and balances. She is perceived as the face of hope since she firmly champions the reimplementation of the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and transparency [16]. Her very successful reelection campaign indicates that by continuing to elect political figures like Ortiz, the opposition can grow stronger and that democracy can still have a fighting chance. However, it is unclear if opposition is expanding at this point. Since other countries are still in the process of applying the Bukele method, there has yet to be significant organized resistance against it, but it can be expected to rise in the near future. 


Democracy must be protected all over the world, but especially in Latin America since they are not far removed from their past dictators and authoritarian governments. Although there does not appear to be a definite solution to stopping this autocratic wave, it is vital to not avert the world’s attention away from this issue, and it is critical to bring these human rights violations to light.


[1]“Homicide Rate in El Salvador 2023.” Statista, May 22nd, 2024.

[2] Feierstein, Mark, Keith Mines, and Ricardo Zúniga. “El Salvador’s Bukele: From ‘world’s Coolest Dictator’ to ‘Philosopher King.’” United States Institute of Peace, March 14th, 2024.

[3] “How Nayib Bukele Is Breaking Presidential Term Limits in El Salvador.” The Economist, December 6th, 2023.

[4] “How Nayib Bukele Is Breaking Presidential Term Limits in El Salvador.”

[5] Neuman, Scott. “Troops Occupy El Salvador’s Legislature to Back President’s Crime Package.” NPR, February 10th, 2020.

[6] “Approval Rate Nayib Bukele’s Performance as President 2022.” Statista, July 21st, 2023.

[7] “Thousands Protest in El Salvador against Bukele Government.” Al Jazeera, October 18th, 2021.

[8] “Salvadorans Protest against Re-Election and Arbitrary Arrests under State of Emergency.” EFE Noticias, October 5th, 2023.

[9] Freeman, Will. “Nayib Bukele’s Growing List of Latin American Admirers.” Americas Quarterly, March 30th, 2023.

[10] Neau, Adeline. “Honduras’ ‘Bukele-like’ Security Strategy Is Endangering Everyone.” Amnesty International, December 11th, 2023.

[11] Elliott, Lucinda. “Argentina Photo of Half Naked, Bowed Prisoners Shows Tough-on-Crime Shift | Reuters.” Reuters, March 6th, 2024.

[12] Marcoberardino, Andrea Di. “The Surge in Executive Power across Latin America: A New Wave of Autocracies?” The Security Distillery, February 16th, 2024.

[13] Harrison, Chase. “The Lonely Life of El Salvador’s Opposition.” Americas Quarterly, May 6th, 2024.

[14] “Latin America Is under Authoritarian Threat.” The Economist. Accessed May 28th, 2024.

[15] Schneider, Mark L. “How to Stop the Increasingly Authoritarian Slide in Latin America.” CSIS, March 16th, 2023.

[16] Harrison, Chase. “The Lonely Life of El Salvador’s Opposition.”