Armed Special Forces soldiers of the Salvadoran Army in the Legislative Assembly building on Sunday.Credit...Salvador Melendez/Associated Press

President Bukele, Brute Force Is Not the Way Forward for El Salvador

The head of state’s actions threaten democracy in the Central American nation.


On Sunday, President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador arrived at the Legislative Assembly with a group of uniformed soldiers holding automatic weapons. He wants the parliament to approve a $109 million loan from the Central American Development Bank so that he can buy helicopters, night vision goggles, a video surveillance system, a boat and other equipment for the military to fight crime, his central policy proposal to address the country’s gang problem.

It was the most overt display of brute force since the end of the civil war in 1992. Yet the United States and the European Union have only issued mild rebukes. It’s going to take more than that to cow a man who shows absolute disregard for the balance of democratic powers.

Mr. Bukele, who holds a minority in Congress, invoked Article 167 to convene an extraordinary session on the weekend to endorse the deal. According to legal experts, Article 167 can be used only to call Congress back from recess when a natural disaster or calamity occurs, not to do the president’s bidding.

On Saturday, he had removed the police who are assigned to protect the legislators and replaced them with heavily armed military and national police, who surrounded the Legislative Assembly and posted snipers on the roof. When legislators refused to attend, he accused them of rupturing the constitutional order. He sent soldiers to recalcitrant legislators’ homes to order them to appear. His political allies around the country arranged buses to bring hundreds of supporters to demonstrate in the streets surrounding Congress.

On Sunday, accompanied by soldiers carrying automatic rifles, Mr. Bukele walked into the legislative chamber and occupied the chair of the body’s president, who did not attend. He bowed his head and prayed for three minutes. When he looked up, he informed the soldiers and the few deputies in attendance that he had been “speaking with God,” who lucky for them urged patience. He announced that he would give Congress a week to approve the loan. In a speech to his supporters outside, he said he would remove lawmakers from the legislature if he needed to.

So they’re going to make us vote with a rifle to the head?” said Leonardo Bonilla, an independent deputy who had supported many of Mr. Bukele’s proposals and who was one of the few who attended the session. “This isn’t the way a democracy works.”

Mr. Bukele is banking on high approval ratings and the corruption accusations engulfing the opposition to eclipse warnings that he is trampling on institutional protections. He is also counting on Salvadorans to support his tough-on-crime approach to address one of the highest murder rates in the world, along with terrifying rates of sexual violence and disappearances.

On Monday, El Salvador’s Supreme Court suspended any acts resulting from the emergency session and ordered Mr. Bukele to refrain from using the military in ways that are unconstitutional and “endanger the republican, democratic and representative system of government.” The ruling, a courageous act that is possible because of several decades of slow democratic progress that have helped an independent judiciary take root, deserves to be applauded and supported from inside and outside El Salvador.

It has been disappointing to see only mumbled remonstrance from foreign powers and international institutions that could curb Mr. Bukele’s authoritarian plunge. The delegation of the European Union to El Salvador, expressing “great concern,” rightly invoked the importance of the rule of law, respect for political pluralism and separation of powers in its response, but then posited a false equivalency, calling on both the president and the Legislative Assembly to respect institutional independence. To be clear, it is not the Congress that has overstepped its bounds, it is President Bukele.

The United States ambassador in El Salvador said that he did not approve of the military presence in the assembly, while acknowledging the calls to “patience,” echoing the term used by President Bukele.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, tweeted in the midst of the crisis that he had spoken with El Salvador’s foreign minister and that she had expressed respect for the country’s institutions. Those words blew away in the wind as President Bukele and his heavily armed military escort invaded the Legislative Assembly building on Sunday.

The O.A.S. should call for an urgent meeting under the Democratic Charter, which aims to protect the separation of powers, to deal with this blatant attempt to undermine the rule of law. O.A.S. member states should react consistently to this type of outburst, regardless of the political ideology or popular support of our leaders. Their silence could be interpreted as tacit support. They should not normalize President Bukele’s brazen attacks on democratic institutions. There should be no room for double standards.

José Miguel Vivanco (@JMVivancoHRW) is the Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

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