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El Salvador's president is set to return to power, amid shrinking civil liberties


El Salvador holds elections today, and every poll is predicting that Nayib Bukele is heading for a second term - and by a landslide. The Bitcoin-loving autocrat has described himself as the CEO of El Salvador, or the world's coolest dictator. While his approval ratings are high, there is a dark story behind his popularity. We're joined by Emily Green, who has spent time reporting from El Salvador. Hi there, Emily.


NADWORNY: So why is Bukele so popular?

GREEN: It's simple. There's a huge reduction in violence. El Salvador registered a nearly 70% reduction in murders in 2023. That's according to their government figures. And they say that their new homicide rate is the second lowest in the Americas after Canada. And these are really stunning figures for a country that for years had one of the highest murder rates in the entire world. In El Salvador, for years, neighborhoods were dominated by gangs, and it was very, very common that residents would be extorted. I spoke to one man who was - had to pay MS-13 $250 a month just to be left in peace. And that is a very common story across El Salvador. And so what you're seeing now is a country that has been liberated from the constant threat of gang violence, whether that's murderers or just not having to pay an extortion.

NADWORNY: OK, so he's able to bring, you know, the murder rate down, and it seems like he's really clamped down on organized crime. But of course, there are downsides to all of this. There's downsides to Bukele, right?

GREEN: Huge downsides - there is a climate of fear in El Salvador that a neighbor could report you for being a gang member, and you'll just be picked up and locked away forever. And human rights groups say that's happened, that thousands of innocent people have been incarcerated. I also want to note that incarcerated people no longer have a right to a lawyer, and that family members are prohibited from visiting them. So the prisons are like a black hole. I spoke with Ana Maria Mendez-Dardon. She leads research on Central America at the Washington Institute on Latin America (ph). And this is what she told me.

ANA MARIA MENDEZ-DARDON: He's basically saying, look, human rights are not compatible with security. Democratic values are not compatible to provide, like, actual answers to the people's needs. So he strengthened not just the idea of security and human rights, but he strengthened democracy and its values.

GREEN: And Mendez-Dardon says that's a very dangerous idea.

NADWORNY: So what should we expect from a second Bukele term?

GREEN: That depends entirely on who you ask. His supporters are beyond thrilled. You know, he's not just clamping down on violence, but there are construction projects everywhere - highways, a new, beautiful library, the construction of what Bukele says will be the most modern football stadium in all of Latin America. But his critics are frankly terrified. Bukele has already equated civil society groups and journalists with terrorists, and they worry legitimately that they will be persecuted.

NADWORNY: So we know that he is popular at home in El Salvador. How is he viewed in the wider region?

GREEN: He's become a folk hero across Latin America, and that's not an overstatement. I went to Ecuador a few months ago and everybody was talking about him. They want a president just like Bukele who will bring the gang violence under control. And across the region, we are seeing leaders scrambling to emulate his policies. This is telling - he was even voted Costa Rica's favorite political leader in an October poll there. So he is definitely a phenomenon. But many people think he's a dangerous one.

NADWORNY: That's journalist Emily Green. Thank you very much.

GREEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Emily Green