'World's coolest dictator' wins a second term in El Salvador

The homicide rate in El Salvador — once the world's highest — has drastically plummeted thanks to a crackdown on gangs launched by President Nayib Bukele after he took office in 2019. Voters rewarded his efforts by giving him a landslide victory in Monday's presidential election.

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele takes a selfie at the podium before speaking at the UN General Assembly meeting on September 26, 2019.

The 42-year-old president's strong performance over the past five years has made him highly popular. Some of his policies have been aimed at bolstering the nation's ailing economy. In 2021, for example, El Salvador became the world's first country to introduce Bitcoin as a national legal currency alongside the US dollar.

But it's Bukele's crackdown on crime that has made him a national hero to many.

Cleaning up the streets

Bukele has been instrumental in making the country safe and secure, bringing what was the world's highest per-capita murder rate down to the second lowest in the Americas after Canada.

In June 2019, he came up with a security and anti-gang program called Plan Control Territorial to transform El Salvador's security landscape. The nation's police force and military were strengthened and modernized with better equipment.

In March 2022, gang members killed 62 people in a single day in protest of the crackdown. Burkele responded by asking Parliament to impose a "state of exception," which restricted some rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

The measure allowed the detainment of suspected gang members without arrest warrants. About 75,000 people, over 1 percent of the population, have reportedly been detained so far.

To cope with the mass arrests, the government has built a new prison that can house 40,000 inmates.

The Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo, or Center for the Confinement of Terrorism, can house 40,000 inmates.

As a result of these security measures, the number of homicides per 100,000 people has decreased from 51 in 2018 to 2.4 in 2023.

His hardball approach has been criticized by some members of the international community and human rights groups for its alleged violations of human rights, including torture in prisons.

Bukele has shrugged off the critics. After implementing his harsh but highly effective security messages, he dubbed himself "the world's coolest dictator" on social media.

Bukele posted an image of himself as a Roman emperor on X in October 2021 after a vote passed banning large gatherings.

Other countries in Central and South America, plagued by rampant violence, are viewing his policies as a model for fighting crime.

NHK joins police operation

An NHK World crew accompanied the El Salvador police in a gang sweep on February 1. Around 50 people, including members of the country's special forces, took part.

El Salvador police conduct an operation in San Salvador on February 1.

The operation was carried out in a San Salvador slum that's controlled by Mara Salvatrucha, one of the country's largest gangs.

Police officers armed with assault rifles entered a narrow alley in a slum district and went to every residence. Using smartphone app, they checked residents' ID cards to see if they were wanted by the police.

That day no cases of gang involvement were confirmed but two people were detained. One was suspected of sexually abusing a minor.

Police check a resident's ID to see if he's under investigation.

Claims of false accusation

Bukele's security measures have been criticized by some.

Reynaldo Santos is a resident of Soyapango, a satellite municipality of San Salvador. The area where he lives was once controlled by a gang.

Reynaldo Santos, who lives in an area of Soyapango that was formally dominated by a gang, believes his son was wrongfully detained in December 2022.

His 21-year-old son, Jonathan, was detained without a warrant in December 2022. Santos says not all residents in dangerous zones have gang connections. He contends his son is just a soccer-loving youth.

Reynaldo Santos shows a photo of his detained son on his phone.

Ingrid Escobar, the head of a civic group that supports people who believe their loved ones have been wrongfully arrested, says Bukele is preying upon people's fears. She says people fear that criminals might return if he is not president.

Gang extortion has ended

A taxi driver who lives in an area of San Salvador formerly controlled by gangs says he used to have to pay half his earnings to them, but that ended with the crackdown. He says, "President Bukele fought for the freedom of the country."

A San Salvador taxi driver says he no longer has to pay protection money to gangs.

A street vendor who sells used clothing says he can now walk about freely without feeling afraid, even at night time. He says, "President Bukele is the best president ever."

This San Salvador street vendor has nothing but praise for Bukele, saying he can now walk around without fear.

Foreign policy

China's influence has been expanding in Central and South America, and El Salvador is no exception. San Salvador cut formal ties with Taiwan in 2018, the year before Bukele took office, and established diplomatic relations with China.

Bukele visited Beijing in December 2019 and met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinpiing. Bukele signed a series of memorandums of agreement and China offered a grant aid package worth 500 million dollars, involving El Salvador in Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. The package included several infrastructure projects, including constructing a huge stadium and a new national library.

When the National Library was completed last November in central San Salvador, the Chinese flag occupied a place of honor in front of it. Such projects have bolstered Bukele's support.

National Library in San Salvador

After Bukele declared himself the winner of the presidential election Monday on social media, the Chinese Embassy in San Salvador offered China's "most sincere congratulations" for "the historic victory."

Chinese Embassy in El Salvador via X

Nonetheless, El Salvador has historically close ties with the United States — where many Salvadoran immigrants live — and Bukele is seen as conducting a balanced foreign policy out of consideration for the US.

Bukele, who once served as president of a Yamaha motorcycle dealership, chose Japan as the first Asian country to visit after taking office. In November 2019, Bukele told then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo that although El Salvador was a small country, it wanted to have a strong partnership with Japan.

At that time, the U.S. government had expressed concerns about Chinese attempts to invest in a Salvadoran port and use it for military purposes.

Abe reportedly spoke Bukele about the matter and prevented such an outcome.

As concern grows internationally about Beijing's expanding influence, the direction of Bukele's China policy in his second term is now the focus of much attention.